In May 1991, long before he wrote The Divided Island, Samanth Subramanian and his mother were travelling to Madras when their train suddenly came to a halt. His mother leaned out of a window and was told that Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated. Gandhi had sent peacekeeping troops to Sri Lanka thereby angering the terrorist organisation, the Tamil Tigers. The suicide bomber who had just killed him was a Tamil woman.
Growing up in Tamil Nadu, Subramanian had always been aware of Sri Lanka “joined like a tugboat” to the huge ocean liner that was mainland India. And so in 2004 he began a series of visits to the island to see for himself what the country was really like. He arrived with few preconceptions, one being that Sri Lanka was shaped like a teardrop. It was not long, however, before this perception changed and the teardrop became a “hand grenade”.
I began reading Subramanian’s book cautiously. Half Tamil and half Singhalese myself, its gentle opening reminded me of the homeland I can no longer visit. The lyrical prose, the “green banana-tree groves”, the suddenness of nightfall, “like a tent collapsing upon unsuspecting campers,” was underpinned by a historical account of what happened when the British departed.