By A. Jessie Michael

The parcel arrived in a postal van and James’ wife, Doris, put it aside for James to return from work and open it. It was an annual ritual — its arrival and his opening of it. This cardboard box measuring one foot by one foot by ten inches, wrapped in brown paper, with colourful stamps all over the top right hand corner and cross-tied with twine, came all the way from Mathagal, James’ home village in the Jaffna peninsula to the North of Sri Lanka, by sea-mail, to Malacca in Malaysia, and it contained his very own piece of home.

Actually, two similar parcels arrived every year, the other one landing at the house of James’ brother Joseph in Singapore.  Joseph, naturally a little sardonic and less nostalgic about the contents, let his wife Lily open the box. Nevertheless he appreciated the efforts put in by their sister in Mathagal for sending them this parcel, with a whiff of their homeland. He made Lily  list each item in the box so that he would not forget them when he got Lily to write his sister a thank you letter in Tamil. His written Tamil was pretty rusty after near fifty years of disuse.

James came home at about 5.00 pm exhausted from office, saw his parcel and instantly his tiredness lifted. He hastily cut through the twine, tore off the brown paper and pried the box open, a boy-like delight showing on his face. A treasure-box of edible memories — fruits of the earth and sea!

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srilankaIn 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”.

The government’s tolerance of Buddhist extremism and the clergy’s power in Sri Lanka is feeding an unsavoury majoritarianism, and that never bodes well for any country, says Samanth Subramanian, the author of This Divided Island, in this interview with Zafar Anjum.

Author Photo - 2Samanth Subramanian is an Indian journalist and writer. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from Pennsylvania State University and a Master’s in international relations from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He has written, among other publications, for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Mint, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the Far Eastern Economic Review, The New Republic, The Huffington Post, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, The National and The Hindu. His first book of narrative non-fiction, Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast, won the 2010 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and was shortlisted for the 2013 Andre Simon Prize. His new book, This Divided Island, traces the aftermath of the war in Sri Lanka and how it is shaping the Sri Lankan society.

In your first book (Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast), you followed fish. In your second book, the Tigers. What prompted you to pick up this serious subject? Anything else besides the journalistic impulse (as you mentioned in an interview with The Hindu)?

The journalistic impulse was, I have to admit, the strongest motivating factor – but even that journalistic impulse is really just plain, simple curiosity. I was curious about the changes that a three-decade war can wreak upon the psyche of an individual or a country, and about the texture of life during such a long war. It helped immensely, of course, that I’m Tamil, and that I’ve been following the war with varying degrees of interest for nearly two decades now; I speak Tamil, and Sri Lanka is right next door. I’d have been similarly curious about a war in faraway Somalia, say, but it would have been far more difficult for me to write a book from there.