Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island has just been longlisted for the prestigious Samuel Johnson Award in the UK. This year’s […]
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.
Samanth 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.
Samanth Subramanian’s latest book builds a portrait of people affected by the Sri Lankan civil war: The Hindu
A war brings out many memories and stories. There are tales of horror and carnage, of young children being forcibily recruited or new houses being razed to the ground. There are also tales of dark humour. A man is tired of losing his bicycle every time there is an evacuation, decides to slather his cycle with grease and leave it in a well. He is pleased and surprised to discover it right there when he returns many years later. Such tales make the crux of Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island, chronicling the stories of ordinary people impacted by the conflict that afflicted Sri Lanka for almost 23 years.
More travelogue than political polemic, the author’s second book is a haunting revisiting of the Sri Lankan civil war, says Shehan Karunatilaka in The Mint
Considering the amount of ink spilled in its name, the Sri Lankan post-war story deserves a subgenre of its own. From that moment in May 2009, when the bloodied head of Tiger boss Velupillai Prabhakaran was hung on the masthead of every newspaper in the land, words have accumulated to describe the island’s post-war experience. It is a shame that none of those words has been “peace”.
Divergent reports of how the north was won have consumed miles of column inches, galaxies of pixels and several works of fiction and reportage. The official story as seen in C.A. Chandraprema’s Gota’s War denies that the government shelled its people, executed its enemies in cold blood, denies that it continues to abduct and torture, and to sponsor the suppression of minorities.