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Between the devils and a hard place

This Divided Island is non-fiction that reads like fiction, a new genre of black magic realism

BS Reporter  |  New Delhi 

Samanth Subramanian
Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)

320 pages; Rs 499

Early in his travels across Sri Lanka, Samanth Subramanian stops at a school outside Kandy, a few hours' drive from Colombo, where police have called a meeting of local residents. When he asks what the meeting is about, he is told it is about the "Grease Yakas". This evocative sounding label applies to a strange phenomenon of men "daubing themselves with grease and attacking women in the countryside at night". These incidents happen primarily in Tamil areas in the east and near Jaffna. Even though there is no proof of who is behind them, it is widely believed that they can't, of course, be supernatural devils, or yakas. But the consternation continues: "Had the Grease Yakas really affixed springs to the soles of their shoes, to enable them to leap over bushes and stiles?"

Who the Grease Yakas are is never explained, and so they hang like a metaphorical question mark over Sri Lanka in the aftermath of its decades-long, very uncivil war that ended in May 2009. The question is answered after a fashion 200 pages later. M, a Tamil, is telling the author of moving his family every couple of months and then every fortnight or so, "trying to stay just out of the range of the front lines of the artillery". Mostly, they stay in tarpaulin tents and M becomes expert at building pit toilets. When a toilet wasn't available, women and young girls preferred to go hungry rather than answer the call of nature. "They knew that, early in the morning, the Tigers would be waiting, near a lake or by the sea, to forcibly recruit them into fighting," M said. "Both the Tigers and the army were acting like devils towards the end."

A page or two later, there is an eyewitness account of a 50-year-old Tamil pleading with a young Tiger at the very end of the conflict to let people escape the relentless shelling by the Sri Lankan army and cross to the comparative safety of government-controlled areas. Tiger militia were by then routinely using the civilian population as shields and bringing the army's indiscriminate wrath upon the no-fire zones. "In response, the Tiger whipped out his revolver and shot the man," writes Mr Subramanian. As the conflict reached the Tiger-held areas around Vanni in January 2009, the author writes, "when a UN team set up a camp in the so-called buffer zone, refugees erected hundreds of tarpaulin tents in the immediate vicinity, clustering around the UN bunkers for safety. Following conflict protocol, the UN team relayed its GPS coordinates to the Sri Lankan government; not long after, the army began to fire heavily and precisely upon the compound. Shells landed through the night".

This Divided Island is non-fiction that reads like fiction, a new genre of black magic realism. Like Philip Gourevitch's account of the genocide in Rwanda, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, this is a superbly reported book. But its closest literary compatriot is Anil's Ghost, Michael Ondaatje's poetic yet utterly disturbing novel that was a response to the bloodbath that followed a violent Marxist uprising in the early 1970s in Sri Lanka and the then ongoing war with the Tamil Tigers. The character who gives that book its title is a forensic anthropologist, unearthing bodies from mass graves and trying to understand the circumstances of their death. Mr Subramanian is more a psychotherapist, who listens attentively to the stories of love and loss of the survivors.

One of these is Nirmala who recounts how she took Prabhakaran and the Tigers into her home, "offering their veranda as meeting space". She describes how she asked her sister, who was a doctor, for help when one of them had an accident with a gun. "When you start giving practical help, you get sucked in unwittingly," she says. She reconsiders and then adds angrily, "No, I shouldn't say 'unwittingly'. That would be excusing myself." In 1982, she allows a couple of Tiger cadre to stay in the annexe of her parents' home after they have been injured in an attack on a police station. You know it will end badly and it does, but it is all so vividly described that one might well be in the house. The police discover Nirmala's complicity. She and her husband are arrested. Nirmala emigrates to England upon her release. Her younger sister, the doctor, has by then become a vocal critic of the Tigers. She is shot by a Tiger while on her way home from the University of Jaffna.

The Tigers were never more ruthlessly efficient than in dealing with their own critics and rivals. This is foreshadowed in a terrific chapter on Prabhakaran. When the Tiger supremo was in exile in Chennai, he and a compatriot chance upon a rival leader as they return from the movies and immediately open fire. From a confidante of Prabhakaran's, the author learns he watched 300, the Hollywood blockbuster about a small Greek force fighting the Persians, several times in the last weeks of the conflict.

The Greek parallels to this book are Euripedes' tragedies. Just days before the war ended, Ponnamma exchanges some of her jewellery for five kilograms of rice, vegetables and coconuts. When her daughter complains, she replies with elemental logic, "Look, we may not live through this. So we might as well eat while we can." As she finishes preparing the food, a shell lands close by and what she envisioned as one last decent meal is destroyed. And there is worse to follow; in this heart-wrenching narrative, there almost always is.

Read an extract from the book in Saturday's BS Weekend

First Published: Thu, July 31 2014. 21:25 IST