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Living through civil war

Indulekha Aravind 

Life amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka's Civil War
Rohini Mohan

Harper Collins; 353 pages

What happens to Mugil? I wanted to call Rohini Mohan and ask her urgently after I had turned the last page of her book The Seasons of Trouble. That is how engrossed I had become in the lives of Mugil, Sarva and his mother, Indra, the three people through whom Ms Mohan tells us the stark reality of living through the 26-year civil war that tore Sri Lanka apart, and the long shadows of its aftermath. Released late last year, the book is a remarkable work of narrative non-fiction born of five years of reportage by a political journalist. Through the experience of the three lead characters, she skilfully draws us into a world of uncertainty, violence and trauma and the scars it leaves on each.

Ms Mohan, however, chooses to be an invisible presence and lets her three protagonists build the narrative. Through Mugil, whom she first met in a refugee camp in 2009, we get a glimpse into the life of a dedicated member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Mugil was 13 when she joined them, awestruck by the members who address her school one day and making up her mind to join the "movement". But as the war drags on into the last phases, where even children are conscripted to the battlefront, questions arise about what the so-called leaders are doing. The days spent in refugee camps and trying to begin a new life are no easier.

Sarvananthan John Pereira, or Sarva, is also young, but unlike Mugil, he was no willing recruit or even an ideologue for the movement for a separate homeland. One day, he is picked up from the streets of Colombo, bundled into a white van and whisked away. What follows are days and months of brutal torture, starvation and relentless interrogation, to get him to confess that he, too, was a Tiger who had fought against the Sri Lankan army. How brutal his experience is we come to know only toward the end.

The interminability of the waiting and the stubborn determination not to give up hope, even in the bleakest of hours, unfolds through Indra, Sarva's mother. Hers is a figure with whom we are familiar, who takes joy in cooking for her son and is eager to get him married to a "suitable girl". But Indra is also a tough woman who refuses to give up and single-handedly takes on a government that is good at making people disappear, making endless rounds of visits to police stations, lawyers, human rights organisations and non-governmental organisations, and approaching anybody she thinks might help. One of the most poignant parts of the book is the description of Indra and her sister preparing the lunch they take for Sarva in prison: the menu is decided the previous evening and Indra wakes up early the next morning, preparing everything expertly. They leave at 7 a m, change three buses and then wait to be let in, with a host of other families. When she sees Sarva finally dig in, she realises anew why it was worth spending nine hours: "To give him that memory. To make him do things normally just as he used to, like greedily smelling his lunch box."

It sounds daunting, to capture the intricacies of living through a long, brutal civil war and its aftermath through three individuals, but Ms Mohan does it admirably. But we also learn the reality of what those years meant to the various inhabitants of the island state, whichever "side" they chose - the Tamils from the north loyal to the idea of "Eelam" and those from the plantation area, for the Muslim minorities viewed with suspicion by every side, and for the Sinhalese who dared to defy their government. She portrays the many shades of grey between a terrorist in the eyes of the state and someone who was not in control of their circumstances, of the trauma and the struggle but also the banality and the hope. Sarva forgets his wounds, inside and outside, by falling in love with someone he never met. Indra has to deal with a second son becoming "disappeared" before she can get back to her struggle to get the first released. And Mugil tries to create a life in peacetime she had never known during the long war.

Ms Mohan writes about all this and more with a superb eye for detail, weaving the various threads together to make a gripping, engaging narrative. It is a must-read not just because it is a harrowing account of the terrible conflict that rent the island nation apart but to learn, at least a little, of what it must have been like to survive the seemingly unending seasons of trouble.

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First Published: Thu, April 23 2015. 21:25 IST