This Divided Island

In the aftermath of the three-decade long Sri Lankan Civil War, journalists, governments and everyday Sri Lankan citizens continue to piece together an identity for the divided island. The long years of conflict between the majority Sinhalese government and the militant Tamil Tigers seeking an independent state ended in 2009 with the government-led annihilation of the Tigers.Travelers to the country today may not always see the remnants of the war, but they would be remiss not to join the conversation about it. New Delhi-based journalist Samanth Subramanian’s new book This Divided Island is an invitation to take part.

Subramanian was raised in Madras, India and uses his identity as an Indian Tamil to explore the nature of the Tamil independence movement in Sri Lanka. He does so through the experiences of the individuals intimately involved with the Tiger insurgence, whether voluntarily, like Raghavan, the right-hand man of the guerillas’ leader, or through coercion, like 25-year-old “Vasanthi,” who tells Subramanian how she was conscripted by the Tigers to fight against her will. What emerges from his tactful conversations is not a comprehensive picture of the revolution, but rather an inquiry into the individual choices that led to 26 years of terror. “What did it take to turn a Tamil to violence?” Subramanian wonders. He finds no answer. Rather, he discovers that “there are as many answers as there are people,” and he sets out to hear as many as he can.

“It never required much to begin a conversation in Sri Lanka,” Subramanian notes, “the very air was primed for it.” Sri Lankans turn to talk and rumor, speculation and reflection as each comes to terms with the violent past, and his or her part in it. Subramanian talks to everyone from a Tamil taxi driver whose cab became a hearse during the worst violence in Jaffna, to a mechanic that the Tigers used to keep their vintage vehicles running. He uses his connections with the Tamil diaspora in England and Canada to interview the comrades of Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran, eliciting details about the founding Tiger’s childhood, ruthless leadership and tragic final stand.

What emerges from these conversations is not an answer, but rather a revelation. Slowly the terrain, language, religion and diverse people of Sri Lanka (the Tamils are foremost in this retelling) are defined through the lens of the war. “No truth is ever easily accessed or clarified, but the process of inquiry can be revelatory in its own right,” Subramanian admits, a truth itself proven through his superb journalistic effort.