Writer Samanth Subramanian talks about his book on the Sri Lankan war
Two years ago, Indian journalist Samanth Subramanian completed his second book ‘This Divided Island’, an insightful and thought-provoking account of the Sri Lankan war and its aftermath. Written as Narrative Non-Fiction, the book recounts stories of the war through the people who experienced it. Here he talks to Dailymirror about the complexities and challenges of writing about war and conflict.
QWhy did you name your book ‘This Divided Island’, when by many accounts Sri Lanka is seen as a country united after the war?
There are physical divisions but also psychic divisions. In 2009, the civil war ended, and the physical division, at least, was repaired. But the war - its full duration, but also its final months - exacted a psychic cost as well. Even after 2009, you could sense, between the Tamils and the State, a spectrum of pain, anger, mistrust, regret and doubt. These are sentiments that have animated independent Sri Lanka’s history, and the psychic division arises because of these sentiments. That’s the division I referred to in the title; that’s the division I wanted to explore.
QMuch has been written about the Sri Lankan war, so what prompted you to add to the already existing volume of stories about it? And how do you feel your contribution may be unique?
Although, as you say, much has been written about the civil war, when I first began my research, no major journalistic work had as yet been done in the war’s aftermath. The end of the war gave journalists an opportunity they hadn’t had for decades -- to travel and talk to ordinary people who’d lived through the conflict, to regard the entirety of the conflict’s duration, to consider the war more deeply. I doubt my book is “unique” in any way, but one doesn’t, after all, write books to be unique. My overriding desires for the book were for it to be a medium through which people could tell their stories, and for it to be able to think through these stories transparently on the page. I thought that there might be a way to narrate the history and context of the war through the lives of regular people. That was the objective, but as I said, I’m not sure it’s a unique one.
QBeing an Indian, and a Tamil, the Sri Lankan conflict must hold a unique place for you. How did this affect your work in terms of outlook and output?
Being Indian and a Tamil, I did feel I was closer to the war than someone from Delhi, or from Bangladesh. If the conflict spilled over into any territory outside Sri Lanka, after all, it was Tamil Nadu. I felt like I knew its contours if not its complications. But my primary concern, during my reporting, was to negotiate the baggage that came with being Indian and Tamil. Quite understandably, given the meddling roles that the governments of India and Tamil Nadu have played, it wasn’t always easy for people to trust me. I had to be patient, I had to listen, and I had to be willing to spend as much time as it took for them to be comfortable with me. I had to be careful to never jump to quick conclusions. Really, these are all basic journalism skills. I just needed to put them into practice.
QAny writing experience, especially one of this nature, is a learning experience. How have you evolved since the writing of this book?
In a decade and a half of journalism, I have never covered the sort of pain and tragedy that were bound up in this war. Processing that was a challenge, both as a human being and as a writer. What kind of language can even reflect the grief of a mother who has lost her son? No words are adequate. Writing this book was an exercise in discovering the shortcomings of language and of prose.
QYou speak two of the three main languages in Sri Lanka: Tamil and English. But you don’t speak Sinhala, the most widely used language. As communication is key to the type of writing you did, how do you feel this discrepancy may have affected your work?
You are right, I dearly wish I knew Sinhalese, so that I could have talked to everyone in their mother tongue. But no journalism is ever done in ideal circumstances. I relied upon close friends whom I trusted implicitly - some of them journalists themselves - to interpret for me when I spoke to Sinhalese people, and I cannot thank these friends enough. I asked the same question many times, to ensure I had the correct answer and hadn’t misunderstood anything. I was cautious about representing what they said in the text. Would it have been a stronger book if I knew Sinhalese? Without a doubt. But it isn’t at all impossible to be fair and accurate while working through an interpreter.
QA writer has to choose between the stories that get to be told, and the ones that get left out. What factors did you consider when making such choices for this book?
The stories really chose themselves. There is, for instance, a question of balance. If I wrote about the views of one Buddhist monk who considered himself an ardent nationalist, I also wanted to write about another monk who was more dubious about the clergy’s role in the state’s affairs. Then I thought about stories that involved people making - or unable to make - moral decisions, big or small. When people feel conflicted, it is not only interesting as a narrative but also reveals valuable things about larger debates. Some people are better story-tellers than others; some opened up more; some stories better illustrated the themes I was thinking through. And in totality, the stories had to convey a set of basic truths about the conflict and its history.
QAs a journalist, you’re trained to remain objective when reporting a story. But in this book you have given the reader insights into your thoughts and opinions. How did you balance being both objective and subjective; especially when writing a book like this about real people and incidents?
The word “objective” is problematic. No person is objective, so no journalist can be objective. It’s useless to pretend otherwise. What a journalist should be is fair and transparent, particularly in complicated, book-length projects. To be fair is to listen to every side, do your homework, weigh facts and opinions, never misrepresent what anyone said, be sympathetic to people and their situations. To be transparent is to allow the reader into your mind to see the thought processes at work, to give reasons for an opinion that you form. Obviously this doesn’t apply when you’re writing 450 words about a train wreck! But when you’re writing book-length journalism, these processes make the work stronger and more honest.
QMost people outside Sri Lanka tend to see the conflict in binary terms, that is as a Sinhala-Tamil one. But people living here know that the conflict is much more layered and intricate. How did your notions of Sinhala-Tamil relations and other factors challenge you as a writer?
That’s a great question. I had to negotiate how people viewed themselves and how the lines between religion and language and ethnicity blurred. Here’s an example. Before moving to Colombo in 2011, I spent a year reading about the war’s history. Only then did I recognize the interstitial position occupied by Sri Lanka’s Muslims, who spoke Tamil but who weren’t a part of the demand for Eelam. For someone outside Sri Lanka, this was a fresh revelation, and I was eager to know more, and to write about this community. I had much to learn when it came to the Sangha and its history and its politics; for an outsider, it can be easy to assume that the clergy is apolitical. I had to rethink my notions of how people identified themselves, and of how fluid identity can be, although the latter concept is familiar to Indians.
QIt has been two years since the book first came out. How has the response been; especially from the Sri Lankan readership?
Largely, the response from Sri Lankan readers has been positive and warm. It isn’t easy to admit an outsider into a community and have him tell some of your most sensitive stories, but people have been very generous with their consideration of the book. Outside Sri Lanka, too, readers have been appreciative. I’ve heard on more than one occasion that the book has forced people to rethink what they thought they knew about the war, and that it was a tough book to read because the stories were so emotionally wrenching.
QIs there anything that you left out of the book that you would like to include in a future re-publication of it? If so, could you give us a hint of what it might be?
No, I don’t think I’ve left anything out and everything I really wanted to say. All the stories I really wanted to tell, are (for the most part) in the book. But journalism is, as they say, only the first draft of history. Since the book was published, there have been two crucial elections in Sri Lanka, and a very significant change in government. What is happening now -- and what does, or does not, happen in the near future -- also merits coverage by journalists. But understanding the past is key to understanding the present. I hope my book helps achieve that in some part.
Photo by Padmaparna Ghosh