The recently published graphic novel Vanni: A Family’s Struggle Through The Sri Lankan Conflict, by Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock, tells the story of a Sri Lankan fisherman named Antoni Ramachandran, who ekes out a living by the sea alongside his family, and his neighbours, the Chologars. The main narrative chronicles a five-year period, encompassing the Boxing Day tsunami and the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009.
This half a decade was an intensely painful time for Sri Lanka. The war between the state and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which spanned three decades, resulted in casualties in the tens of thousands on all sides. The Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 killed over 35,000 Sri Lankans and left millions displaced. Vanni follows the characters as they coped with the ever-encroaching war, the devastation of the tsunami and their constant displacement from one refugee camp to another as the war drew a noose around them.
Dix, who wrote the book, spent four years as a communications manager with the United Nations during the war. He was based in northern Sri Lanka’s Vanni district until September 2008, when the UN pulled out its staff after the government refused to guarantee their safety. He is also the founder of PositiveNegatives, an organisation that combines ethnographic research with illustrations, across mediums. Vanni is his first full-length comic, though the organisation has been making short comics for years. Lindsay Pollock is an artist who works with PositiveNegatives and his previous work includes A Perilous Journey, a trilogy of comics based on accounts of Syrian refugees seeking asylum, and Almaz, a comic about the plight of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, among others.
On the first page of Vanni, we are introduced to its cast of 12, via a family portrait next to a gentle seashore. The two families are companionably positioned side by side on the beach. Nothing here suggests the violence to come, aside from the LTTE uniforms worn by two of the older boys. Antoni and the rest of the characters are based on in-depth interviews conducted by Dix under wartime conditions, as well as with Tamil refugees in Europe. The granular reality of the interviewees’ testimonies survives in the finished work. The characters in the book are composites, but no less real for that.
We first meet Antoni on a cold London night as he drives partygoers through the city in his taxi. Dix and Pollock’s decision to open the narrative years after the war ended is a clever one. Knowing, as we do, that this is a story about war and natural disaster, meeting Antoni in London invites a brief sense of relief—we assume that the protagonist will survive the violence of the narrative. But, it also raises a sense of dread in us: how many of Antoni’s family survived? And what scars is he hiding as he politely answers the passengers’ inane questions about the tropical wonders of his homeland?