Sites of Battle

Sri Lankan civil-war fiction tells us about the country’s political landscape

A priest walks past a destroyed shrine in Colombo, in April this year. Churches in three locations around the island—Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa—were attacked by suicide bombers on Easter Sunday, killing and injuring hundreds. carl court / getty images
01 September, 2019

ONE DAY IN EARLY APRIL, after contemplating a shelf of local literature for an essay reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the official end of the Sri Lankan civil war, I walked through a Colombo neighbourhood, in defiance of the exceptional heat, giddy with joy to know again so comfortably the city of my childhood. The ease with which I moved through the streets was snatched away from every person in the country when churches in three locations around the island—Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa—were attacked by suicide bombers on Easter Sunday, killing and injuring hundreds. These attacks were followed a few weeks later by anti-Muslim riots, and an elevated state of tension and distrust that persists months later. The pre-existing communalist sentiments that had preceded the attacks saw a sharp and more explicit rise.

These events spun the island’s people, within and afar, into a mix of horror at what was unfolding and a complex sense of trauma at how recognisable that horror is, and at the same time, different. Reading three recently-published novels, by authors of differing backgrounds and positionalities—Sharmila Seyyid’s Ummath (2014, English translation by Gita Subramanian, 2018), Rajith Savanadasa’s Ruins (2016) and Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage (2016)—set at the end of 26 years of war as events unfolded anew, I was intrigued by the foreshadowing they seemed to contain. Ummath explores women’s issues through the eyes of two cadres and an activist, Ruins looks at the frustrations of domesticity even when ordinary people can afford to look away from the conflict and The Story of a Brief Marriage looks at life and death at the furthermost periphery of the bloodshed. The books affirmed, in entirely different ways, that violence often emerges out of a long and unremembered shadow, and begets more violence as its legacy.

Ummath stands at the very intersection between the horrific past and the unfolding present, and if any fiction about Sri Lanka can be said to be prescient about current events, it is this novel. Set after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—a militant organisation among whose demands were a separate Tamil nation-state—was defeated by the Sri Lankan government in 2009, it opens with a former cadre returning to her family in the district of Batticaloa. Yoga’s leg was amputated during the conflict, and although she is warmly welcomed as soon as she arrives, her family soon settles into an unpleasant dynamic that reminds her of how she had entered the militancy. Sent to a household as a domestic worker before she reached puberty, and then physically abused by her employer, she had enlisted in the LTTE as a child for no other reason than that it would give her a chance to die.

Another character, named Theivanai, joined the insurgency with a sense of purpose. Shattered by having witnessed a mother lamenting for her daughter, who had committed suicide after being raped by the military, she became inspired by the LTTE’s recruitment drive and mission of creating a separate Tamil state. She, too, was injured during the war. Following its end, these two young women are among the many former militants who try to merge back into ordinary life. They meet through the work of the novel’s third protagonist, a social worker named Thawakkul. Thawakkul is a feminist and a devout Muslim, who calls on her faith whenever she and her family suffer harassment and violence owing to her anti-establishment views. All of them are from the Batticaloa district in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province, a region whose complexities were for the longest time flattened into the narrative of the Tamil North. The mastermind behind the Easter bombings was from the district.

Most of the novel’s nuanced understanding of conflict, and criticism of the same, is expressed through the character of Theivanai, who had passionately joined the movement for a separate Tamil nation. Following her amputation, she is transferred out of active combat but remains within the insurgency. For the first time, she has the time to mull over the rhetoric of the movement she had joined. She weeps with pride and pain when she hears the movement’s anthems on the radio, but she also begins to read about different perspectives, and this creates a radical shift in her thinking. “I have made a mistake,” she thinks. “I am with a Movement that ostensibly is working for a people’s victory but in fact is leading the people to their death … I am like a frog in the well who thinks the sky is limited to the mouth of the well. My blood boiled with the two or three incidents that happened within our village. Isn’t this the way the others also will feel? Without finding out more about the real nature of things I came here and got lost.”

Ummath is equally an indictment of Islamic extremism, the oppression of the Sinhala-led government and military, as well as the LTTE and those who romanticise it. Significantly, it speaks of the LTTE’s anti-Muslim actions, including the 1990 massacre of worshippers at a mosque in Kattankudy. (The same town’s locals had tried to warn authorities about the mastermind behind the Easter bombings for years before the attacks.) The novel also shows how the movement confiscated land and property from Muslims, many of whom sought recourse in West Asia. In this way, it shows a clear link between long-simmering rancour, necessary migration and the current situation.

Men in front of the damaged Jumha mosque after a mob attack in Minuwangoda, in May this year. The Sri Lankan province was placed under curfew on 14 May, following anti-Muslim riots. lakruwan wanniarachchi / afp / getty images

With work opportunities in West Asia during the 1990s came money, religious extremism, and the ire of Tamils who remained in poverty. This is among what cannot be known except from within—that tensions between Tamil people of Hindu and Christian faiths and the Tamil-speaking Muslims of the Eastern Province had been fraught for several years. Seyyid’s novel documents this fragmentation and brings to the present the understanding that nothing mushrooms overnight. Until Theivanai comes to live with Thawakkul, she “knew nothing about Muslims and their culture, had held an irrational prejudice that Muslims and Tamils were natural enemies.”

Located at the end of one war, prescient about events to come a decade later, Ummath depicts, in a nuanced and powerful way, a society in which oppression is woven into the fabric of daily life. Through Thawakkul’s own struggles as an independent woman, and the cases she encounters as a social worker, it is made clear: every shocking headline has a palimpsest of stories beneath it. Many are woven seamlessly into the novel, ostensibly based on real cases. There are the girls who are ostracised because they visited a cybercafé. There is the divorced single mother of two daughters, all three of whom are physically assaulted; when investigated, Eravur society bands together to deny the event having taken place. There are the rumours started against women who work at NGOs, leading one woman to commit suicide. There are the gangs affiliated to the village assembly that break television antennas, disrupt music performances and force women into abayas, terrorising ordinary citizens long before murderous radicals emerged out of the same pool. The details may have been fictionalised, but the ambience evoked is clear: the first sites of battle are women’s bodies, minds and choices.

In all this, Seyyid herself is a Cassandra-like figure, who had warned for years of what was coming from the radicalisation that she saw around her. The author was a well-known journalist and poet who frequently came into friction with conservatives and chauvinists of all stripes. In 2012, she was asked by BBC Tamil for her opinion on the legalisation of prostitution, and her expression of support for the same became the final straw in turning sentiment in Eravur against her. Instigated by conservatives, who morphed her photos and set fire to a primary school below her office, the controversy reached a national scale. The author exiled herself to India, eventually relocating to Colombo.

On 22 May this year, Seyyid was reportedly summoned by Sri Lankan authorities, where she was questioned about having ties to a banned terrorist group. Sri Lankan Muslim women are particularly at risk of discrimination and under suspicion, owing to a national ban on face coverings declared after the Easter bombings, as well as increased general animosity towards the hijab-clad. The nuances of choice or intersectional feminism are gone, and we cannot reach for simplistic concurrence through the moment in her novel when Thawakkul pulls off her head covering upon embarking on a train journey and feels free. In Seyyid’s case, she faces pressure from both anti-Muslim and Islamic sides.

I must confess that I had a spark of irritation when I first opened Ummath. It was because of the translator’s note, which contained a slew of unintentionally bruising sentences. Subramanian blithely writes about how her Sri Lankan Tamil friends “adjust” their language around her (oblivious to how this is because our accents are frequently mocked in Tamil Nadu), references a Kamal Haasan film in which he mimics an accent as one of her few experiences of an island dialect (it is unclear if she knew there are several), and then the real rub—admits she had not even known that Batticaloa is the English name for the Tamil Mattakallappu. I closed the book and took a deep breath. But as the novel progressed, I realised I had misjudged. Subramanian’s frank admission that she is unfamiliar with the island and its people, unlike the bellicose misappropriation common among Indian Tamils, is refreshing. Moreover, this crucial book exists in the Anglophone world because of her work, and we need the insights it offers into the Sri Lankan situation today.

Does it matter who tells a story, who its gatekeepers are, who it is meant for? Yes, of course. But sometimes, does it only matter that a story gets heard? Yes, that too. As Sri Lanka enters a new chapter of suspicion and potential loss, the more stories we have, the more voices—dissonant or otherwise—the better.

IN SRI LANKA, distances on maps are far shorter than distances between community to community, or language to language. Batticaloa is where my roots are, and whenever I return to them, the highways that take me home bisect the island from west coast to east coast. Following the Easter bombings, when culprits were traced to the Eastern Province, relatives of mine were quick to say “Kattankudy is near (inferred: ‘but not’) Batticaloa [town]”, just as “Eravur is outside Batticaloa [town]” was common to hear. It is true, technically. Untrue, otherwise. The ten minutes from the Kallady bridge, so iconically an emblem of Batticaloa, to where the Kattankudy mosque massacre took place say otherwise. The fifteen minutes from the mermaid arch at the northern entrance of Batticaloa town—on which for years, but no longer, “The honey-sweet city where the fishes sing welcomes you with affection” was painted in Tamil—to Eravur say otherwise, too. Sri Lanka is a small nation of enormous divisions, and sometimes the more reliable measurement is not physical distance at all. My sense of scale, of course, comes from living somewhere else. But my sense of propinquity is based on island time. Perhaps the inverse is true in its way: the longer the distance on the map, the shorter the route back through the heart. But even then, there are checkpoints.

In one scene in Rajith Savanadasa’s Ruins, the family of a frustrated editor is stopped at a checkpoint on their way from Colombo to Anuradhapura. Their domestic worker, Latha, is attending a funeral in her native village. Her employers, to quell the bickering amongst themselves, and because their household will barely function in Latha’s absence, take the opportunity to go on holiday. The mistress of the house, Lakshmi, blanches when the soldier stops them. She is Tamil, almost fully assimilated into Sinhalese-ness through marriage, but her identity card and the fact that it is 2009, the terminating period of the decades-long war, make the situation frightening for her, just as the Sri Lankan flag, which appeared mysteriously by her bedroom window when the war was declared over, unsettled her.

But the soldier turns his attention to Latha instead, asking her about her sister’s son’s funeral, and in an unspoken flash, Latha considers the trajectory of her life:

How could I tell an outsider that I never liked my Akka because when I was small she was always too tired to play with me, she never gave me toys, never lifted a finger when I was hurt, always made me do things for her like walking miles for water and filling a kalaya from the well and bringing it back on my head, sorting chillies drying on a mat in the burning mat? And all the times she got angry and hit me if I made a mistake? How could I tell him that as soon as I got the chance I left Akka with no one to help and came to Colombo because I thought Colombo was better?

It is this sentiment that connects Latha to Ummath’s Yoga: a line of fate, a moment at which choice is contemplated and understood as not being truly an act of personal will. Each seeking an alternative to the absence of love, one character had entered the insurgency, while the other had sought work in the capital.

Ruins is told in five voices, opening with Latha’s and then extending to each member of her family of employment. There’s Mano, a middle-aged editor obsessed with a woman other than Lakshmi, his wife. Their children are the misunderstood teenager Anoushka and the adult Niranjan, who is growing ever distant from them all and whose insistence that Latha, who raised him, call him “Niranjan Mahattaya” and not “Niranjan Baby” has the double edged abrasion of classism and coming of age. Each has their inner tensions and secrets, most of which are only peripherally related to the civil war.

Ruins can be said to be about—if this string of pedestrian descriptors can be forgiven—an average upper-middle class family in Colombo, just as the war was ending. It is an account of what living through war in the capital was actually like, at least for certain sections of society. There were iPods, and Hiltons, and nightclubs filled with couture. There were curfews, bombings, and white vans into which journalists and others were abducted. There was love and confusion, oppression and opportunity. Experiences were, and are, vastly different, depending on status, happenstance, volition and inclination, and oftentimes these co-existed with an internal logic that may seem absurd to those on the outside. A scene from Afdhel Aziz’s novel Strange Fruit, a love story against the backdrop of war, comes to mind: people coming out of a video-rental store with armfuls of movies, in preparation for the boredom of a three-day curfew. As does a story my family still repeats of how someone snuck out during such tensions to procure cake and rambutans for a childhood birthday of mine in Colombo, while those regretting the risky favour listened to the sounds of a bomb blast. Life both comes to a standstill and goes on, at once.

This, too, is a crucial way to look at the timeline of conflict in Sri Lanka, and as the current situation unfolds, it helps to remember it. To think of fiction as a necessary filling in of gaps, and not only as a record of atrocities that should never be allowed to pass out of memory. In nearly thirty years of civil war, do you think no one ever graduated from university, planted a tree, fell in love, built a house? Now, in the aftermath of devastating attacks that have once again punctuated the island with checkpoints, reopened wounds, and created fear, multiple aspects of human experience continue to co-exist. The unhappiness within the family in Ruins has almost nothing to do with the war; yet both far and not so far from them (remember the measurement of distances), tens of thousands were being pushed into a critical state. If life has room for all these realities, so too should fiction.

There is a tremendous depravity in the insistence of suffering, be it in politics or on the page, and it is for this reason that I call to task the translators and gatekeepers of Tamil language poetry out of Sri Lanka, who revel in showing only one face of a zocchihedron to the world: Jaffna-centric, bloody, without the reprieve of the mundane, let alone any multiplicity of truth. But this is where a book like Ruins matters, for there is also tremendous compassion in portraying how suffering is more than in explicit brutality. That there are reasons why people stayed, just as there are reasons why people left. If Savanadasa’s positionality as a Sinhalese man lends itself to an easy rejoinder on privilege, another beautiful evocation of what it means to be both fortunate and traumatised can be found in Shankari Chandran’s Song of the Sun God (the author is a Tamil woman). It opens before Sri Lanka existed, on the colony of Ceylon in 1932, as a Buddhist monk self-immolates (it is uncertain whether he does so in protest against the British, the Tamils or the Muslims). The roots of all things—love and loathing both—are deep-reaching.

But in the bubble of privilege of the family in Ruins is a small, guilty glitch. Lakshmi’s past in Batticaloa—indeed, in Tamilness—is something she has long left behind, except when it raises its head now and then in the form of emails requesting help in locating missing people. She begins to fixate on one person in particular, a man named Khanna whom she recalls from her childhood. One night when she cannot reach Niranjan, who has gone out partying, she remembers one of the images she was sent: “… a young man in an ill-fitting suit. It was Khanna in one of those bizarre studio photographs that were popular in the east—where you posed in front of a painting, pretending you had visited a famous landmark or a pretty landscape.”

There is something about this detail that becomes poignant anew when one considers how this reference was no more than a passing one before Easter this year. The photojournalism that came out of the island this April created a new reference point: poster upon poster on the streets mourning the dead, carrying their dates of birth and demise. In the east of the country, where a high number of deaths were of children, these studio photos were often used. The child is well-dressed, posed, sometimes smiling. Never could their use on such an announcement have been expected. Even though, ten years earlier, the same such images were circulated—looking for the missing, the disappeared, the beloved presumed alive despite evidence, as if the photo itself could be evidence of something other than the worst. Like the missives about the East, distant both in space and circumstance, which Lakshmi receives, both hope and the past resurface again and again.

WE MUST RETURN TO THE WAR, then, to try to understand the present. For how long can we circle its peripheries—those lucky enough to survive, those privileged enough to move on— without ultimately conceding that we must consider the battlefield directly? The emails Lakshmi received showed her how people carried the frontline within them, in their memories and guilt and loss and rage, even as far as other continents. But there was also one particular geographical site where the bitter end unfolded. Nearly thirty years of civil war ended in a massacre on a strip of beach, Mullivaikkal, on the north-east of the island. It is not clear whether this is where we get to know Dinesh, the protagonist of Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Story Of A Brief Marriage, over the course of a day and a night, but we know that he is by a coast. And he knows that he has been travelling further and further east, as “the movement”—the LTTE—loses more and more literal ground. The book opens on an amputation, calling to mind the women of Ummath. Dinesh has seen so many that he thinks of how he once saw a man wandering in the aftermath of a shelling, picking up limbs and dropping them, looking for his own lost one. Dinesh helps dispose of the parts of people’s bodies that must be severed so that they can survive. He has moved from one hospital to another as each fell under siege, until he is finally here—watching a good doctor work without anaesthetics, pondering whether the boy being operated on will have access to a wheelchair, crutches or only his remaining leg after he heals.

Portraits of fighters from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—a militant organisation among whose demands were a separate Tamil nationstate—who were killed in battle. robert nickelsberg / getty images

It is the kind of contemplation Dinesh is always engaged in—practical and objective. The sentimentality is ours alone, for we can afford it, at all our great removes from the bloodshed.

As we watch Dinesh watch those around him, we understand firstly that no body part is anonymous, not even in the midst of a battlefield. And so we understand the explanation given by the Sri Lankan authorities as to why they had to revise the death toll of the Easter bombings, lowering it by almost a hundred casualties —there were just so many limbs in the aftermath.

Before any person became a casualty, a refugee, a survivor, or just a number in a fluctuating count that has never been confirmed, in those closing weeks of the war, they were likely to have been an evacuee. The number of evacuees grows as more villages succumb, and reduces as more are killed. Whoever Dinesh was before this—a young man who successfully avoided both conscription by the movement or murder by the army—he has come down to this. Dinesh is not a soldier, as Yoga or Theivanai were. He is literally collateral and potentially collateral damage, among tens of thousands.

And in this situation, Dinesh is deeply attentive. He considers whether an injured bird would want to have its neck wrung or would like to live out what remains of its life. He takes immense pleasure in the body’s functions: the arc of a piss, the scent of a shit. He observes the traumas of others and how they influence what they do; he knows why an older woman was sometimes startled by his presence, for it brought to mind her lost son, and why a pair of brothers beat up their sister’s husband for having attempted a suicide that would leave his dependents at the mercy of others.

So when a man comes to him and offers his daughter Ganga’s hand in marriage, Dinesh understands he must be doing so equally because they lost the other two members of their family recently, and because he believes, trusting in a logic both patriarchal and paternal, that a thaali around her neck will protect her from sexual assault should she fall into the army’s hands. Ganga accepts the marriage with equal equanimity. They all know: no exigencies are unfamiliar in war. The evacuees bury their dead in mass graves in the silence after every bombing, and keep moving. First, they had hired tractors to leave their villages, and then, little by little, relinquished everything “in varying states of disbelief.” Along the way, they cook rice at a thousand rupees a kilo, and still prefer to tell neighbours that they have cooked too much rather than admit that a family member has refused to eat. They sleep well. They even marry, and perhaps—as Dinesh bathing by a well at midnight, wanting to be clean for his new bride, hopes—even make love. Mostly though, they just keep moving:

… at such times, a person’s actions are determined solely by the unconscious movements of their arms and legs, by reactions that have never been reflected upon but which, unknown to the individual, have been preparing themselves quietly and meticulously in their muscles and nerves…

Ruins of the Jaffna city library in January 1991. The original building held Tamil religious texts. It was destroyed by Sinhalese policemen following an ambush by Tamil militants in 1981. robert nickelsberg / getty images

We know Dinesh within a tiny capsule of time, at an extremity of human experience, a man who has been running for his life for almost a year, who had run back in one horrible episode to cover his mother’s corpse in a sudden flash of emotion, who has reached a state of consciousness that only we—at our many removes—would try to ascribe words to. As Arudpragasam writes, “From the hemisphere of his mind devoted to the past and the hemisphere devoted to the future great swathes had been shaved off, and enclosing the sensitive little core that belonged to the present there remained only the thin layer of the recent past and the near future, leaving him without that recourse to the distant past or future by which in times of difficulty ordinary people were able to ignore or endure or at least justify the present moment.” It happens continuously; to read The Story Of A Brief Marriage is to chide oneself, to simultaneously acknowledge the futility of literature and its importance, and to recognise that even the characters of Ruins and some of the ones of Ummath also had a recourse where none exist for Dinesh—or for those whom Dinesh is a symbol of.

Somewhere on the same island, as Dinesh moves with some equanimity about the possibility of his death, Ruins’ Mano is buying expensive takeout at Flower Drum for his family and Ummath’s Thawakkul is falling, albeit to disappointment, in love. Perhaps this is the abiding challenge: to know that while none of these stories is more true than any other, the mirrors they hold in fiction only become false if, unable to bear it all, we try to erase the most hideous among them.

In Arudpragasam’s novel is something which is close to a record, which despite its pleasures in sweat and shit is not overly enamoured of blood, and for this is all the more solemnly powerful. But a record of what? As Seyyid writes in Ummath, “Theivanai understood and accepted that there was no value system to measure the outcome of a war. It was not a beautiful cultural act.” When Dinesh thinks at one moment: “Maybe his trail had been so thoroughly mingled with the trails of those who had come before and after that already it was impossible to distinguish his from theirs, and in a sense, therefore him from them,” it calls to mind Savanadasa’s author’s note at the end of Ruins. In it, he writes that the novel’s structure is “loosely based on the ancient stone artefact known in Sinhala as the Sandakada Pahana. While this translates to “moon-lamp,” the commonly used term is “moonstone.” In the book, Latha remembers her employer Mano’s words about the artefact:

The moonstone changed. The bull was removed because of the Hindu people. They didn’t want anyone stepping on what they worshipped. The lion was removed because it was the sign of the Sinhalese people. So all the later ones changed, they went from half-circles to triangles to full circles – all kinds of shapes – and the meaning in the original moonstone was lost.

As Savanadasa reiterates in its final pages, “The moonstone was no longer a simple analogy that mapped to myth, experience or history but a space to project one’s own meaning.”

IN HIS NOVEL, Arudpragasam gives little clue of whether growing up, with certain evident privileges in a Tamil family in Colombo, was similar, or otherwise, to the quotidian experiences of the family in Ruins. This is no indictment, for his choice to use the same to turn the eye towards the apogee point of war, to challenge the erasure of narratives that happens when history is transcribed by the victors, is a meaningful and political act. The author’s reflective contemplation at the end of A Story Of A Brief Marriage, in which he accepts and iterates that some stories can never be wholly transmitted, and that even the attempt to do so is by nature incomplete, is a good place to return to:

There were events after which, no matter how long or intimately one has tried to be by their side, no matter how earnestly or with how much self-reproach one desire to understand their situation, how meticulously one tries to imagine and infer it from one’s own experiences, one has no choice but to watch blindly from the outside.

This is true for both the makers and the recipients of government doctrine, insurgent rhetoric, activist and academic tracts, foreign journalism, local reportage—as well as films and poetry, and gossip. The archive must necessarily be incomplete, because we are ever projecting our meanings: whether one is a Tamil woman who left the island as a child and bridges that loss with words, a foreign translator enamoured of the idea of Eelam, an author who chooses to take on the mantle of symbolic witness, a reader, a researcher, a reporter, a person very far or very near (however one measures that distance). The archive must gently hold our projections, and as gently contradict them.

When it comes to Sri Lanka, then, the archive holds within its blank and expunged pages: the burning of the erstwhile Jaffna library in 1981, the lost opportunities and stolen educations that came with the Sinhala Only Act of 1956, the hesitation in the mother-tongue that is a consequence of being born into a thriving diaspora, earlier colonisations, the scars of other uprisings (such as that of the Sinhalese-led Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna insurgency in the south, explored in Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost), the facts and the fibs. And the fiction, of course, which is at once all and none of these. Amid the holding of space for lost narratives and potential testimonies, what literature—whether as bitter and cautionary as Ummath, as contemplative and stoic as The Story of a Brief Marriage or as tangentially illuminating as Ruins—provides is like the moonstone: as mysteriously constituted, as miscellaneous, yet somehow still managing to bring its many shards and shapes into something resembling a full circle.