THE POLITICAL JOURNALIST ROHINI MOHAN begins her 2014 book on the Sri Lankan civil war with Sarva, as we’ll come to know him, arrested for being a member of the violent separatist organisation, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Sri Lankan law allows for a person, against whom there’s no evidence, to be held for three months without being charged; after which, the police are allowed an extension to gather said evidence; a potentially endless process. Hence the allusion to the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which reads: “Someone must have made a false accusation against Josef K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong.” Once Sarva is taken away in one of those infamous white vans, known to every Sri Lankan, he is at the mercy of a poisonous administration apt to silently quash individual rights.
For those who lived these final years of the conflict, it was a question of knowledge. You didn’t know what you wanted to find out, and what you were aware of, unavoidably, from day to day, was a source of chronic anxiety. The tactics of the Tigers—who innovated, and deployed across the country, the explosive vest now associated with Islamic extremism—were matched by the refusal of the authorities to communicate their military objectives and be transparent about their detainment policies. The result was a bleak, windblown space, in which rumour and cultural superstition projected their own horrors. Sarva’s mother, Indra—who believed all along that her son’s life would be difficult, for his ill-omened birth turned her hair grey at a single stroke—struggles to discover what has happened: