In the wake of a 30-year guerrilla war, New Delhi–based journalist Subramanian (Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast, 2012, etc.) explores the root causes and human cost of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.
The author grew up in India, where he spoke Tamil, a background that granted him astonishing access to the Tamil-speaking people of Sri Lanka, where this minority has long suffered at the hands of the Sinhalese. Subramanian’s approach to the civil war is both a rich travelogue and a deeply personal series of anecdotes. The author spent time with a range of survivors, collecting their life stories and weaving them seamlessly together. Yet the political climate in Sri Lanka is so convoluted that most of these accounts end in confusion. Early on, Subramanian describes the “Grease Yaka,” mysterious figures who may (or may not) have been attacking rural women at night, and each faction blamed the others. This chapter sets the tone for the entire book, in which people chase shadows in an effort to comprehend their losses and rebuild their lives. One striking figure, Ananthy, insists that her husband surrendered to the regime and is still imprisoned somewhere, despite the authorities’ claim that the veteran guerrilla is missing or dead. Subramanian chronicles atrocities on all sides, from the Tamil Tiger revolutionaries to the ruthless Sri Lankan military. By the final act, even the author was spent. “My brain refused to absorb the news of one more death,” he writes, “as if it was just full to its brim and was now shutting down in protest.” His reportage is strong, but stronger still is his prose; Subramanian writes with eloquence. Sri Lanka’s plight is almost unknown in American media, but thanks to Subramanian’s gifts, the war has finally found its English-language amanuensis.
A highly readable and powerful account of an oft-ignored struggle and the lives it came to shatter.