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Two books that are reportage from the Sri Lankan civil war—the fighting ended in May 2009—were published this year. Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island, published four months ago, took a macro view of the war’s end and its aftermath; in his own words, “picked at a loose tile and found a stash of corpses buried underneath". It meditated on the tug-of-war over memory between the state and the individual, and took both the Sri Lankan army as well as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to task.

Rohini Mohan’s The Seasons Of Trouble: Life Amid The Ruins Of Sri Lanka’s Civil War, takes a micro view of the war’s end by, metaphorically speaking, selecting a couple of the corpses from under that loose tile and telling their stories, and the intimate stories-within-those-stories. It depicts the past as that which cannot be escaped, and memory as a tool for survival. It has no time for judgement because its protagonists are too busy running for their lives, often literally.

Rohini Mohan’s book is, not surprisingly, intense and powerful, engrossing and engaging, and she has a couple of cool narrative tricks up her sleeve. Like the other book, The Seasons Of Trouble is among the best of 2014—a rare occurrence for two non-fiction books on the same subject. And seeing the dearth of satisfying reportage from separatist conflicts in the recent past—despite the many conflict zones in and around our neighbourhood—it is a must-read.

The Seasons Of Trouble—Life Amid The Ruins Of Sri Lanka’s Civil War: HarperCollins, 353 pages, Rs499
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The Seasons Of Trouble—Life Amid The Ruins Of Sri Lanka’s Civil War: HarperCollins, 353 pages, Rs499

Mugil’s story opens in September 2008 with her witnessing the rape/murder of five teenaged LTTE girls by Lankan soldiers near Kilinochchi, and her furtive escape to her home in Puthukudiyirippu, located in the Vanni, the heart of the Tamil homeland in northern Lanka. Her family had moved there from Point Pedro (aka Paruthithurai), the Lankan tip where the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea meet, and that is where—once the war is over and she’s spent 20 months at the Manik Farm detention camp—she will be relocated to by the army, which has grabbed much of the farmland in the Vanni, turning it into a cantonment and a Sinhalese war memorial.

Mugil’s husband Divyan, whom she met in the LTTE and who is still a part of the rebel force, is away. Over eight months, she and her family will walk to the coast and spend 6 hours walking through the Nandikadal Lagoon on the way to Putumalan, only to end up in Manik Farm’s Zone 2, with 76,000 other refugees.

The LTTE had given Mugil, when she was 13, autonomy and individuality: “...Mugil wished her mother would not speak to her as if she was still a child. ‘If you mean plait my hair, wear flowers and bangles and prettily wait for a husband, you should know better,’ she replied."

She has to practise restraint to save herself and her family, but it isn’t easy: “If they deserted the LTTE, they could be spotted anywhere. The bob had become a sign of imprisonment, rather than personal freedom."

The army bombs the LTTE’s so-called safe zones and when Mugil visits Valipunam, you get a sense of the continuum of suffering: “The shelling was past, but the burning present." Her father remarks, perceptively: “What do you do when you can’t deal with locusts? You burn the field. That’s what they’re doing—eradicating as many Tamils as possible." So they walk, and one of the book’s most heart-rending moments describes a woman carrying two children across the Nandikadal Lagoon: “The woman lost her footing and crashed into the water, surfacing with only one of her sons. She screamed, whipped her head around, begged people to go under and look for her baby. Some did, but it didn’t help. The wailing woman had to give up and cross to save her other child."

The other narrative details, in episodes, Sarva’s two-year detention (incidentally, Sri Lanka has the world’s second highest rate of illegal detention after Iraq). Sarva’s body and spirit are repeatedly assaulted—by interrogators, then by fellow prisoners, and then by being on the run while he awaits a chance to emigrate. You get glimpses of the man with joie de vivre through his sense of humour, his voluble talk, his love for cooking. His encounters with women after two years of detention are not surprising: “When Shirleen came back to meet him a few days later, another beautiful woman accompanied her. He was all in a tizzy. Were all social workers stunning, or was Randy playing a prank on him?"

If he has a luckier fate than others, it is because of his unrelenting mother. Indra is in fact so determined to find her disappeared son that in another context, when she returns to her home in Nuwara Eliya, a Vanni newspaper runs a story headlined: “‘Pillaiyai thedi vantha thaaiyai kaanavillai!’ The mother searching for her son is missing!" So focused is Indra that her husband is invisible in the narrative and her children resentful of their brother, despite the gravity of his situation. Yet it is this focus which ensures that fate is kind to Sarva who, after months of being stranded by unscrupulous traffickers in Bolivia en route to the US, finally lands in the UK, where he gets asylum.

Unlike Subramanian’s book, which has to be detached in its reportage in order to take in the big picture, Mohan’s book necessarily requires a fictive pace and immersion. She does it effortlessly so that the stories she tells, and the stories within them, contain cliff-hangers, twists and resolutions. Sarva has a happy ending so long as he never returns to his homeland; Mugil’s narrative ends with a sinister foreshadowing of further violence in the country, and with the detention of a major character whose ordeal will no doubt be similar to Sarva’s.

Isaiah Berlin said there were two ways of doing philosophy—that of the fox and the hedgehog. The fox jumps from point to point so many times it covers a big picture, while the hedgehog digs so deep in one place that it hits a fundamental truth. Rohini Mohan’s book digs so deep that it touches your heart—and unsettles it.

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