The fractured history of Sri Lanka has been powerfully chronicled by several foreign journalists. Frances Harrison’s Still Counting The Dead (2013), Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island (2015) and Rohini Mohan’s The Seasons Of Trouble (2016) are essential reading to understand the costs of its long-drawn war. Yet history and reportage, while being potent documents of injustice, cannot always reach into the inner lives of their subjects—a domain often best accessed by fiction. In the last few weeks, three new books have appeared that aim to capture the human face of the Sri Lankan conflict through stories of love, loss and forbearance.
Perhaps the most striking among the three is Vanni (Penguin Random House India, ₹799), a graphic novel written by Benjamin Dix and illustrated by Lindsay Pollock, which, as its subtitle says, narrates the story of “A Family’s Struggle Through The Sri Lankan Conflict". Based on the oral testimonies of people living in refugee camps and displaced in the diaspora, Vanni is a heart-wrenching tale of senseless death and destruction. Yet a glimmer of hope also illuminates its panels, rendered in dark shades of black and grey by Pollock, based on real photographs of people and places taken by Dix during the time he spent in Sri Lanka as an aid worker with the UN.
In 2008, as the battle between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan state intensified, UN workers began to move out of the Vanni region in the north, leaving behind thousands of civilians, mostly Tamils, homeless and vulnerable to the army’s attacks in spite of being assured sanctuary in a no-fire zone. Dix, who came to Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the devastating tsunami in 2004, had worked in Vanni, gathering interviews, photographs and reports, for several years. All these are woven poignantly into the book.
Tracing the story of the Ramachandran family, who lose their home on the coast due to the tsunami before facing persecution in the war, Vanni depicts the abject condition of people living under siege. The dire reality of refugee camps, with their acute shortage of food and unhygienic circumstances, is captured graphically, as is the relentless violence that tears apart lives. Landmines, suicide attacks, aerial bombing, the LTTE forcibly recruiting boys and girls as young as 12—Vanni portrays the whole spectrum of horrors that befell Sri Lanka in the years of its prolonged internal conflict. Part ethnography, part inspired storytelling, it is a narrative that speaks urgently to the world we live in, where populations are being displaced or forced to migrate from their homelands in search of a safe haven.
Particularly haunting in Vanni is the presence of the young and defenceless, a theme that also runs through Romesh Gunesekera’s Suncatcher (Bloomsbury India, ₹599), the story of a tender friendship between two boys growing up in 1960s Colombo. While away from the rumbling of the war, the political situation in Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it was called then) )in 1964, the year when Jay and Kairo meet, is far from stable. The Trotskyite LSSP party has joined the government, a peak for the political left in the country, and an air of resentment against the bourgeoisie sweeps all over.
Kairo’s father, a government employee, is left-leaning, while his mother works for Radio Ceylon. Jay’s family, in contrast, is in business and lives in the posh Cinnamon Gardens neighbourhood. Even as their friendship ripens, the boys feel the social, economic and political gulfs that separate them. Kairo, the younger, looks up to Jay, who seems to live a charmed existence in a villa with his menagerie of birds and fishes. Jay, on the other hand, is pleased to have a doting follower, a devoted partner-in-crime in his preposterous projects and madcap adventures. In Kairo, he finds an anchor as his parents’ marriage falls apart.
If their time together is marked by sun-kissed innocence, an idea insinuated by the title of the novel, it is also a necessary rite of passage. For Kairo, his proximity to Jay’s milieu is a step towards understanding the difference that class and privilege can make and to witness how Leninist theories play out in real life. At Jay’s Uncle Elvin’s estate outside Colombo, Kairo experiences a gruesome enactment of this inequality when the estate manager’s young son, Gerry, is grievously wounded during a mock fight among the boys.
Gunesekera’s gift is to foreground a story of adolescent love and rivalry against the brewing discontent of a society. Recovering from its colonial hangover, Ceylon at this time, was experiencing the stirrings of linguistic nationalism, with Sinhala being pushed as the dominant language. Already, the reader senses the blueprint of a nation about to plunge into strife and violence, though the political upheavals are merely suggested, with the story of the boys remaining front and centre.
In Beautiful Place (Pan Macmillan, ₹599), Amanthi Harris captures the depredations of Sri Lankan society in more recent years, once again through the stories of individuals. At the centre of this nearly 500-page-long novel is Padma, adopted by an Austrian expatriate architect, Gerhardt, from her abusive and emotionally manipulative family when she was a little over nine years old.
As the story opens, Padma is running a guest house out of a beautiful villa designed and built by Gerhardt by the sea outside Colombo. Into this world of deceptive calm arrive a series of visitors, each on the run, either away from unsavoury pasts or on the lookout for safer futures. As their lives intersect, Padma and Gerhardt become embroiled in their trials and tragedies, as does the local community. Eventually, it is Rohan, a British-Sri Lankan man, who goes on to play a crucial role in Padma’s life, enabling her to escape the fetters of her upbringing and misplaced sense of obligation towards a family that has only ever wished her ill.
In spite of its girth and digressions into subplots, Beautiful Place is a breezy read. Through the lives of the people who visit Villa Hibiscus, the guest house, Harris creates a snapshot of a certain demographic in Sri Lanka: upper class, expatriates, English-educated, yet some of them also profoundly conservative and politically corrupt. The locals, poor fisherfolk, sex workers and pimps, resent the entitlement with which these city-bred visitors strut about but also cannot do without their munificence. The settlers, especially foreigners, have to tread a fine line, turning a blind eye to political misdeeds for the sake of peace and stability.
The story takes a sinister turn as one of the expats, a yoga teacher called Jarryd, is abducted and brutalized by goons for writing a tourists’ guide to Sri Lanka that doesn’t look away from the country’s nefarious political realities. Harris writes the ambivalent dynamics between the locals and the foreigners with sensitivity. Like many postcolonial nations, Sri Lanka, in her book, is a society in flux, determined to carve its unique identity and messily entangled with the liberal projects of the democratic West. While it is impossible to separate one from the other, their uneasy overlap is also the root of many pressing troubles that continue to haunt the subcontinent over 70 years after the end of colonial rule.