About the Book
Samanth Subramanian is a New Delhi-based journalist. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Caravan, Minit, New Republic and Foreign Policy. His first book, Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast, won the 2010 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in India and was shortlisted for the 2013 Andre Simon Award in the United Kingdom. This Divided Island was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2015 and won the Raymond Crossword Book Award for Non-Fiction 2014.
A Time of war is a time of unfathomable flux. The terrains of the soul and of the body, of the family, of the community and of geopolitics itself all undergo extensive renovation. It can seem, sometimes, that even the very land rearranges itself. And, of course, in the fraction of a second that it takes for a bullet to find flesh, life can turn into death. There is no more drastic or permanent transformation than that.
But peacetime can witness swift, profound change as well. In 2013, when I was writing the first draft of this book, Sri Lanka was a tense, wary place. Its twenty-six-year-long civil war had ended in 2009, in a final paroxysm of bloodletting. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president of the country at the time, had supervised a brutal assault upon a mass of Tamil civilians huddled on the north-eastern shore of the island, hoping to flush out the leaders and guerrilla cadre of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The United Nations estimated that 40,000 people died in this bombardment, but the Sri Lankan government didn't appear to care. It had ended the insurgency, hunted down its quarry, won the war. Not long afterwards, Rajapaksa won a re-election, and his family's hold over the country grew tighter still. The government permitted no serious discussion of war crimes, and it throttled its opposition: politicians, activists, journalists. Right-wing nationalism grew muscular and fevered.
Then in 2015, in the space of eight months and two elections, the power of the Rajapaksas evaporated. Suddenly, Sri Lanka gained a more moderate president and a Parliament that appeared to reject the narrow vision of the nationalists. I visited Sri Lanka in between these two elections-my first trip there since I packed up my Colombo apartment to move back to India in 2012-and I sensed that the island had relaxed, that the knots in its shoulders were slowly unravelling, that it was learning how to breathe more easily.
When I mention this to my Sri Lankan friends, they remind me that so much still remains to be done. War crimes and corruption allegations must be prosecuted. The lands and houses and lives ravaged by the fighting have to be rebuilt. Entire chapters of messy, sordid, shocking history need to be reopened and re-examined and reckoned with. A framework has yet to be found, within the constitution, for minorities and the majority to live equably and equitably.
Now more than ever, to understand these post-war challenges, it is necessary first to understand the war itself: how it began and grew, how it persisted and ended, what it consumed. Sri Lanka is still being shaped by its war, as it will be for the near future; it is like a man who has suffered an amputated limb, and whose existence is changed in every conceivable way by his loss. At a personal level, too, people have to square their present and their future with their past. There are millions of Sri Lankans whose lives have been irrevocably altered by the conflict that consumed their country. This book tells a few of their stories, and in so doing, attempts to lay down a portrait of the war.
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