Book Review: This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War

Title: This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War
Author: Samanth Subramanian
Pages: 320
Price: Rs. 499

This Divided Island by Samanth Subramanian “is a harrowing and humane investigation of a country still inflamed.” It’s a tale of people divided by a language, of people fighting and dying for a cause.

Relying heavily on anecdotes, Subramanian writes how the brutal war changed the island forever, tearing apart families and reshaping post-war memory. He travels to various parts of the island, meeting people, as they reveal to him their tumultuous struggles or just voice out their opinions and frustrations. He is careful not to take sides in this conflict. Just a mere narration of his observations or what has been shared with him. It is a revealing narration, implicating the Sri Lankan army, the various governments over the years as well as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), while he lets you arrive at your own conclusions as a reader.

In his Acknowledgements, Subramanian admits, “that it is unwise for me to thank, by name, everybody who has helped in the writing of this book.” Subramanian also talks of his own fear in a few instances.

This Divided Island is an intense read with graphic descriptions of suffering and torture, both physical and emotional. But it’s also punctuated with lighter moments, thanks to Subramanian’s wry observations. It touches upon insights that few history books would care to record or reveal.

The descriptions reminded me so much of the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir. The strife, the memories and the broken lives. Where people are picked up on suspicion and then made to disappear.

There’s one particular instance when the locals at a village he is visiting mistake him to be registering people who are still missing, thanks to a slight misunderstanding. “Nobody asked us who we were, or which organization we represented, or if we were from the government, or if we even had any power to trace this missing boys and girls. They simply clustered around us, agitated but patient, waiting their turn to unburden themselves.” It was so heartbreaking to read.

I was also struck by how Buddhism has evolved as a faith in Sri Lanka. It has panned out so differently than what we’d traditionally expect it to be.

Subramanian’s writing is descriptive, yet concise with little rambling. He states so many of his observations as a matter of fact that it leaves you stunned. At his writing, at his choice of words, and what he is narrating. There is so much pain and sadness between these pages. And he is just being a dispassionate observer through it all.

This Divided Island will horrify you with its pain and heavy emotions. But don’t let that daunt you. This isn’t a story oft told. So when people choose to tell it, we must listen.

Learn more about This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War.

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