Monday, October 03, 2016

My grandmother: A life

Have you heard the term ‘matriarch’? I am very familiar with it. Because I knew its embodiment - my grandmother who passed away yesterday at the age of 96. The word conjures up images of a strong woman, a strong-willed woman, presiding over an extended family. She was all of that. What she wasn’t, was a grandmother who was soft, and who cuddled you and told you stories from the epics. She did stuff you with the most delicious food, though.

Gomathy Kunjamma was just 17 years old when she was married to a man she had never met before. She came from a large family, with wealth in the form of large tracts of land, a ‘kalari’ and a ‘kaaranavar’, a family presided over by yet another matriarch. She had never seen the ‘city’ before - which in this case was Thiruvananthapuram (hardly a city by any standard but that of the village she had grown up in), she had only been home-schooled, and most of the men in her family stayed home to tend the land and property. And till the end of her days, I believe she wore the conflict - of the pride of a truly old and esteemed family she came from (her father started a newspaper; her grandfather was a distinguished man of letters, they were part of the Travancore Maharaja’s court), and the trepidation of going into one which was more ‘sophisticated’ - where education and jobs seemed to matter more than family heritage, where women had been to college, where the men were doctors and college professors, civil servants and engineers.

I believe it inspired in her a life-long respect for learning. She herself had never been to a formal school, let alone college. But her children and grandchildren had to do well in the education department - there were no two ways about it. She must have died proud of her grandchildren - all of whom, girls and boys, are well-educated and independent, able to stand on their own two feet, never having to face the apprehension she had, being under-prepared in the learning area.

There were some parts of her personality that could be very vexing - again, stemming from her past. She had rigid ideas about what was the correct thing to do, in any situation. Sometimes, irritatingly to me, the correctness was defined by, ‘what will people think.’ And her strong will ensured everyone followed those ideas, irrespective of the inconvenience it caused, even till her last days. And her sometimes-misplaced and blind pride in her ‘family heritage’ could be annoying.

But it was this same strong will and the same sense of pride that helped her work herself and her family through some very tough times - when the family went through awful financial troubles, when she had to care for her bedridden mother and brother, when my grandfather died.

Most of all, what I will remember her for, is her ability to transcend her upbringing, in so many ways. She had a lifelong regret that she never had a son - and her favourite grandchild remained her first grandson. But she never, ever treated her granddaughters as any less than her grandsons. There was no one prouder when her first granddaughter, became an engineer - the first woman engineer in our family. She was very encouraging of my younger cousin going abroad to study - again, a first for a girl in our family. She loved to see my girl cousins driving around Trivandrum on scooters, independent and free. And one of the last times I saw her, she proudly told me how her youngest granddaughter actually had to go out to ‘sites’, as a civil engineer, just like men. And she herself, was so very independent. She remained in charge of her house, alone sometimes, sometimes with grandchildren in it, till her eighties. For someone who had never been to a school, she was really very ‘modern’.


Rest in peace Amooma. You leave behind a rich legacy - a family that will remember you as strong and encouraging of independence, a woman who rose above tradition, a true ‘matriarch’, who prized family above anything else. There is so much of you in each of us.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

10 things I loved about the Amalfi Coast

-->
Hiking the Path of the Gods
Walking towards Punta Campanella with Capri following you
View from atop Mt. Solaro
The Terrace of Infinity, Ravello
Pretty Positano
Sorrento
View from the top of Vesuvius
The limoncello chill




Seafood gluttony

Selfie paradise
Cooling off


Ceramics abound in Positano
Blue, blue waters, high cliffs hugging the shore, the narrowest roads, lovely little towns – what is not to love, you say? Quite a bit, to be honest. When you go in high summer, the unrelenting heat can get to even someone like me, who lives the Mumbai summers. And the crowds – everyone and their mother seems to descend on this strip of land in high season. Driving prices sky-high and jamming up the traffic on those narrow lanes.
Yet, this strip of coastal land from Sorrento to Salerno is pretty in a way that can’t stop your camera clicking away; so you end up with thousands of gorgeous pictures and you really struggle to choose the ones you want to share.
Here are some things I really couldn’t get enough of – in my 8-day vacation this July.

1.  Beating the heat with granita and gelato
When the heat gets to you, nothing beats walking into a gelataria (they are all around) and ordering a granita. It’s a coarser form of a sorbet – and our favourite was the lemon-flavoured one. And a super after-meal sweetener was the gelato. Raki was a great one in Sorrento.

2.     Hiking along the coast
There are tons of possibilities. You base yourself in one of the small towns and you can hike to other towns close by. We did a couple. The Path of the Gods was an obvious one. And another from Termini to Marina Del Cantone via Punta Campanella. The walk from Termini to Punta was absolutely stunning – we could see Capri through the walk and Punta Campanella had some great views. And all those calories burnt were a good excuse to gorge on even more great food.

3.     Visiting an island

We went to Capri. It’s a day trip from Sorrento and the ferry itself is a great experience. You take the funicular to Anacapri and then the chair car up to the top of Mount Solaro. The views are to die-for. Anacapri is sweet, with white-washed buildings set against the deep blue of the water. You take a ferry boat ride around Capri, check out all the grottos, pass under the arch of the Faraglioni rocks (legend has it that you kiss someone under that arch and you are bound for life!) and see all the famous-people houses up on the cliffs.

4.     Wandering around Villa Cimbrone in Ravello
Ravello is a delicious little town a bus ride away from Amalfi. You walk up to the Villa Cimbrone and wander around its gardens and terraces. The Terrace of Infinity begs for travel-magazine-worthy photographs; the views are so very photogenic. 

5.     Browsing the shops in Positano
Supposed to be the prettiest place on the Amalfi coast, Positano is overwhelmed with tourists. But it is striking. Set on a cliff, its pastel-shaded buildings rise above the coast and seem built on top of each other, rising vertically. Its streets are narrow and winding with shops selling linen clothing, leather footwear, painted crockery and other fine-looking things. A pretty town with pretty streets selling pretty things.

6.     Drinking limoncello
The coast is known for its lemon groves. And the lemons here are huge. Of course we had to try the limoncello. It’s very sweet (I love all things sweet) and the alcohol in it can hit you hard. But it’s a great chill-me-down after a hot and tiring day.


  7.    Enjoying the laid back vibe in Sorrento
It is one of the bigger towns. With some nice cafes, gelatarias and a cool night life, you can easily spend a couple of days relaxing and winding down for the start of a nice holiday. The Euro cup that was underway, ensured there were some boisterous scenes on the main streets. 

8.     Climbing Mt. Vesuvius
Its signature shape is constantly in your sights as you travel from Naples to Sorrento. History lessons in school remind you of how it destroyed a city – and when you realize you can actually climb a living volcano, you cannot wait to try it. It’s a pretty tame walk up to the crater – but just the feeling of having climbed something so historic gives you a thrill.

9. Eating rum baba in Naples
A Neapolitan specialty, we had it at the Gran Café Gambrinus, an elegant, turn-of-the-century coffee house, which boasts of heads-of-states, Popes and movie stars as patrons. The rum baba is exquisitely melt-in-the-mouth soft and when you have it with strong Italian coffee, you have a bit of Naples in your mouth.

10. Taking selfies against gorgeousness

Wherever you go, everything is so very pretty and photogenic, it makes sense to carry a selfie-stick. This was the first time we ever did –we have been traveling for years – and we were initially terribly self-conscious. But it is rather cool to have pictures of you against the most heavenly backgrounds. A selfie-stick sure comes handy.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Wisdom of Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge

By Elizabeth Strout



In my teens, when there was a chance to watch world cinema on television, I watched a Russian movie. I remember very little about it - except that it was in black and white and there was a boy and a girl, very much in love. The boy goes off to fight in World War II and does not return. But the last scene is something I can see clearly so many decades later. The girl is grieving, in a way that chokes you up as a viewer - and then she looks up at the sky. A flock of white geese is flying through and for that fleeting moment, the beauty of it makes her smile through her tears. It is almost like the world is telling her and us, that it’s all ok. That however hard are the punches life throws at you, it also throws you lifelines and hope and beauty. You can survive.I read Olive Kitteridge and it brought that scene back to me so very vividly.

Olive Kitteridge is a series of 13 interconnected stories, set in Crosby, Maine - a small seaside town where everyone seems to know everyone else. Olive Kitteridge, a crabby school teacher is the character that holds it all together. It really is her story - but we see her not just through her own eyes but also through others’ stories. Olive is not particularly nice - acerbic, unused to showing affection, a bit of a bully with her young son and accommodative husband. But she has a strong vein of love for her son and her husband running through her, even if that vein is wrapped up in something hard and harsh. It’s that same vein that allows her to deeply empathize with people around her -hurt people, damaged people. People like Kevin who cannot recover from his mother’s suicide; or Denise, the young girl who her husband is almost in love with, who loses her beloved husband in an accident; or Nina, an anorexic; or a criminal in a hostage situation.

Olive herself has her set of life’s challenges - her son, the love of her life, grows apart from her, and she cannot understand why. Her father’s suicide is a lifelong haunting. Her old age is marred by her husband’s invalidity.

And then there are the stories where Olive is not a central character. A piano player whose set life is upset by the return of an old love; a wife who finds out her husband’s infidelity the day of his funeral; a young girl who finds the courage to run away from an overbearing mother.

These are small lives, making just tiny dents in the universe. Very few people are truly likeable. Yet the magnificence of Strout’s characterization ensures we find the universality in every single one of them - each is trying to cope with what life is throwing at him or her, trying to make connections, big or small, trying to find that burst of hope or joy or comfort that makes everything seem bearable. That is the essence of what Strout is trying to say - life is hard, but all of us will find that flock of geese that lightens the soul.

It is a very wise book - the kind that shows how great fiction is really the best kind of teacher there is in the world.

Friday, August 21, 2015

City of the blue god

Benaras, Varanasi, Kashi… names of an ancient city, one of the oldest living ones, evoking images of the Ganga, sadhus, Shiva, temples, tourists, widows, cremations. That’s a lot to take in. And the city throws all of it at you and more. There is no holding back here.


The crowds
The crowds hit you like a sledgehammer. Especially if you are in a hand-drawn rickshaw - very commonplace here. People, cows, bikes, autos, rickshaws...all throng the busy streets into the old city. You are from Mumbai and you think you have crowds covered. Mumbai has nothing on Varanasi. You wonder how your rickshaw man is going to maneuver his way through it all. But maneuver he does, weaving himself and his load through, leaving you with that feeling of distaste - you have indeed treated a human being like a pack mule.
You leave that feeling behind, soon. Now you maneuver through the throng on foot. Cows are maneuvering too...and it’s best you get out of their way if you don’t want to be headbutted by the holiest of the holies. The smell of dung is pervasive. There are a lot of holy men - with matted hair and trishuls and ochre robes. You stop to look at some knick-knacks and soon you are engulfed by hawkers. You try to lose them and make your way, along with a thousand others, to the river. Everyone is heading to the river.


Because it’s time for the Ganga arati. The water level in the river is too high - so the arati is performed on a platform high above. It’s all prayers and lights and some strange dance-like posturing by priests in satin dhotis - a bit tacky and touristy. But it draws you in, even if you are disappointed it’s not on the river bank as in the famous pictures..
The Ganga Arati


We walk down to the river and even in the darkness we can see the filth. I slip and my shoe-clad, jean-clad leg goes into the water. I can’t wait to get to my hotel to wash it.


The next day is an early one. We leave the hotel at 5.30 am to see the sunrise on the Ganga. The sun though, is already up. We make our way once more to the water. We climb into a motorized boat and we see the city from the river. Ghat after ghat make for pretty pictures. There is even one where a body is being cremated. Men and women immerse themselves in the muddy water, washing their sins away I presume. That water is punishment enough for any manner of sin, I think. We step off the boat into the bylanes of the old city. Narrow lanes, bright coloured doors, painted walls. Some lanes bring European ones to mind - until you look down and see the cow dung and the plastic in the drains. But there is some peace and  quiet and you are grateful for it amongst the chaos. We see a lot of stacked wood in one of the lanes, along with a weighing scale. People die and wood is weighed for the pyre. This is serious business for a Saturday morning walk, I think.
A Varanasi dawn

The Lord of the city

The ghats



A quiet narrow lane

Weigh the wood for the pyre




The colour!
We make our way through the lanes to the Kashi Vishwanath temple. We stand in queue, are frisked again and again, and finally get pushed into the sanctum sanctorum. The gold on the gopuram shines bright. But the lingam itself is immersed in liquid that people throw on it. It is small, we get a glimpse of it and we are packed off by the milling crowds behind us. And that was the darshan. Before getting off the temple trail, we buy sealed containers of Ganga jal - we couldn’t bear taking the real deal from the river.

We drink tea from mud cups, but run away from other street food. All those food joints recommended by guide books are on the ghats… and getting back into those narrow crowded lanes is an experience we aren’t willing to go through again. We prefer the relative neatness and symmetry of Sarnath, half an hour away.
The ghats


Sarnath has a museum where we are dazzled by the lion capital of Asoka and the delicate 5th century Buddha and all those ancient sculpture. The museum is lovely. As is the excavation site with the ruins of the Asoka pillar and the monuments commemorating the Buddha’s first sermon. We take in the dose of Indian history, buy some knickknacks and escape back to the unremarkable comfort of the hotel.

And so the weekend trip to Varanasi is over. We come back to the pictures of Varanasi and discover the ghats all over again. So much of it is broken down and yet everything is held together too. There is an element of Wabi Sabi, I suppose - a quiet sense of beauty in all those ancient run down buildings. The camera does see things the eye does not.
Indeed some beauty

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Re-telling a classic - Bhima Lone Warrior

By M.T. Vasudevan Nair

To keep my resolution to read more Indian regional language fiction, (obviously in translation, since tragically my knowledge of the Indian languages I know – Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi – is so superficial, it would take enormous patience to read in the original), I picked up this one by MT. I had heard of it from my mother and I knew this was a book I would enjoy. I mean, how could you not enjoy a re-telling of the Mahabharata? And if it was a re-telling by one of the all-time greats, it had to be good, right?
I loved it. It is the Mahabharata from Bhima’s perspective. The Bhima we know is huge, with a large appetite, very strong, very short-tempered and utterly devoted to his family. We don’t give him much thought except as the muscle man of the Pandavas. MT’s Bhima is all of this; but he is also introspective and intelligent, a brooding, sensitive giant, somewhat of an outsider, with an ability to see his mother and brothers and wife with all of their flaws, yet unable to ever walk away.
The stories are all so very familiar. But MT strips them of any of the ‘divinity’ we have come to expect from them. Kunti’s 6 lovers who beget her sons are not really gods, but mortals whose special qualities are transferred to her sons. Krishna is not particularly divine – he is just a canny, politically astute friend. There is no divine help for Draupadi when she is disrobed – Dhritarashtra is prevailed upon to stop the dishonour. We are told in the epilogue that there are hints of these in the original, and that MT has just added his bit of imagination to re-tell them. The re-telling transforms the Mahabharata into an absorbing but simple tale of tribal warfare, a tale that has been embellished by bards with every re-telling, until we get to the epic it is today.
In some ways, this is a very subversive tale. Bhima sees the injustice women are subjected to – be it his own treatment of Hidimbi and Balandhara or Arjuna’s dalliances with his innumerable women. He also sees the inequality the ‘forest-dwellers’ have to deal with – as with his own son Ghatotkacha who Krishna sacrifices for Arjuna or the forest dwellers whose dead bodies take their place in the fire that consumes the palace of lac. He is also cynical about the philosophy Krishna spouts (that becomes the Gita), saying that when your own sons and brothers die, it is difficult to see the bodies their souls have cast away as ‘discarded clothes’.  
MT’s Bhima sees the cowardice and double standards in his older brother’s ‘Dharma’. He knows how manipulative his mother is – be it sacrificing forest dwellers in the lac house fire, or asking Draupadi to be shared between the five brothers or using Karna’s back story to save her sons’ lives. He knows his own weak spot – Draupadi, who is turned on by stories of violence, who manipulates him to get what she wants, yet who never gives him the love he craves. He keeps his distance from Krishna, who he knows is his younger brother’s greatest friend, but understanding his political machinations, as well.
This is an all-seeing Bhima, but one who never shirks from doing what he needs to do for his family. He knows war is inevitable, craves for it to avenge the injustice done to Draupadi and his family and when it comes, gives it his all. And at the end, on the Pandavas’ quest to reach heaven, he is unable to not turn back to pick up his beloved Draupadi as she falls, and so sacrifices his entry to heaven.
It is a fascinating character study – it surprises and delights, as you see these stories you have heard from childhood in a new light. There is poetry in the descriptions of the landscapes. And ultimately, the tale in the hands of a master storyteller is un-put-down able. Maybe I should find the patience to read this in the original.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Fishy Tales

Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast
By Samanth Subramanian

You read a book like this and you are reminded once more that there is little as compelling as truly good travel writing - delving into the idiosyncrasies of people and places with genuine curiosity and empathy, working with journalistic rigor yet bringing in a subjective viewpoint, combining good writing with unexpected insight.Subramanian’s first attempt at a book is an extremely interesting one.
He works his way around the long Indian coastline - Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, moving to the west, to Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, Gujarat. Every state has a story to tell Subramanian, unique yet strangely connected, interesting tales, bringing to life both the diversity of the Indian subcontinent and the commonality of the life on a coast.
In Bengal, he writes about the Bengali obsession with hilsa (“If Bengali cuisine were Wimbledon, the hilsa would always play on Centre Court”) - the right way to chew it, separating the bones from the flesh within the mouth; the difference between the Bangladeshi and the Bengali hilsa; its availability year long, rather than just during the monsoon in an earlier time; and its preparation in the delectable shorsha ilish.
In Hyderabad (not really the coast, but close enough to warrant a fishy tale), Subramanian encounters India’s predilection for faith-cures. The Bathini Goud family’s cure for asthma includes a medical preparation stuffed into a live fish that you then need to swallow - live. Subramanian leaves it to the reader to decide if this is the real thing or plain old quackery.
In the Tamil Nadu coast, he meets the Paravas, an old fishing community converted to Christianity by the Portuguese but whose Christianity is mostly a veneer that envelopes age-old Hindu customs. “There is syncretism in language, in how words such as ‘kovil’ and ‘aradhana’, traditionally intended for temples and Hindu celebrations of worship, are now applied to churches and Catholic feasts. There is syncretism in practice,in the lighting of lamps instead of candles, in the full-stretch prostrations that men performed at Our Lady of Snows, in conducting both the Hindu valakappu ceremony for pregnant women and Christian baptism for newborn babies, even in the respectful act of leaving one’s shoes outside the entrance of the church. And sometimes, there is syncretism in thought, in how a Christian fisherman still propitiates the Hindu god Murugan and refers to him ‘Machaan’ or ‘brother-in-law’, because Murugan’s wife Devayani came from Parava stock - at least according to a Parava legend that has somehow been comfortably ensconced within another faith for five hundred years now.”
In Kerala, Subramanian goes in search of the perfect toddy and realizes that ‘the best toddy, toddy that is fresh and untouched by base additives, should taste only marginally less mild than milk, with a slight sweetness, a faint note of ferment, and the occasional granule of coconut husk.” He is introduced to a world where work can literally stop for toddy, where certain types of it are rigidly sold only to certain types of people, where toddy food is only meant to increase your appetite for toddy itself, where the fish fried in coconut oil is truly an acquired taste and where toddy can make sworn brothers of men who otherwise were vastly different.
In Karnataka, he goes looking for his childhood memory of the perfect Mangalorean fish curry - and finds it after considerable effort in the home of a local official of a Mangalorean fisherman’s co-operative. In a small town between Goa and Maharashtra, he goes fishing for the fastest fish in the sea - the sailfish. He does not find one, but in the process, he gives his readers a peek into the joys of recreational fishing - “The sight of a worthy catch is breathlessly anticipated; the thrill of the sport resides in how suddenly it can turn. But for the rest of the time, the art of fishing is really the art of waiting in thin disguise - waiting not only from hour to hour, as we were doing at sea, or from day to day, as with the fisherman Santiago in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but even from year to year, as for the annual Indian variation of the sailfish. There is no room in the boat for impatience; I can’t think of any other sport that so effectively screens its participants on the basis of a single quality of temperament.”
In Goa, Subramanian finds an entire lifestyle slowly disappearing - where the traditional fisherfolk are giving up their ancient fishing jobs for the easier and more lucrative jobs generated by the tourism industry, where the sand of the beaches is fast disappearing into new construction, where the oh-so-authentic Goan shack culture is actually so completely inauthentic, and where the seas have been so over-fished by trawlers and mechanized boats that most of Goa’s fish is now actually brought in from neighbouring states.
In Maharashtra, he goes looking for the Koli community, the original Mumbaikars, and their food. And discerns the difference between Gomantak and Malvani cuisine, while discovering also the Koli challenge to chicken soup - the Nisot. And in Gujarat, Subramanian meets the boat makers, people who have been making boats for generations, with little change in technique.
In his journey along the coast, Subramanian realizes that inspite of the differences he finds across states, what really surprises him is the discovery of similarities - the livelihoods rising and falling with the fishing calendar, the cosmopolitan nature of the fishing communities, ever willing to absorb influences of visitors from the sea across ages, and the battles with the modern age where the traditional fishing trade is being rapidly displaced by businessmen in motorized boats and trawlers. The similarities are so strong because at the end, as he says, “Fishing is still elemental in the most elemental sense of the word - an activity composed of water and air and light space, all arranged in precarious balance around a central idea of a man in a boat, waiting for a bite.”
It is a thought-provoking book, but equally, it is entertaining. If you enjoy travelling through the eyes of a first rate writer, this one is for you.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Civil War Tragedy

This Divided Island
Stories from the Sri Lankan War

By Samanth Subramanian

“In its most hackneyed perception, the island of Sri Lanka is shaped like a teardrop. But it also looks like the cross section of a hand grenade, with the tapering Jaffna peninsula, up north, forming the top of its safety clip.”

We know the history. A beautiful island in our neighbourhood, torn apart by civil war. Years of festering resentment against discriminatory policies lead the Tamils into a violent struggle for self-determination, for an Eelam, a promised land. Prabhakaran and his band of Tigers develop into one of the most feared revolutionary (or terrorist, depending on where your sympathies lie) organisations in the world, assassinating prime ministers,taking control of the north and east of the island, fighting a guerilla war with the Sri Lankan army for decades. Until the tide turns, with a newly elected President Rajapkse, who takes the war to Prabhakaran, in a ruthless exhibition of military might. The Tigers are decimated, Prabhakaran is killed and thousands of civilians are dead in a crossfire of tragic proportion.

That is what we know. What Samanth Subramanian does is take us to the ground level actors in the conflict. The Tamil ex-military doctor in Colombo who still finds it difficult to acknowledge the role of the military in the decimation of his fellow Tamils in the end game of the war. There are the Jaffna-ites - Sundaram, the mechanic who ran a garage at the height of the blockade, converting petrol-run cars into kerosene-run ones because there was no petrol; M, the newspaper columnist, ex-Tiger and possibly part of their propaganda unit, still a Tamil nationalist, and only willing to talk incognito, who tells Samanth of the last days of Prabhakaran, when he watched the Hollywood movie 300 in a loop, willing himself and his troops to stage an endgame like the Spartans. The ones in exile - the ex-military Tamil in Canada, talking about what it was to be a Tamil in the Sri Lankan army, and what drove him out; Raghavan, the ex-Tiger, close friend of Prabhakaran, who bailed out when he realized he couldn’t reconcile himself to the violence of the Tigers; Nirmala his wife, married to a Tiger and whose sister was killed by the Tigers; Adityan, doing boring data-entry work in London, and nostalgic for the days when the Tigers administered Jaffna. Samanth meets some of the victors - right wing Buddhist monks preaching violence, completely comfortable with the contradiction it presents with their faith; also Buddhist monks who don’t agree with the current regime, yet unable to do much about it. He meets Tamil Muslims, not willing to take sides in the war and punished for their non-alignment from both sides. He meets Ismail, who describes surviving the massacre of a hundred Muslims in 2 mosques in Batticaloa by the Tigers. It is a description that is wrenching; and all Samanth can give him in return for his story is the promise that his story will be told. It is one of the most hard-hitting moments in the book.

Samanth meets Tamils in Sri Lanka who hate the Tigers, for forcing children to take up arms, for their cruelty to their fellow Tamils, for their inhumanity in the name of their cause. Ultimately, it is this hatred that leads to Prabhakaran’s downfall. “This was the war the Tigers lost first, the war for the unconditional affections of the island’s Tamils and for the uncontested right to fight on their behalf. Once this war was lost, once this earth was scorched, it could have been only a question of time before the Tigers lost the other war too”

The end game description provides some real kick-in-the-solar plexus kind of moments. When he describes first hand accounts of the Mullivaikal siege, where thousands of civilians are trapped between the army and the Tigers, when the Tigers drag every young person out to join them in a desperate attempt to prolong their fight and when the Sri Lankan army refuses to let any kind of aid through for fear of the Tigers confiscating them for their use. Samanth listens to dozens of these stories, each more horrifying than the other. And you are left wondering if there is anything man is incapable of doing to fellow men.

There is no redemption even at the end, in Samanth’s eyes. The Tigers are subdued. But their cause is relevant more than ever, as Rajapakse’s government goes into totalitarian mode, wiping out any trace of dissent, even among their own. The Sri Lanka after the war is a bleak world, with little grace on the victors’ side and little fight left in the vanquished. There is no reconciliation, South Africa-style. And that ultimately is the true tragedy.

As an Indian though, you notice the one thing that is completely absent - the influence of Sri Lanka’s neighbour in the conflict. No one talks of the tacit support of Indian Tamils, there is no description of or anecdotes about the IPKF foray, nothing about the big assassinations. It is a gap that is quite inexplicable.


This book is a journalistic narrative of a conflict but it is also a travelogue. The names in newspaper headlines come alive - Jaffna, Mullaithivu, Batticaloa, Mullivaikal. The beauty of the land is offset by the horror of the war that engulfs it. A Divided Island is a deeply disturbing book. But one that needed to be written.