2 March, 2024


This Divided Island: Stories From The Sri Lankan War

By Charles Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Tolerance is not a human characteristic. A small difference in skin-colour, language or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about attacking and exterminating another group. – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari, Professor of History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Act 2 of Shakespeare’s ‘Richard the Second’ contains an eulogy on England marked by rhetorical repetition: this “sceptred” isle, this other Eden, this fortress against the hand of war, this happy breed of men, this blessed plot, this earth, this England. Subramanian employs the same deictic term with reference to Sri Lanka in his book’s title but with irony; not to laud but to lament.

South Indian Subramanian paid visits to Sri Lanka and then lived on the Island to research his book. The work reminds me of investigative, inquiring, travel-books such as those written by V. S. Naipaul (also of Shiva Naipaul’s North of South) particularly of his An Area of Darkness, written after one year of living and travelling in India. An Area of Darkness hurt and outraged Indians, I suspect more for its condescending, at times caustic, manner than because of its content. There’s nothing of that superiority in Subramanian: quite the contrary. Superficially, peace is the absence of war but true peace is more than mere absence. Genuine peace is presence, the presence of security, harmony and hope in all. So too with unity, and Subramanian writing after the war ended and the Island was violently unified, describes Sri Lanka as “this divided island” because the country still remains divided in real experiential terms – experiences both past and present.

Samanth Subramanian, This Divided Island, Penguin Books, India, 2014.                  (Page reference here is to the Atlantic Books publication, London, 2015.)

Samanth Subramanian, This Divided Island, Penguin Books, India, 2014. (Page reference here is to the Atlantic Books publication, London, 2015.)

Subramanian was an outsider temporarily inside. (I am reminded of when I taught in the Middle East: Asians, both professionals and workers, to a degree opened up to me because I am Asian; Arabs took me into a measure of confidence because I wasn’t white, and whites because I was a professional and a non-Arab.)

But the author has an advantage over Naipaul in that he speaks one of the languages, Tamil, and could engage with so-called ordinary Tamils on a one-to-one basis without relying on interpreters.

“In its most hackneyed perception…Sri Lanka is shaped like a teardrop. But it also looks like the cross-section of a hand grenade“ (page 18). In the 21st century, Subramanian comments, the Island is still powerfully and pervasively influenced by the myth related in the 6th century CE text, The Mahavamsa, and modern Sri Lanka remembers Dutugemunu more than any other figure except only the Buddha (page 186). The non-Buddhist world’s idea of Buddhism is one of “pacific thought and lofty deeds and high detachment” but, like all other religions, Buddhism too can be “poured into new and unexpected moulds” (page 204). Buddhist teaching urges renunciation and the eschewing of violence but in Sri Lanka what Buddhists renounce is non-violence – “for the larger good of the Buddhist nation” (page 220). Money that could be used to re-build homes, hospitals and schools in the war-ravaged North and East is lavished in constructing Buddhist structures in these areas. Of a new viharaya built on a Hindu site, Subramanian says it is not easy to regard the structure “as anything but a taunt, a stamp of Buddhist domination” (page 201). Religion is made into a tool justifying ‘racist’ politics. If there is nothing Buddhist to reclaim, there is always something Hindu and Tamil to destroy (page 198). “The Buddha, the personification of love and kindness” is made to find in the Tamils a people to hate (page 29). History too is mobilised, manufactured and re-written for ‘racist’ purpose: pages 195-6. (See the comment on Professor Romila Thapar’s Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History in Sarvan, ‘Reign of Anomy’, Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2.)

Myth and fiction passing as fact, rumour (both the “momentous and the trivial”) flourishes and “forms the chief currency” in Sri Lanka (page 12). I am taken back decades to the anti-Tamil riot of 1958 when I took shelter in the Gampaha police station. Some Tamil workers had also sought safety; an excited mob gathered, and I could see Buddhist monks among them behaving in a most un-Buddhist manner. The officer in charge who used to talk with me off and on told me that a train was coming from Jaffna, each carriage filled with the bodies of Sinhalese slaughtered by Tamils: I imagined the corpses, tightly packed like sardines in a can. “Why did your people do this?” the officer demanded. Having no news, I could neither deny nor explain but of one thing I was certain: if there was, indeed, such a grisly train travelling through the dark night, then when it steamed into Colombo, I would be dead in Gampaha – perhaps killed by that police officer even before the monks and the mob got their hands on me. What I remember most is the ready-willingness of that man to give credence to the rumour. Of course, it was utterly unfounded but, rather than learn from his mistake, I suspect the officer simply moved on to be swallow the next fiction. Rumour – the more bizarre the better – readily takes hold of easily-excited, peoples.

In the North of the Island, on either side of the roads were “stretches of empty houses, some of them so consummately wrecked that they looked like strange outgrowths of stone rather than disintegrated structures” (page 98). Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan was a man who had been active in the revival of Buddhism and Buddhist education. During the Sinhalese-Muslim Riots of 1915 (from May 28—June 5, 1915) the British Governor ordered the imprisonment of several prominent Sinhalese leaders. At the request of Anagarika Dharmapala, Ramanathan sailed to England despite danger (World War I was on), and argued the case of the imprisoned. So articulate were his arguments that he succeeded in having the Governor transferred and the head of the military recalled. Ramanathan succeeded in securing the release of all the leaders, and when he returned to Ceylon there were thousands to welcome him. The jubilant crowd –largely Sinhalese – detached the horses and drew the carriage themselves. D. S. Senanayake (later, the first Sri Lankan prime minister) called Ramanathan “the greatest Ceylonese of all times”. Now the statue to this man stands on “a stretch of blasted earth, strewn with rubble”, its head missing altogether so that the central iron pole protruded like a grotesque spinal column (page 149). Meanwhile, in stark contrast, new “Buddhist stupas rose in shattered towns, their splendid milky finish in sore contrast to the ruin around them” (page 192)

The compelled “unmaking” (page 67) of a sense of belonging is often the beginning of political awareness. Here Subramanian carefully tries to divide the yolk of the egg from the white (page 47); to separate Tamil grievance, including the sense of being rejected and subordinated, from the nature and conduct of the Tigers, particularly the paranoia, cruelty and folly of their leader Prabhakaran whose “political incapacity” eroded his military acumen (page 241). The Tigers showed an endless genius for brutality (page 47) and, in the words of an interviewee, towards the end of the war, both the Tigers and the army acted like veritable devils (pages 244-5). Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the words of dying Kurtz, once a lofty idealist now metamorphosed into a monster of cruelty, come to mind: “The horror! The horror!”

The subtitle of the book, ‘Stories from the Sri Lankan War’, suggests that Subramanian is not interested so much in the causes as in the human consequences of war. Like all good writers, he sees significance not only in the large but also in the small, the apparently inconsequential; in the taken-for-granted: the doll of a slain daughter; a bottle of water brought by fishermen from the sea which (ostensibly for security reasons) they are no longer permitted to sail. There is the effective use of what in literary criticism is known as ‘figures of speech’: peace has curdled into something sour and unhealthy (page 6). “The land looked as if it had been crumpled by some giant hand: the vegetation flattened, the earth clawed out, the water turbid” (page 20). “Jaffna felt stifled and sullen, as if it had cotton wool stuffed into its mouth” (page 127). “Every so often, a mass grave burst forth, like a pustule, revealing a little of the infection in the body” (page 41). With reference to the Prevention of Terrorism Act still in force, the stale phrase, “an iron hand in a velvet glove” is altered to “an iron hand in an iron glove” (page 125). Walter Benjamin (socialist, brilliant philosopher and social critic who committed suicide while attempting to escape the Nazis) in an essay on ‘The Storyteller’ observes that it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story from full explanation: Romesh Gunesekera’s quiet and subtle Noontide Toll comes to mind. Much is left unknown in This Divided Island; the future of the dramatis personae uncertain and unknown. Samanth Subramanian has deep personal misgivings: isn’t such work of journalism parasitic, “fattening itself on the time and memories of others but giving back nothing tangible at all” (page 171)? Perhaps, the answer is there on an earlier page: “No truth is ever easily accessed or clarified, but the process of inquiry [I may add, “and reporting”] can be revelatory in its own right” (page 132).

Anger still ripples through the Island, and it was as if a people habituated to war and violence “had forgotten any other way to live” (page 286). There can be no morality without imagination; that is, without the ability to see that the “you” is also an “I; that “they” are also “we”; the others, us. And so Subramanian wonders, what must have life been like for those trapped in the very heart of [the heartless] war (page 18)? The war was “a beast of the wild” and its “spoor” is evident (page 106).

Wilfred Owen in a poem about the pitiful waste resulting from war imagines a soldier killed in combat meeting in the other-world the enemy soldier who had shot him the previous day. That soldier has in turn now been killed in battle, and hence the work’s title: ‘Strange meeting’. (Owen himself was killed in action at the age of twenty-five, just a few days before the Armistice which ended the 1st World War. News of his death was brought to his parents even as they listened to the bells proclaiming the joyful tidings of peace.)

“I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled …
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not … on the cess of war …

I am the enemy you killed, my friend …
Let us sleep now.”

In a linguistic ‘sleight of hand’, we shrug with resignation and say “War is cruel”. War personified is blamed for war, hiding the fact that it is we, Sapiens (to use Harari’s term) who begin wars and, what is more, determine their nature.

I thank Christopher Rezel (Sri Lankan writer and journalist, Australia) for drawing my attention to this book; Samanth Subramanian for a clarifying reply and, most, for a disturbing study. Needless to say, the shortcomings are all mine.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Prof. Charles Sarvan

    RE:This Divided Island: Stories From The Sri Lankan War

    This Divided Para Island: Stories From The Sri Lankan Para War

    These Paras, Para-Sinhala and Para-Tamils, are turning the Land of Native Veddah Aethho int the Land of DOUBLE STANDARDS.

    “Tolerance is not a human characteristic. A small difference in skin-colour, language or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about attacking and exterminating another group. – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari, Professor of History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.”

    Forgotten People – The Evicted and Displaced North Muslims of Sri Lanka (English)”’

    Published on Jun 1, 2013 The Evicted and Displaced North Muslims of Sri Lanka. The expulsion of the Muslims and other nations from the Northern province was an act of ethnic cleansing carried out by the Tamil militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) organization in October 1990. In order to achieve their goal of creating a mono ethnic Tamil state in the North Sri Lanka, the LTTE forcibly expelled the 72,000 strong Muslim population from the Northern Province.


  • 7

    Everytime someone shoo this guy away he comes back with yet another Mahavamsa canard.

    Buddhism is not causing violence neither in Ceylon or Burma. What is causing violence in both countries is due to the importation and existence of a vastly incompatible foreign culture during British colonial rule.

    British poured in millions of Rohingya into Myanmar (Burma) for cheap slave work. They did the same shipping millions of Tamils into Ceylon.

    This is not “multiculturalism” that European countries espouse to everyone else. With modern multiculturalism the imported culture is properly vetted and made sure they adopt the local culture in the long term. Only a handful is allowed in every year unlike shipping in millions.

    What the British did was purely profit oriented with absolute disregard for native population in their colonies.

    The British should take responsibility for the mess they have left behind in Ceylon as well as Burma.

    • 5

      I agree with you in putting some of the blame on the British, but as usual your little fictional version of history is an attempt to shift the blame which lies primarily with the Majoritarianism of the Sinhalese. Tamils of the North and the East are NOT “imported” for “cheap slave labor” as your fantasyland mind likes to believe and/or dishonest mind attempts to spread. YOu haven’t got a clue of Tamil history do you? Since you don’t, why don’t stop making a fool of yourself with such racist rubbish??

      Maybe if the British had recognised the centuries old Tamil homeland and not forced the Tamils to accept Sinhala majoritarianism, things might have been different.

      • 3

        Tamils of the North and the East are NOT “imported” for “cheap slave labor”

        [Edited out]

        • 3


          Check your DNA. I am sure you are also a part of those slaves.

      • 4

        it is not that he (Vibushana a sibling of the mythological Ravana ) has no clue about Tamil history but he is perusing his agenda of distortion in denying historical facts which the Mahavamsa itself records.
        As an acolyte of Fascist Nazi Gobells, it is not surprising that he is trying to convince himself that by telling lies repeatedly a falsehood would become a truth.
        Let him indulge in his fantasy.

    • 3

      compared to India and Pakistan British have left Ceylon and Burma realitvley much better.

      For Vibushana everything wrong in Sri Lanka is nothing to do with the Mahavamasa or the Sinhaleae or Buddhism….but always some one elses fault

      • 1

        During independence the foreign reserve of Ceylon was equivalent of Japan ….

        Modayas used all these reserve for free bees ..and arracks…

        For economic and job problems of Sinhalese blame went on Tamils and excellent idea was created to repatriate Indian Tamils although they have lived here and contributed for the economy of this ungrateful land over 200 years…and standardization was introduced to chop qualified Tamils to University instead of improving the standard of their schooling

        by introducing foreign exchange control Modayas have chased all well managed British companies and their staff back to England..


        Today to make foreign exchange modayas are sending their own mothers..sisters..daughters ..wives to Arabs while 40 dead bodies are landing at Colombo airport every month from M.E

        Even the poorest Bangladseh though a muslim country banned export of housemaids…with dignity


    • 3

      BUT Sinhalese came from todays Kerala ( once Tamil Sera Kingdom)……….and 110% follow Kerala life style

      British brought Tamils from South India because lazy Sinhalese refused to do hard work..without Tamils there will be no Tea in this country indeed they have given everything including their dead bodies to Tea plants…

      Buddha was Hindu BUDDHISM is not a religion it is a PHILOSOPHY ….

      Indeed before the period of Devanampiya Deesan Malayali origin Shinhalese were Hindus …

      Both Kataragam…and Nainatheevu Vihara WERE ALL constructed by Tamils once…

      Vietnam..Cambodia..Laos..Thailand these countries never ruled by British …but BLLOD BATH FLOWED AND STILL FLOWING …

      Today drugs..liquor…brothels..foreign prostitutes ..gambling all have gone out of control ….Pity Buddhist Ayotullahs are so scared so silent……

      Watch the talk and action of BBS goons..are they practicing Buddhism ???? Go and see at Muslim restaurants what these buddhist ayatollahs eat and the amount ..you will be fainted


    • 3

      Vibhushana and several others whose ancestors were slaves brought by Portuguese for cinnamon and coconut plantations in the South talking about slaves in the North and East, LOL.

  • 1

    Can some one write a book on how to create a UNITED SRI LANKA??

    • 4

      “Mission Impossible” would be the title

    • 2

      Yes, it starts with accountability – the UN is currently working on it, but Sri Lankans need to do their bit. It is the only path to a United Sri Lanka.

    • 1

      @ Britlanks


      What is urgently required a UN SPONSORED referendum from Tamils all over the world about the division of their historical land in this country ….

      before Greater China or West divide this country for their own benefit…

      Malayala origin Sinhalasae can have their living …and enjoy it …with remittance coming from maids from Arab countries..and talk about the arrival of deported criminal Vijaya a pure imagination and con…..

      Sinhalase have missed many opportunities for a united country ..no more opportunity


      • 2


        “What is urgently required a UN SPONSORED referendum from Tamils all over the world about the division of their historical land in this country ….”

        Diaspora Tamils are usually not willing to return. I don’t know why they should have a say unless they are still legally SL citizens who have a right to vote.

      • 0

        There is a serious problem. More than 50% of Tamil speaking people live outside North and East.

        • 3


          “There is a serious problem. More than 50% of Tamil speaking people live outside North and East.”

          Give them their Tamil Eelam, then make them stateless just like it was in 1948 and deport them back to their homeland.

          Then you can stop worrying about the “problem”.

        • 0

          Soma “More than 50% of Tamil speaking people live outside North and East”

          Yes, this is the population that you used to unleash your violence periodically. I’m sure they and you are going to miss out on that now eh!

          • 0

            Honestly Rajan the day I observe any tendency among Tamil speaking people in the south voluntarily moving towards North and East I will feel ashamed as a Sinhalese and seriously consider supporting the idea of a federal unit for north and east.
            However if the Tamils are asking for a mono ethnic unit in North/East while living in the south we Sihalese should consider it as an invasion and demand that the rest of the country too should be mono ethnic.

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