This post has been a long time coming. It has taken many shapes and been many versions of itself. Now I am back home in Sri Lanka, where all the nuances of our lives in this place and belonging to this place somehow pull and tug simultaneously, I think it’s time to say it out loud.
Over the last year, two books by Indian journalists on the Sri Lankan civil war were published by major Indian publishing houses. First was ‘This Divided Island’ by Samanth Subramanian and second was ‘The Seasons of Trouble’ by Rohini Mohan. Let me give you a full disclosure first: I know Subramanian a little, and I know Mohan very well. Subramanian is a friend of friends (as a figure of speech and literally), I’ve spent time with him socially; Mohan is a good friend, and I would say she and I are close. But that said, I hope to convince you that the account I am about to give is as objective and unbiased as one could be, and is unrelated to my personal friendships with either of them. Consider this not so much a review of both books — I will reflect on both books as a writer, and as someone who entertains a persistent inner struggle about testimonial-based work, i.e using other people’s stories for your own work, particularly in the context of war and conflict. I am especially concerned with how we negotiate the multitude of ethical discomforts when it comes to the ever problematic dynamic betweem subject-story-storyteller-reader. Also, I will reflect on the books as a Sri Lankan — to ask, how does it feel to me to have someone on the ‘outside’ write about us? — and as a Sri Lankan who was very peripherally a part of the journeys of both writers as they worked here in Sri Lanka. Many books have been written about the Sri Lankan war and I have found many of them unsatisfactory.
However, before we proceed, another part of the full disclosure should be this: one of the things the books have in common is that they are both dedicated to my brother, who died in May 2014. My brother Sanjaya was a friend of both Subramanian and Mohan and was instrumental to them both in their processes of writing.
I had wanted to write something about Subramanian’s book the day it was launched in Bangalore, last year. I believe there are some serious ethical and thus, journalistic failings in the book and have been thinking for awhile about how, and why if at all, I should say so. Last year, after the launch in Bangalore, Subramanian very kindly gave me a copy of his book for free, signed. It was a sweet gesture. He then asked me to turn to a specific page. When I did, I found that I, name not changed, am in the book. This was the first time I was at all privy to this information. I had no idea until that very moment that I was featured in his book. I had not been asked prior to its publication; my permission had never been sought and thus never given. In principle, I immediately found this uncomfortable. However, I tried to shake it off; I skimmed the chapter quickly, the one I was in. That entire chapter details Subramanian’s visit to Sandhya Ekneligoda’s residence in a distant suburb of Colombo, escorted by me.
Here’s some context: to put it briefly, I come from a world of activists. I am probably the least involved, when taking into consideration my family and many of our friends, but I have and do occasionally get involved for short periods of time, to help out when needed. Important to remember is that I know many of the same people Subramanian was talking to at the time, as external research for his book, or for directly collecting first-hand accounts of life during and after the war, by those who were worst affected in different ways — the idea for the structure of his book was that it would be told through ten primary stories, ten primary people. At the time, I was working with Sandhya Ekneligoda, the wife of the disappeared cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda, helping her with some English writing. I would visit her fairly frequently, spend some time with her and her two sons, and return home. Her home was not far away from where we live. Subramanian had told me that he wanted Sandhya to be one of the ten people in his book. He had asked if I could arrange a meeting between them. Knowing Sandhya to be someone who did not shy away from the public eye and from journalists, I asked her if she would be alright with meeting him; she said OK. The chapter in Subramanian’s book I refer to details our visit to her home that day, but the way that encounter is interpreted by Subramanian baffles me. It is not as I remember it. However, I do not want to turn this into a ‘he said’ ‘she said’ situation — but what I do need to assert, pressingly, is that as I remember it, Sandhya very categorically said she did not want to be in Subramanian’s book, and she did not want to do an interview with him. She did not want to be one of his ten stories. For me, this was enough.
However, she did end up in Subramanian’s book, once again, name not changed. Anyone can the read the book to find out more about the scene I am speaking of, I won’t detail it here. I cannot attest to the overall process through which Subramanian negotiated permissions with other subjects appearing in his book; but I do know I was never asked, and in Sandhya’s case, he went directly against her wishes. To me, this shows a breakdown in his understanding about the sensitivity and fragility of the nature of our lives in Sri Lanka at the time, particularly for those involved in human rights work — even peripherally, like I was; a carelessness in relation to the carefulness and caution with which people engaged in such work. This is a part of the very thing he claims he understood, at the end of that chapter, and that I seemingly didn’t. Sandhya has very publicly been at the forefront of the fight against enforced disappearances, since Prageeth’s disappearance in 2010, doing perhaps what was considered the most risky — demanding accountability for human rights violations committed by the state. This kind of work is done carefully, with caution and more importantly, in trust. By taking Subramanian there, I exposed her to a stranger she did not know and only trusted because she trusts me. What is further revealed, is a breakdown in Subramanian’s understanding of relationships, and how they work in such fragile contexts. In this chapter, he has me wondering if some out-of-the-ordinary behaviour from Sandhya that day had been a way of her ‘asking (me) for money’; he has me confusedly wondering why she refused to talk to yet another journalist — himself, as though I, who have known her for so long, and translated her words to Subramanian that day, didn’t understand. He has me seeming stupidly unaware of the nuances of Sandhya’s struggle, and himself knowing exactly how she feels.
To me it seems like he just did not get it, at all. Not just Sandhya or me or that day, but the whole thing — he missed something crucial and real, without which his entire process, his plan to write about life in the Sri Lankan civil war, is compromised.
There are layers of problems here, aside from his patronizing assumptions: his writing about me could have put me at risk, and worse, it could have put Sandhya at risk further, all because of what I did by taking him there. He also seemingly does not realise how detrimental it could have been, not only to my relationship with Sandhya but with all the people of that world; this world of which I am very much a part every day. If she had read his book, and believed it, how would that affect what she thinks of me? Not only do I seem insensitive and impatient, I seem insincere. How could I explain to Sandhya that I would never think she was asking me for money? I would look like a hypocrite and a fake; in her home, pretending I believe she is my equal and me hers, despite clear class-differences between us, while privately believing everything she does out of the ordinary, is a badly disguised attempt at asking me for money.
But here it is — I wonder if it ever occurred to Subramanian that Sandhya might find out. Perhaps in his eyes, there is no scenario in which someone like her would read a book by someone like him. There is no scenario in which it would matter if she was upset; there is no end-to-end subject-storyteller integration. She was never sent a copy of the book, just like her decision to not want to be in it was not heard. Unfortunately, I believe this carelessness becomes a kind of coldness, and finds its way into the entire book. It becomes a book difficult for a Sri Lankan like me to read and accept as being sincere. While his technique as a writer could be praised, there is a distance created between writer and story, apparent to the reader; it seems as though he stands far away, inspecting the surface of our lives, simplifying it for a far-away readership. His meticulousness as a writer is overshadowed by a kind of arrogance. How are we supposed to feel, knowing we are there for other people to extract stories from, for their own publishing successes?
With Mohan’s book, you can tell, from start to finish, somehow, it is written by someone who cares. Her book, about three central characters, is written entirely through their perspectives. Mohan’s book is also more resolutely feminine — to its advantage — not in the obvious, stereotypical ways, but in many imaginative ways. Because it is primarily a book about women, written by a woman perhaps, the woman’s perspective in it is indisputable. It has patience with its stories and with its subjects; it has patience for all their quirks and contradictions. It takes its time and goes slowly, where the characters want it to go. Behind the book, one imagines, is a writer who had little agenda to push except to sit and listen. To be a good listener takes patience, and kindness, but above all, it takes a kind of selflessness — you have to be able to let those hours, days, weeks, be about the person who is speaking, and not about you. And the work that’s gone into listening with Mohan clearly makes itself present; it’s the thing that makes the whole book unfurl. I always think that in any good work, writing, theatre or otherwise, one should be able to see signs of the process — you should be able to sense the craftsperson crafting something there. With Mohan’s book, I was able to see that and feel that.
And this is the interesting thing; while Subramanian’s book is written in the first-person, through his perspective as he journeys into Sri Lanka, meeting people who tell him stories about the war, the human being that’s constructing the work is somehow very absent from the work, or at least, very far away. It is clinical. Mohan never literally puts herself anywhere in the work, her three characters are always front and centre, but the person who is doing the work — the listening, the unraveling, the understanding, and finally, the writing — is ever present. Somehow, Mohan manages to show us her own uncertainties, her own vulnerabilities while never really writing about herself. Underneath the life-stories of her three characters she is there, never hiding, and you feel her own transformation during the journey she has made in the writing of the book, along with the transformations of her characters.
Reading these books brought me very much closer to my own internal conflict about writing about ‘other people’s’ wars, or using other people’s stories for your own work. Especially if you are writing about ‘someone else’s war’, i.e there is no obvious link between you and the story personally, then how, and more importantly why do you write it? As my friend Arun very rightly said, it then becomes pure ‘curiosity’ which compels you, and the writer/journalist has to be supremely careful not to treat the subject of curiosity as just that. Why is it important, after all, to tell these stories? We pompously claim ‘the world needs to know’, but how often does the world finding out actually affect the lives of the very subjects of our work, leave alone in a lastingly positive way? And what if people don’t want their stories to be told? Do we have the right to override the agency of another human being with regards to their own life-story? It is critical, and complicated, to keep the subject integral to the process. Further, how do we negotiate our own conflicts about the story, about the purpose of what we are doing? And I think, essentially, conflict is the thing that makes the work come alive in this case — not just the conflicts of the people you are writing about but your own conflicts. Effectively, I want to read something by someone I can sense at least has some conflicts themselves about the work they are doing, using other people’s tragedies for their own work.
I remember being irritated with Frances Harrinson’s work about the Sri Lankan war, ‘Still Counting the Dead’, and ‘The Cage’ by Gordon Weiss; while ‘This Divided Island’ is the work of a better writer, I found it discomforting in the same way. I didn’t sense an uncertain or conflicted person behind the book, dealing with the intensely complicated narrative of the civil war of another people, and that troubled me, because then what you are left with is an arrogant person. The ability of a documenter to constantly question themselves, to ask themselves why they are doing what they are doing, and to ask themselves what good it will do for the people whose stories they are telling, the humility to never assume that the work you are doing is, by default, important: this is the thing which makes everything else fall into place. It opens the subject up from the inside and pulls the reader closer.