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Samanth Subramanian has written about politics, culture, and history for the New York Times and the New Yorker. Now, Subramanian takes on a complex topic that touched millions of lives in This Divided Island.
In the summer of 2009, the leader of the dreaded Tamil Tiger guerrillas was killed, bringing to an end the civil war in Sri Lanka. For nearly thirty years, the war's fingers had reached everywhere, leaving few places, and fewer people, untouched. What happens to the texture of life in a country that endures such bitter conflict? What happens to the country's soul? Subramanian gives us an extraordinary account of the Sri Lankan war and the lives it changed. Taking us to the ghosts of summers past, he tells the story of Sri Lanka today. Through travels and conversations, he examines how people reconcile themselves to violence, how the powerful become cruel, and how victory can be put to the task of reshaping memory and burying histories.
In this engaging work of literary nonfiction, Subramanian (Following Fish), a New Delhi based journalist, provides a harrowing yet captivating account of wartime and postwar Sri Lanka. The decades-long conflict (with official dates of 1983 2009, though tensions date back to the '70s) was rooted in British colonial-era privileges of the minority Tamils, who "through quirks of colonial history" spoke better English and received better educations than the majority Sinhalese, and thus enjoyed various social and economic benefits. After independence in 1948, the Sinhalese, who had long resented Tamil privileges, engaged in aggressive, vindictive majoritarianism, enacting laws to protect Sinhalese interests and gradually erode Tamil rights and culture. Such discrimination accompanied by violent, retributive, and often state-sanctioned riots, as well as outright massacres led to the rise of Tamil militant groups, most visibly the Tigers, who agitated for a separate, sovereign homeland and were prone to committing acts of terror against the government, civilians, rival militant groups, and insufficiently obedient members of their own ranks. Subramanian travels throughout postwar Sri Lanka and shares absorbing anecdotes and conversations with former Tiger militants, former members of the armed forces, journalists, affected civilians, and even members of the international diaspora woven together with engaging, creative prose to forge a first-rate historical narrative. Subramanian's balanced, beautifully written reportorial travelogue smartly reveals Sri Lanka's complex conflict to international audiences.