Apart from destruction and loss, wars also leave behind a lot of gruesome and harrowing stories. To capture the gravity and distinctiveness of these stories, writers constantly try to fit them into a genre of post-war stories. And that eventually becomes the bit of information for perpetuating sheer pique. And Sri Lankan war is no exception. A number of reportage, columns and fictional works have earnestly tried in the past to delineate the stories of post-war Sri Lanka. And the latest to join that streak is Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island: Stories From the Sri Lankan War.

Sri Lankan conflict is replete with woolly-headed complexities and the writer is quick to identify that. The civil war dominates much of the Sri Lankan history and Buddhist nationalists are blamed for this, for demonstrating self-righteousness and supremacy to a disgraceful extent. Misusing the advantage of being the preponderant force of Sri Lankan politics, they exploited and threatened the minorities of the country, turning themselves into freaks, imposing a ‘Sinhala only, Tamil Also’ policy. On the name of Buddha, ‘the personification of love and kindness’, the religious freaks hated people who did not follow their religion and culture. These became the cause of unrest and the civil war. And LTTE thought that this provided them with the ‘uncontested right to fight on behalf of the whole community’.

Starting with the events that preceded the war, which are largely forgotten by authors in the attempt of analysing what happened during the war, Subramanian demonstrates the inevitability of comprehending the background of the cause the Tigers announced themselves champion of. He straightway shuns the clichés and points out how the Tigers lost the cause the moment they began fighting for it. Although Subramanian seems a little sympathetic to Tamils, perhaps because of his Tamil origin, he never falls short of pointing out the devastation inflicted by LTTE upon the people of Sri Lanka. His moving portrayals of the LTTE atrocities against Muslims and Tamil people manifest the extent of cruelty with which Tigers carried out their operations in the region.

There is also plenty of space given to the paranoia and tyranny of the Sri Lankan state and Sinhalese nationalists to judiciously capture the barbarity and depredation of their acts. The book comprises accounts of government harassing and killing journalists speaking against government’s inhuman treatment of Tamils, and elaborates on the implications of Buddhist monks joining politics and even participating in the civil war, willingly. The most agonizing part of the book, however, depicts the army blowing up a UN hospital where already-wounded people were being treated. And a survivor of that attack recounts that savage incident of how just-bandaged people were shelled. And the description is just precise and accurate.

Subramanian lays out the tales of the conflict in the people telling, and he does well in that. To collect different narratives, the cast has been scrupulously selected, from rambling backgrounds. The author has saved himself from being judgemental and therefore no good guy--bad guy dichotomy rules the book. Everybody talks about war in the country, even a pimp, and it hovers over every conversation.

Subramanian’s book contains a series of interviews and conversations, taking the readers on a journey of the war-torn Sri Lanka, demystifying the claims of the Sri Lankan government that the violence has been scrubbed up from the country, detailing the atrocities of both LTTE and the Sri Lankan government in excruciating details, focusing more on personal stories and giving minimum space to analysis, conveying how violence has entrapped all the communities in its fold, without discriminating on the lines of religion or ethnicity, on the basis of which war emerged, or better, was orchestrated. This book significantly punctures the official claims and splendidly captures the narratives that official accounts ignore. It contains a moving portrait of how the lives of people, irrespective of the community, have been shattered.

This Divided Island is an exquisite and telling book and writing this was not easy for Samanth. He gives an impression in the book that he fell seriously ill while touring and further also conveys that conversing with people was full of dangers for him as well as for the people, as the Sri Lankan authorities tapped his phones and kept an eye on his activities. But the book demonstrates that he did not let all these constraints to obstruct his investigation and research.

Packed with a number of intriguing anecdotes and stories inside stories in an elegant prose, This Divided Island: Stories From the Sri Lankan War is the finest non-fiction to come out from India since a while. This book is absolutely a must-read book for everyone even a tad bit interested in war, its aftermath and Sri Lanka.