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After the Tigers

Sri Lanka is now open for business. The New York Times says so, giving this teardrop of an island the place of pride in the inventory of thirty-one places that its readers must visit in 2010. The civil war that tore apart the nation is officially over; last year the Sri Lankan government managed finally to rout the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and proudly displayed the trophiesthe images of dead rebel leaders who fought for an independent Tamil homeland. Both sides committed grave human rights abuses in this conflict, with the government carpet-bombing civilians and unleashing a reign of terror, and the Tigers responding in kind, assassinating Sri Lankan and Indian leaders, planting land mines, and using child soldiers, sinking to new depths of depravity. The human cost of the conflict was enormous, but Sri Lanka’s cup of miseries has been overflowing: five years ago, the island suffered significantly when the Asian tsunami unexpectedly emerged from the Indian Ocean. Both the tsunami and the insurgency are, for the time being, things of the past. Tourists and Times readers may now travel there safely.

Adele Barker made the journey before the calm settled. An American teacher of literature, she reached Sri Lanka three weeks after September 11, when many Americans were beginning to discover that many people around the world did not like them. But she found her reception in Sri Lanka unusual. As she notes early in her bookpart memoir, part travelogue, part current historyshe would often be alone, sitting with her teenage son in a colonial hotel by the sea, when a Sri Lankan would come up and politely tell her how very sorry he felt about what happened in New York and Washington. Barker notes the irony: some forty thousand Sri Lankans died in the civil war from explosions, suicide bombs, booby-trapped mines, and attacks on markets and airports. The toll dwarfs the three thousand people who died on September 11, and yet Sri Lankans sought Barker out to express their condolences.

As a specialist in Russian literature and feminist theory, Barker had a plan on what to teach students at the University of Peradeniya, but nothing can be taken for granted in Sri Lanka, as she had been warned before she arrived. The campus had been closed for some time, and the students were trying to meet targets set by the customary syllabus, which meant that she was forced to teach courses outside her areas of expertise. She had to make other adjustments as well. She inherited a tuk-tuk driver, a gardener, and other individuals willing to serve her, but her Western upbringing and her egalitarian notions led her to reject domestic help. “I didn’t want people who are darker than me fixing our meals and cleaning for us,” she remarks. And then she realized that the jobs that she despised were in fact important for the local people.

There was an odd and quaint calmness around Barker’s homevisitors from distant parts of the world came calling, as in the normal run of thingsat a time when acts of terror erupted elsewhere on the island. The idyll within was rarely disrupted by the chaos without. This is not in itself surprising: when I visited the island for the first time in 1992, a Sri Lankan diplomat told me that Colombo was “safe,” because the war was over 350 kilometers away. The calm in a beach-fronted colonial hotel is almost always deceptive.

Barker briskly analyzes the initial cause of the violence: the Sinhala-dominated Government’s decision in 1956 to make Sinhala the official language. The move effectively disenfranchised Tamils, who formed a sizeable minority in the north and the east of the island. The history is familiar to those who have followed Sri Lanka’s tragic decades, but it is also a useful reminder, a useful foreshadowing, of other ethnic conflicts, which have been less lethal but more widely known in the headlines of the West. But Barker is not a historian, and I do not advise anyone to look to this book for political or historical analysis. Barker correctly notes the sheer range of cultures surrounding her in her exotic destination, and the complicated symbiotic relationship between Sinhalas and Tamils. She also takes note of the class structures that inhere in Sri Lankan society, but she does not probe further.

At one level, South Asia has perfected the art of dividing people in stratified groups, with the organizing principle being the caste. But the British added another dimension during their two-century rule in this region. This new dimension was of class. They brought workers from distant parts of the world to do menial tasks that neither they, nor the local population would do, adding an alien layer in the society, complicating relationships between communities which sometimes turned violent.

Barker arrived in conflict-ridden Sri Lanka in the immediate aftermath of September 11, when the world was relearning about ancient hatreds which stem from religion, replacing the ideological divide that had divided the world into “East” and “West” for nearly four decades. Barker was surprised that religion had not been a factor in the Sri Lankan war, even though the Sinhala were mainly Buddhist, and the Tamils, mainly Hindu. Fair point: but why? Does the imposition of one language over another explain the violence? Suketu Mehta, the author of Maximum City, a fine book about Mumbai, has reported out of Sri Lanka and noted these curious facts: Sri Lanka has suicide bombers with Hindu names, when Hinduism is supposed to be a tolerant faith, and a Buddhist-dominated government waging a brutal war, when Buddhism’s iconic image is the tranquil Dalai Lama and his peaceful struggle for Tibet, and a Muslim population that is peaceful and has nothing to do with the conflict. These are counter-factuals which complicate the linear narratives which emerge from lazy stereotypes. 

Unfortunately Not Quite Paradise does not explore these potent challenges to the conventional wisdom about religions and their fundamentalisms. Barker’s language is simple and accessible, and the book is refreshingly without academic jargon. She describes the landscape evocativelybut she describes much more skillfully than she analyzes. This is a mystery that fiction might help to solve: Michael Ondaatje’s Running In The Family, a fascinating personal journey, and Anil’s Ghost, a portrait of the trauma of the war’s victims seen through the eyes of a forensic anthropologist uncovering war crimes. Romesh Gunesekera’s Reef and Sandglass both depict show the inner turmoil in Sri Lankan life, and how a deceptive calm is shattered within families. And V.V. Ganeshananthan captured the range of emotions within the Tamil diaspora in Love Marriage, which tells the tale of a Tamil Tiger on his deathbed, confronting his ghosts in a land where he is now an immigrant. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but sometimes fiction is fully the match for truth.

Salil Tripathi writes for many publications from London, and is the author of Offence: The Hindu Case.