By Abhishek Rahman, MDiv Candidate, Harvard Divinity School
Beginning in the 1980s, Sri Lanka’s civil war tore communities apart. In 2009, the Sri Lankan army defeated the separatist guerrillas of the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a fierce battle that involved about 300,000 civilians and killed more than 40,000. More than a million had been already been displaced by the long conflict, and the resilient among them still dared to hope for a better future in a postwar Sri Lanka. The next five years, following the end of the war, changed everything.
The story of people living in postwar Sri Lanka was the topic of a SAI Book Talk with author Rohini Mohan on November 4, 2014. Mohan spoke about her new book, The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War, in which she uses “creative nonfiction” as a literary style to tell a different kind of war story. Rather than focusing on political leaders and army generals, the book chronicles every day people, especially women and children.
Talking about her inspiration to write the book, Mohan said, “Growing up in Bangalore, India, I had no knowledge of the Sri Lankan conflict. Later working as a journalist in India, the stuff that I was reading about the Sri Lankan conflict did not fully encapsulate for me what was happening in the country. These articles included a majority-minority narrative but didn’t mention the human stories of what was happening on the ground.”
Responding to Mohan, V.V. (Sugi) Ganeshananthan, Bunting Fellow at Radcliffe Institute remarked, “I was thrilled when I learned that Rohini wanted to do reportage on Sri Lanka as the current material did not include issues facing women, children, and minorities as a result of the conflict. I was also interested in Rohini’s project because she is a woman from India who spoke Tamil and had the ability to speak directly to women whose narratives, under the military occupation, had been erased.”
During the Book Talk, Mohan talked about how she interviewed several people during her visits to Sri Lanka and had to make a conscious decision about selecting the three narratives that are included in her book and leaving out several others.
For Mohan, the three characters – Sarva, Indra, and Mugil –were similarly affected by the war even though they do not know each other. Mohan recalled that while writing, it seemed that she was engineering a meeting between her characters as if they were all in the same room. In the book, the characters never come together.
When asked by an audience member if the people she interviewed talked about the future in a postwar Sri Lanka, she said, “Each conversation I had was as much about the past as about the future. There are many former combatants of the LTTE who are now questioning if they were part of a larger cause or merely used as pawns for the group leaders’ ulterior motives.”