Notes from teardrop island

Rohini Mohan’s first book, The Seasons of Trouble, is an account of the Sri Lankan Civil War and its aftermath told through the stories of three Tamil survivors — Mugil, Indra and Sarva. It is a remarkable book — epic in scale, utterly compelling in detail. It won the Shakti Bhatt and Tata Literature Live! First book Award 2015.

Excerpts from an interview:

Your book encompasses so many histories but uses only three lives to do this. How did you come upon this idea, and did you worry about representation once you had settled upon this three-strand narrative?

To write about particular lives was, in a way, my only idea. Personal history was the primary lens with which I myself had understood Sri Lanka, the conflict there, conflicts anywhere. The academic history, the statistics, the politics, the legends — all of them were at least partially suspect, tainted in a polarising war. Writing non-fiction about an ethnic conflict was a risk I always ran. If the three protagonists were Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim, they would immediately be burdened with representing their respective communities. That would be unfair to them, and limiting for me. So I decided to go narrow and go deep. All three are now Tamil, but the research I did, interviewing dozens of people of all ethnicities, backgrounds and persuasions, balanced my perspective and textured the context of the protagonists.

Tishani Doshi

“Grief could never simply be itself because it was ongoing,” you write. What was it like for you to be the receptacle of so many stories? How did you allow their grief to run free?

I still don’t know the answer to this, you know? You ask a little, you listen. Initially, you are inspired by their survival, you want to be a little less helpless, so you go back with a mission. After some months, they become ghosts. You have bad dreams. They haunt everything you read, hear and see. You sometimes feel dulled by the repeated assault of the horrors, but you’re also part of their meals and walks and happier moments, so you go back. You realise that those in war zones also worry about groceries, spats with friends and kids who won’t do homework. That makes the ghosts more human, the greater grief less daunting.

What happens to memory — personal and collective — during and after a time of war? As someone who has had to draw out other people’s memories, what was the thing that surprised you most about the quality of memory?

Photos, documents, drawings, houses, roads — most of it was gone. A journalist or researcher only has the survivor’s memory to count on. I was as trusting as I was suspicious of memory. I knew food was hard to come by in the intense hunger of the last war in 2008-09, but there was this story of someone who sold his autorickshaw for a piece of coconut. In 2010, almost every day, I would meet someone who said he saw this “with his own two eyes”. When three million were displaced, running from shelling, without food or modes of communication, they shared information by word of mouth. It took the form of rumour and gossip, the kind that can really save or kill you. I was really struck by this — here I am, desperate for certainty, hunting for verifiable information, and they are telling me these near-apocryphal stories that the community almost remembers as one.

This need for certainty — to know how many were killed, how many disappeared, when and where exactly things happened, is an important aspect of the book. The war ended in 2009 and there are still no definitive answers. Do you see Sri Lankans ever getting out of their 30-year time warp?

I don’t think there will ever be definitive answers. But last year, when Sri Lankans of all ethnicities voted out the President, it reignited hope for alternatives. Unfortunately, the deep polarisation and systemic discrimination will take decades to change. Nationalisms are addictive things, weapons that can actually create enemies. Some people believe this can be neutralised by punitive justice, others believe in truth telling and reconciliation. One thing is for sure — no Sri Lankan wants war again.

Your book primarily focuses on women. Can you talk about this? And do you think a male reporter would have been able to get those stories out of them?

In especially conservative families, I guess I was able to stay longer with the women than a man could have. I also didn’t have to beat around the bush about certain experiences (“What would you do if you got your period in the trenches?”). But that’s where the special advantages end. When people say, “Oh, as a woman journalist, you are so lucky,” they equate charm to flirting, or as being able to disarm someone just by being female. That annoys me not because it is sexist, but because it is so ignorant. Any journalist — male or female — will say how crucial charm is to winning trust. As a reporter in a place among people, who have reasons to suspect strangers, you use everything you can muster to win trust. As for writing about women, it was less about access than about choice. I wanted to bring a perspective I had not seen before, and one that is significant to the issue I was exploring, so I went for it. It is a choice I believe men can make too. When some don’t, it is a different problem, not always one of access.

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 12:06:41 AM |

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