Samanth Subramanian

This Divided Island

A couple of months ago, Penguin Books India published This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, a book I'd been working on since 2010. The book is an attempt to tell the history of Sri Lanka's last half-century, and of its three-decade civil war, in a way it hasn't been told: through the stories of regular people, the textures of their lives during the war, and the terrain and shifting psychology of the country itself.

The book is now available on Amazon India (including Kindle) and Flipkart. Here are the relevant links. (UK and US editions will be released in February 2015 and August 2015 respectively.)

Amazon: http://www.amazon.in/This-Divided-Island-Stories-Lankan/dp/0670086037

Flipkart: http://www.flipkart.com/divided-island-stories-sri-lankan-war-english/p/itmdxcc7wgcrurma

Below, a selection of endorsements and reviews:

"Brutal majoritarians and ruthless insurgents have long monopolised our sense of Sri Lanka. Samanth Subramanian's sensitive account makes us aware of a missing human dimension. Exploring a war-ravaged landscape, he is bracingly alert to the role of ambiguity as well as ideology in human affairs. In This Divided Island, one of our finest young writers of non-fiction reveals the complicated lives lived in their shadow." -- Pankaj Mishra

"With the humility of a truly gifted writer, Samanth Subramanian sets out, not to find firm answers to the reasons behind Sri Lanka's civil war, but rather to be changed and  opened up by his journey through this war-ravaged land. His journey becomes ours. The things he discovers, the people he meets, haunts us long after we have closed the pages of this sensitive, poignant book." -- Shyam Selvadurai

"It is here that Subramanian’s This Divided Island is a welcome read, very different from any other book written on this terrible chapter of human struggle. Slow- cooked over a number of years, meticulously constructed and with a passion and sympathy for Sri Lanka and her people, this Tamil Indian writer illuminates the central dilemma established midway through the book, and around which all hinges: What did it take for an ordinary, peaceable Tamil to commit to violence?" -- Gordon Weiss, the former UN spokesperson in Sri Lanka, writing in Open

"There is only one word to describe this book: it's a masterpiece, a Book of the Year, even possibly the decade. The writing is exquisite... Places and people come alive as the whole ghastly tragedy unfolds-mostly in their words, not his. He has an observant eye and a sharp ear, one recalling minute detail, the other lending authenticity." -- Mani Shankar Aiyar, writing in India Today

"This is narrative journalism at its most literary, diligently researched reportage presented with poetry and flair. Subramanian has an eye for an image, an ear for an anecdote and an affection for the absurd. His descriptions of the bullet-ridden flatlands of Jaffna are on point, as are his chilling interviews with war widows and ex-terrorists..." -- Shehan Karunatilaka, author of Chinaman, writing in Mint Lounge

"Like Philip Gourevitch's account of the genocide in Rwanda, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, this is a superbly reported book. But its closest literary compatriot is Anil's Ghost, Michael Ondaatje's poetic yet utterly disturbing novel that was a response to the bloodbath that followed a violent Marxist uprising in the early 1970s in Sri Lanka and the then ongoing war with the Tamil Tigers." -- Rahul Jacob, writing in Business Standard

"With this splendid book, Samanth Subramanian has performed a task that is very difficult at this moment for anyone who knows what is going on in Sri Lanka; he has written a book about the ethnic war without losing his temper. It may appear rash when I say that this is the best book yet written on the subject, but I believe very few who have reported on the island would disagree with me." -- Shyam Tekwani, writing in Tehelka

"The book is not just a journal of reportage but is also a meditation on memory... Pick up This Divided Island; it’ll be one of the best books you’ll pick up this year." -- Aditya Sinha, writing in The Asian Age

"Subramanian walks the tightrope between taking sides brilliantly. The book is taut with this dichotomous tension, building it up much as it would have built up on the island in the deeply disturbed decades that led up to the bloody denouement that finally had us poring over grainy news photographs of a Prabhakaran with half his skull blown off." -- Vaishna Roy, writing in The Hindu

"Subramanian seeks to illuminate the war and its aftermath through a series of interviews that reflect the range of experiences that the war engendered. His interlocutors include several ex-Tigers, in Sri Lanka and abroad; Tamils who bravely opposed the LTTE; two Buddhist monks, one socialist and one militantly nationalist; and a number of journalists. To integrate these interviews into a broader historical narrative as seamlessly as Subramanian has done is a rare achievement." -- Keshava Guha, writing for Scroll.in

Riffing Off Genius

http://www.dulwich.org.uk/images/exhibitions/wodehouse-with-pipe.jpg?sfvrsn=5

(In Open magazine, I wrote a review of Sebastian Faulks’ Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.)

One of the most signal disservices to the craft of P. G. Wodehouse may have been done by P. G. Wodehouse himself. There are two ways to write novels, he famously said. One was to plunge like Tolstoy into the serious business of life; the other, his, was “making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether.” The contrast is vivid. It can suggest that Wodehouse simply tossed his novels off with minimal attention, relying on his genius to skip lightly from one book to the next. It doesn’t help matters that he is invariably categorised as a humorist, or that he wrote often to a formula, or that he cranked out nearly a hundred books over his lifetime. What a breeze this must all have been for him, a novitiate might conclude.

But this would be a grievous error. Wodehouse’s best books – and many would qualify as such – will, after several careful readings, reveal plots wound firm and tight, without an ounce of flab to them. He laid down 20,000-word scenarios for 100,000-word novels; before he started a new book, he once told the Paris Review, he usually had 400 pages of notes. Wodehouse’s formula, such as it was, really resembled a theme in jazz, off which he could riff and to which he could return. The art is held within the variations: the assortment of dukes and butlers and aunts, the devices like the silver cow-creamer or the plush Mickey Mouse, the tangles of romance, the schemes for easy money, all delightful precisely because they’re familiar in notion but also fresh in detail. The balance is a hair-trigger one, and Wodehouse could never have sustained his trade without an iron discipline and a pitiless ability to edit himself.

For all its richness and virtuosity, Wodehouse’s language is similarly pared and lean, divested as far as possible of adverbs, powered by strong verbs and nouns, and with not a word wasted. “Every sentence has a job to do and – in spite of the air of lunatic irresponsibility which hangs around a Wodehouse novel – does it neatly and efficiently,” the English historian Peter Quennell wrote in the 1940s. Consider the dexterity of one of Wodehouse’s greatest hits – “If he had a mind, there was something on it.” – and the way in which it inverts a cliché, renders it funny, and still manages to tell us something of its subject’s muddle-headedness. Consider how plastic the English language is in Wodehouse’s deft hands: in his description of a silence as frappé; in Bertie Wooster’s once-over of a corn chandler, “who was looking a bit fagged I thought, as if he had had a hard morning chandling the corn”; in the analysis of a grammar school’s assembly hall, where the air “was sort of heavy and languorous, if you know what I mean, with the scent of Young England and boiled beef and carrots.” Or consider, finally, one of the most sublime sentences ever to open a novel, from The Luck of the Bodkins:

“Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.”

Slice it which way you will, the sentence is unimprovable: in the precision of its information, in the austerity of its prose, and in the anticipation of high drama that dissolves into the bathos of the punch line. This is one of those Wodehouse constructions that appears as if it has been committed to the page, perfect and fully formed, by some benevolent divinity. Gratitude is not an uncommon reaction to Wodehouse’s ripest stuff.

My reactions to Sebastian Faulks’ Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, on the other hand, were decidedly more mixed. Faulks is not to be blamed for wanting to have written this novel; for that, I think, we can reproach our collective greed as readers, for whom even a canon of a hundred books is proving insufficient. The Wodehouse estate picked Faulks for his ability to send up the styles of other writers, as evidenced in his pastiche collection titled Pistache and in his James Bond revival Devil May Care. Faulks tackled the task manfully, acknowledging that Wodehouse was inimitable and that he could produce only an homage. Even this has proven a devilish challenge. Faulks is, as Wodehouse might have put it, more to be pitied than censured.

In its broadest strokes, Faulks’ plot motors into much-beloved terrain. With Jeeves in tow, Bertie hotfoots it out of a London infested with his Aunt Agatha and into a country manor named Melbury Hall, where a friend’s love life is in peril. An impersonation is required, although of a radical sort; it gives nothing away to say that Bertie acts as Jeeves’ valet, for this is how the novel begins. A cricket match is in the offing, as is a variety show in a village revel. A formidable quantity of money must be quickly raised through the usual Wodehouse methods: matrimony or an injudicious wager. So far, so familiar.

Under these placid waters, though, Faulks lets off a few depth charges. These are considered decisions; rightly, Faulks has thought that an act of homage needs to be something more than plain mimicry, and he has deliberately broken a couple of Wodehouse’s strictest conventions.

For one, he punctures the hermetic atmosphere of Wodehouse’s idyllic universe, into which the real world never intruded to any noticeable extent. “His characters have never tasted the forbidden fruit,” Evelyn Waugh said of Wodehouse’s literature. “They are still in Eden.” Faulks, on the other hand, gives us a heroine whose parents died when a U-boat sank the RMS Lusitania in World War I. It is 1926, and people grumble about the general strike of that summer. A dinner party bickers for several pages over whether to give women the vote. In a moment of trepidation that he has lost the girl he loves, Bertie is revisited by a boyhood memory of his dog’s death. “I had confided more in this beast than any living creature thus far in my life, and my trust had been well founded,” he mopes, sounding like a character out of Jack London.

Then there’s this question of Bertie’s love affair, a full-tilt devotion to a girl named Georgiana Meadowes and an honest desire for matrimony. It was a sine qua non of the Bertie Wooster novels that he remain a happy bachelor; early in the day, in fact, Jeeves even set this down as a precondition for his employment. And yet here is our narrator, only a few pages into the book, after a dinner with Georgiana goes well: “It was a pretty elated Bertram who, twenty minutes later, went for a stroll on the seafront, looking up at a bucketful of stars and hearing the natter of tree frogs in the pines.” At a later point, Bertie tells Georgiana that hers is the face he wishes to see on the pillow every day. He may as well be writing vers libre.

If we cavil at Faulks’ departures from tradition, it is not because we abhor any tampering at all with Wodehouse but because they gum up the aesthetics of a Wodehouse novel. His central characters – Bertie, or Lord Emsworth, or Ukridge – remain static, undeveloped nincompoops for the same reason that their world is set at a remove from ours. These tricks render the novels weightless and timeless, so that they can function in the realm of pure humour. Freed of the burden of Life, Wodehouse’s language and plot can mesh in smooth and fantastic ways. The sinking of the Lusitania or the debate over women’s suffrage or the prospect of genuine heartbreak can inject sour notes into a form that depends on sweetness for its levity.

In trying to match Wodehouse’s discipline and rigour, Faulks fares poorly on plot, and the story of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is stuffed with inefficiency. The descriptions of the cricket match and the village fete drag their feet, their action confused and without rhythm. One resident at Melbury Hall, Dame Judith Puxley, performs no role at all. Little tendrils of narrative poke out of the main shoot, niggle at us as we read, but stay stunted till the end: the below-stairs machinations of a housekeeper; a footman given to drink; the threat of Aunt Agatha. Most unpardonably, Melbury Hall’s original pair of sundered hearts – belonging to Bertie’s friend Woody Beeching and his fiancée – is reunited not by one of Jeeves’ wheezes but, rather tamely, by what looks like some earnest conversation and the passage of time. I couldn’t find a single comic moment that hovered between the surreal and the plausible, even though such moments were Wodehouse’s stock in trade.

In the aspect of language, however, Faulks displays a measure of inventiveness and an appreciation of Wodehouse’s methods, dropping only a few clunkers along the way. “If Hoad could best be described as inert, Beeching, P. was about as ert as they come,” he writes, winking at Wodehouse’s famous extraction of “gruntled” from “disgruntled.” Faulks deploys the transferred epithet well: “I slid a cigarette from my case and sucked in a pensive lungful.” He also gets off some fine gags of his own. “The Red Lion,” he writes, “was a four-ale bar with a handful of low-browed sons of toil who looked as though they might be related to one another in ways frowned on by the Old Testament.” Elsewhere, he describes a postal agent peering at Bertie “in a way I have grown used to over the years: as though I had been licensed for day release from some corrective institution, but only by a majority vote.” The bite of that parting clause is satisfying, and it goes a little way towards making up for Faulks’ name for an Uttar Pradesh town where an old India hand is supposed to have served: Chanamasala.

So beguiling and wondrous is Wodehouse’s prose that it can often seem to be the sole ingredient in the magic of his books. Faulks’ novel shows how the language, even when done right, still requires a superstructure to support it. Being funny is serious work. Wodehouse knew that; his greatest talent lay in masking his exertions, so that he could hand over to us only shining, seamless packages of joy.

The French Connection

The Iron Hole

(A few months ago, I visited Réunion Island for Condé Nast Traveller India. A modified version of the piece below appears in the current issue of the magazine. I highly recommend picking up a copy, because the photographs are gorgeous – far better than the poor iPhone shots embedded in this post.)

A diffused, numinous quality inhabits the light over Réunion Island. The physics is not too complicated to explain. Every day, with utmost reliability, clumps of cloud form around the peaks of the island’s central mountains, filtering the tropical sun, allowing it to shine through only in broad shafts of golden light. These beams blaze at will upon Réunion’s plains of volcanic soil, its sugarcane plantations, its beaches of satin-soft sand, and the wind-tossed waters of the Indian Ocean that encircle the island. In a fanciful moment, it is possible to imagine some divine authority spotlighting, in turn, the varied seductions of Réunion’s landscape.

Geology has had a playful time here, confounding our expectations of this tiny outpost of France, this speck of rock lying due east of Madagascar. This is best seen from the air, so on my first morning in Réunion, I took a seat on a Helilagon chopper. As we clattered upwards, the full curve of the island’s west coast fell away, all sand and sun, bristling with yacht masts, looking every inch the French Riviera. But then we swooped into a gap in the mountains, past the extinct, 3,000-metre-high Piton des Neiges volcano, around its crater valleys, and through the Iron Hole, a canyon with waterfalls pouring off its lip. Within just eight minutes of flight, the weather had changed. We were in another of Réunion’s 200 microclimates, clouds assembled rapidly about us, and the wind bounced us around. We couldn’t, the pilot said, proceed on to Piton de la Fournaise, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, or to the forested east coast. All this diversity, packed into an island just 28 miles wide and 39 miles from tip to toe. The mind reeled.

It is easy to find, in the variety of Réunion’s population, a mirror of the terrain on which it lives. Among the 800,000 people on the island are descendants of French settlers, of African slaves, of Tamil indentured labourers and Gujarati merchants, and of Chinese and South East Asian immigrants. Réunion can appear to be a perfectly named post-racial idyll. “I visited and then decided to stay,” a Belgian woman told me, “because it’s a great place to bring up children. There’s no racism here at all.” This is true enough, but fortunately, it isn’t as if Réunion’s demographics have been whipped into some bland, homogenous confection. Rather, the island’s society is textured and jagged in all kinds of fascinating ways, holding hidden and surprising interconnections for the amateur anthropologist to discover.

*

Réunion’s striking mixture of humanity has been conferred upon it by geography and thence by history. As European explorers rounded the Cape of Good Hope and proceeded north-east towards India, the Mascarene Islands – Réunion, Mauritius and Rodrigues – were frequently used as mid-ocean pit stops. The French took the island in the middle of the 17th century, and its history evolved alongside France’s. It was called “Bourbon” until the downfall of that royal house and “Bonaparte” until the downfall of that emperor; the name “Réunion,” commemorating the 1792 concord between revolutionaries and citizen militias, stuck in a republican France. Slaves from Africa worked the island’s sugarcane plantations until 1848, when France abolished slavery its colonies. Subsequently, Réunion imported its labour: Tamils from the French-controlled areas near Pondicherry and Chinese from the Malay peninsula, all nominally under contract but toiling away in conditions indistinguishable from slavery. In 1946, Réunion became a French département, and it now sends three senators and seven deputies to the country’s legislatures in Paris.

My friend Sully Chaffre, a cheery man who drove me all over Réunion for four days, once pointed out how these histories had distributed themselves over the island’s geography. The people of Tamil and Chinese descent live in the north-east and south-west, where the plantations were – and still are – located. All around the coast are towns with classic French names: Saint-Denis, Saint-Gilles-les-Bains, Saint-Pierre, Saint-André. “But deeper in the mountains, the towns have names given to them by slaves who escaped and settled there, out of the reach of authority: Mafate, Cilaos.” Some of these settlements are, even today, famously inaccessible. The hamlets of Mafate have no police stations or hospitals, and they can be reached only by helicopter or on foot. Every year, thousands of hikers, delirious with joy at finding such unspoiled trails, tramp to and from Mafate.

“And the people who live there? How do they get around the island?” I asked Sully.

“Oh, they’ve become very good at walking,” Sully said, with a laugh. “Sometimes these veteran hikers will go on these trails, with their superb shoes and all their equipment, and they think they’ll be making good time. Then they’ll see some little boy from Mafate overtake them in just a pair of sandals.”

Sully told me about the Madman’s Diagonal, an arduous ultramarathon that takes place every October on Réunion: 162 kilometres in length, and with a cumulative altitude gain of 9,643 metres, more than the height of Mount Everest. He had never attempted it himself, but he had participated in virtually every other adventure sport the island offered; he named kayaking, canyoning, paragliding, diving and deep-sea fishing before he wearied of listing activities. In Réunion’s summer, beginning in October, athletic tourists swarm over the island, swathed in lycra, eager to jump, run, swim and climb. The island is an adrenalin junkie’s paradise.

Sully is a striking example himself of Réunion’s diversity. His father is of Tamil descent, his mother of Chinese, and his wife of European. He speaks Réunion Creole – which derived from a pidgin French, with loan words from other languages – but no Tamil or Chinese. This is almost always the case. In the quest to replicate the Gallic mainland, the French colonials effaced local languages and cultures. Hindu temples were proscribed, forcing the Tamils to construct tiny shrines in their backyards instead. The music known as Maloya – derived from the chants of slaves much as the blues was in America, and brimming with complex, infectious rhythms – was banned until the 1960s.

But culture is a difficult animal to slay right off. The island now celebrates Diwali nearly as extravagantly as Christmas, for instance, and new temples with vividly coloured gopurams, built in the traditional Tamil style, are beginning to sprout in the east. Pieces of Tamil have also survived in Réunion Creole: the livid chilli relishes served with every meal are called rugai from the Tamil urugai” or “pickle,” and the drumstick vegetable is known as baton murung, taking part of its name from the Tamil murungakai.

The habits of food are, in fact, particularly resilient. Witness the Creole cabri massalé, a curried goat with the word masala implicit in its name. Even in restaurants promising the most refined French food – complete with fussy cuts of meat and thick sauces – the Asian palate injects itself, in bright flavours of spice and citrus. At the restaurant at the Le Vieux Cep hotel, up in Cilaos, a chef named Patrick Ramasamy cooked for me – in addition to crisp boudin, fresh yams baked in cheese and béchamel, and duck with chili and coriander – a dish of stewed black lentils and smoked pork. Served with pristine white rice, the lentils tasted like a meaty, full-bodied dal. The meal came with a local sweet wine, tasting like young port, and outside the window next to me, Cilaos’ unfamiliar stone massifs rose into the sky, but on my plate was a powerful reminder of home.

*

I never ventured into the water at Réunion; it was early August – winter in the southern hemisphere – and even in these tropical latitudes, the sea was nippy. But the beaches were exemplary, their sands sloping invitingly down into the sea. The water was almost a platonic blue, the sort of blue of impossible clarity that the mind imagines when it thinks of that colour. Bars and restaurants line promenades in the towns along the west coast, their tables situated mere metres from the sea. In season, this is where the island’s most appealing nightlife resides: seafood and drinks on the tables, a live Maloya band nearby, and the milk-white surf pounding onto the sand.

Every time Sully and I drove along the shore, I looked longingly at the ocean. If I was lucky, Sully told me during one of these afternoons when I had my nose up against to the car window, I might spot a humpback whale, travelling up to its breeding grounds from as far away as the South Pole. “Sometimes you can see them even from the coast,” he said. “People will stop their cars on the highway and get out to watch.”

No whales made an appearance, although we always drove slowly when we were next to the sea, particularly in the south-east. This terrain is known as Le Grand Brûlé – the Big Burned Area – and it lies directly on the path of the lava that Piton de la Fournaise spews forth every few years. The ground is striated and shiny, the lava first scorching the soil and then settling into quicksilver-coloured rock. This segment of the island has been cleared of human habitation, but guides often lead tours through the maze of tunnels within the hollow rock, the walls still warm to the touch. Occasionally the volcano sends its fiery dispatches into villages on the borders of Le Grand Brûlé. In Sainte-Rose, I visited Notre-Dame-des-Laves, a church that had survived the eruption of 1977. The lava arrived at the church, spilled through the open doorway, but then went around the building, leaving it undamaged. This was promptly proclaimed to be a miracle, giving the church its present name: Our Lady of Lava.

One morning, Sully and I decided to drive up closer to the volcano, a two-hour drive from the east coast, up winding but impeccable roads, past meadows and cows that recall central Europe and not tropical Africa. As we climbed into the clouds, tatters of mist floated across the road and flecked our windshield. In the winter, the temperature in these parts can dip as low as 5 degrees Celsius; even in the middle of that afternoon, the car’s dashboard display showed an outside temperature of 7 degrees.

“Okay, now the road is going to make a turn, so close your eyes,” Sully said. “And don’t worry – I’m a good driver!”

I did as instructed, feeling in my stomach the car go around a sharp bend. “Open your eyes now,” Sully said.

Stretching away in front of us was a landscape out of Mordor – a black volcanic plain, streaked red in parts by granules of rust, and hemmed in by forbidding black mountains. A lone dirt path sliced through the plain, across which we now drove. The road concluded in a small clearing, where there was a hut that functioned as both viewing point and café, and from where parties of hikers set out every day to walk across one last stretch of plain and then climb the volcano.

On the afternoon we were there, bands of thick cloud obscured our view of Piton de la Fournaise. We waited around for a while, hoping that the skies would clear, but the volcano preserved its magnificent mystery well. It sat there behind the clouds, patiently digesting its molten rock, biding its time until its next eruption, reshaping Réunion in front of the very eyes of the islanders, providing a glimpse of how the earth worked not over decades or even centuries but over hundreds of thousands of years. Under our feet, the forces of geology laboured on, the creators of Réunion Island and the engines of the world.

The Agitator

In the New Yorker, I write about Arvind Kejriwal and the politics of corruption in India:

One evening last February, Arvind Kejriwal, India’s most vocal crusader against corruption, fidgeted in an S.U.V. passenger seat, bound for a rally in west Delhi. He wore a white Gandhi cap printed in Hindi with the words “I am the common man,” a reference to his boisterous new political party, Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”). Earlier in the day, he had sent tweets scorning a court summons that he and his party executives had received for “unlawful assembly” at a demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s home. Now his thumbs skittered over his BlackBerry as he scanned dozens of outraged responses. The phone rang incessantly, but he rarely picked up. He believed that the government was using its intelligence agencies to monitor him and his party’s top officials. “Our phones are tapped. Our e-mails are under surveillance,” he told me. This was the price to be paid, he seemed to say, for upsetting the order of Indian politics.

The rally was an early foray, by Kejriwal’s young party, into the clamorous world of political campaigning. National elections will not be held until next summer, after elections to the Delhi legislature this fall. The country’s two dominant parties, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, are behemoths of power and money. Compared with them, Aam Aadmi is a featherweight, but it has in Kejriwal the most potent weapon of any fledgling party in recent memory. Whatever success the Party enjoys in the upcoming elections, it will have opened new avenues of participation for India’s small and struggling independent parties.

More here. A subscription is required to read the whole piece.

Spoils of Victory

In Caravan, a short essay on ancient and modern hatreds, and on Buddhist violence in Sri Lanka:

Like a show pony, the “ancient hatreds” argument is trotted out of its stable and walked around the paddock during every ethnic conflict. The warring parties themselves are happy to shoehorn their stances into this model, buffing their credentials by claiming to be part of some grander historical purpose. So it was during the civil war in Sri Lanka. Sinhalese nationalists and Buddhist extremists—and these two groups overlapped more often than not—pointed accusing fingers to the past, when armies from Tamil kingdoms in India invaded this peaceful island, their haven of Buddhism. On the other side of the divide, Tamil nationalists contended that many of their ancestors had arrived as merchants and fishermen—perhaps even before Buddhism reached Sri Lanka—and that Sinhalese kings had repeatedly slaughtered Tamil communities and grabbed their land. Living in Sri Lanka, I frequently got the impression that the Sinhalese and the Tamils had fought two wars: the terrestrial one, which began nominally in 1983 and ended in 2009; and an abstract one, which began centuries ago and is not quite finished yet.

More here.

For Sri Lanka, More Empty Words

In the New York Times, my op-ed on the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka, and on how it may well do more harm than good:

While they carry symbolic weight, such resolutions may, in fact, be impeding progress rather than facilitating it.

The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa greeted last year’s vote with complaints that it was being persecuted by the international community — and used that as a pretext to obstruct even more thoroughly the work of journalists, lawyers and activists. As Mohan Peiris, a former attorney general who is now Sri Lanka’s chief justice, said last March: “It won’t change anything. We will just forge ahead as planned.”

More here.

Supreme Being

In Caravan, my profile of Samir Jain, the Times of India‘s Supreme Being and the creator of the modern Indian newspaper industry:

Samir Jain evokes, from those who have known him, a bewildering assortment of reactions. Some cannot be critical enough, either of him as or of his stewardship of his newspapers. One former editor started out talking about Jain civilly enough, but he rediscovered so many buried grievances over the next 90 minutes that he became, by the end of our conversation, a spluttering Roman candle of invective. (Not surprisingly, he too asked to remain anonymous: “I don’t want all the legal weight of the fucking Times of India jumping on me.”) Others swear affection to him, saying that Jain is unfairly maligned; they recount stories of his generosity and his razor-keen intelligence. Still others stud their narratives with caveats and assertions and counter-assertions and sentences that begin: “He’s a very difficult man to know, but…” The complexity of these responses is to be expected, because it matches the complexity of the turmoil he has sown, single-handed, in Indian journalism. “The entire newspaper industry in this country since the 1990s,” Chandan Mitra, editor of The Pioneer, told me, “is essentially the creation of Samir Jain.”

All 16,000 words of the profile here.

Where the sidewalk ends

In Bookforum‘s fall issue, I review Aman Sethi’s A Free Man, a remarkably close look at the life of Mohammad Ashraf, a day labourer in Delhi:

For a year in Patna, Ashraf studied biology in college—an unusual level of education for a resident of a sidewalk. But after he fired a shotgun above a crowd of men who were harassing his employer, he skipped town and abandoned his degree. Instead, as he rolled from city to city, he gathered other skills: building and whitewashing walls, butchering chickens, selling lemons and eggs and lottery tickets and lengths of suit material, repairing televisions. “The ideal job,” he tells Sethi, “has the perfect balance of kamai and azaadi”—of income and liberty—and Sethi reckons that Ashraf may have attained that particular bliss. But it is difficult to escape the sense that Ashraf knows only too well how circumstances have thwarted him—that he is reluctant to discuss the arc of his life because even he is not sure of how and why he got to where he is, stoned and near broke on a sidewalk in Sadar Bazaar.

More here.

First Flight

In the New York Times’ India Ink, a two-part Long View written for the 80th anniversary of the flight that became the airline that became Air India. The first part, on the flight itself:

Poor mid-September weather forced Mr. Tata to push his inaugural flight to Oct. 15, when he took off, with more than 100 pounds of mail, in a single-engine De Havilland Puss Moth, from the Drigh Road aerodrome in Karachi. (Mr. Vintcent would fly the second leg, from Bombay via Bellary to Madras.) By train, the Karachi-Bombay route needed 45 hours to complete; Mr. Tata touched down on the mud flats of Juhu in less than eight hours, having stopped off in Ahmedabad to refuel his plane from four-gallon Burmah-Shell petrol cans transported to the runway on a bullock cart. The postmaster of Bombay himself ceremonially collected the mail from Mr. Tata in Juhu; indeed, such an acute sense of occasion marked the entire enterprise that the envelopes – like the one addressed to “A. Achutten, Esqr., General Merchant, Bramagiri, Udipi” – were franked “Karachi-Madras, First Airmail.”

And the second part, on how the airline was wrested away from J. R. D. Tata and nationalised:

The pain of having his airline snatched away in this manner never entirely dissipated. In a letter to a colleague, Mr. Tata wrote:

“Even more than the decision itself, I was upset by the manner in which nationalisation was introduced through the back door without any prior consultation of any kind with the industry… However, we have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we are living in a political and bureaucratic age in which people like ourselves no longer count for much in the scheme of things.”

The first part is here, and the second part is here. The full index of Long View pieces is here.

Following Fish, the UK paperback

A most beautiful new cover for the UK paperback of “Following Fish,” courtesy Atlantic Books. In stores soon, I’m told.