“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
― William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
I devoted most of my Avurudu break to reading, trying to – and succeeding mostly – to finish a book a day. Two of the most compelling were Shankari Chandran’s ‘Song of the Sun God’ and Anuk Arudpragasam’s ‘The Story of a Brief Marriage’. Books like this must come with a warning, and I mean this in half-jest. Shankari’s novel is about the best I’ve read on Sri Lanka, and one of the best I’ve ever read. I am unashamedly biased. The book is essentially about home – Sri Lanka – even as it spans generations and three continents. ontom the thinly veiled references to known places, institutions and people to the more familiar brutality of war and its aftermath, the writing is riveting, unnerving even. Shankari gets under your skin. Not unlike Anuk’s stunning debut, which had me in tears as I read through it in a single sitting, Shankari’s prose is compelling, full of nuance and resonant, in ways a foreign reader will certainly grasp, but a local reader will more fully own and immediately associate with self, family, friends and lived experience. The beautiful tapestry holds, and only ever thinly masks, great violence – not just in what she writes, but in the memories of what the book’s events and characters evoke around what some of us had to confront during the last stages of the war. It is however a deep humanism – of love despite the worst austerity, of resilience in the face of unimaginable violence, of hope in spite of awful loss, of a yearning to return home, despite the worst of what it has done – that at the end of the book, amongst a myriad of other emotions, one is left with. It is the same with Anuk’s book, where the story of a brief marriage, as the title goes, is a vehicle to traverse terrains of violence most have already forgotten, and for different reasons, want kept that way. It is the tenderness amidst unspeakable horror, the attention to detail and palliative care when there is no logical reason to be meticulous or patient, kindness, when there is none of it around, that pervades the difficult pages of this book.
Reading both, I was reminded of magic realism’s flourish in Colombia, at the time Pablo Escobar was on murderous sprees and not unlike our own bheeshana yugaya, the streets ran with blood. The literature that this violence spawns, while anchored to it, also seeks escape – critiquing the politics of violence, blurring the fantastic and real, located in reality yet introducing mysterious events that often kill, hurt, harm or seriously impact characters with no warning, and little reason, not unlike life itself.
The fiction I read provided a frame of reference to engage with news around UN peacekeepers in Haiti that the disaster in Meethotamulla, over the Avurudu weekend, almost conveniently provided cover for. The story, first reported by AP, isn’t the first around nauseating allegations of sexual abuse by members of the Sri Lankan military serving under the UN as peacekeepers. It is however the most detailed account we have so far. AP’s investigations reveal that Sri Lankan peacekeepers wanted sex from girls and boys as young as 12. A girl who says did not even have breasts at the time, for three years, from when she was twelve to fifteen, had sex with nearly fifty peacekeepers, including a “Commandant” who gave her seventy-five cents. At least one hundred and thirty-four Sri Lankan peacekeepers exploited nine children in a sex ring from 2004 to 2007, according to an internal U.N. report obtained by the AP. It is worth quoting from the report, as published in the New York Times,
“Victim 2, who was 16 when the U.N. team interviewed her, told them she had sex with a Sri Lankan commander at least three times, describing him as overweight with a moustache and a gold ring on his middle finger. She said he often showed her a picture of his wife. The peacekeepers also taught her some Sinhalese so she could understand and express sexual innuendo; the children even talked to one another in Sinhalese when U.N. investigators were interviewing them.”
I could go on, but the full report is online and a Google search away. The details are horrific. The sheer violence of it all is by order of magnitude more than anything Arudpragasam and Chandran can conjure up with their most sublime fiction. You would think that this would merit serious coverage in the news media, and comprehensive investigations by the Sri Lankan military. Neither is true.
Speaking to BBC’s Sinhala website, the military itself openly admits that no peacekeeper has been charged under the law or brought to courts on account of the allegations. The Army notes that ‘disciplinary’ action has been taken against a Commander and eight others. The nature of this action is indeterminable. The media, including the BBC, didn’t probe more into what actions the military took – their word is simply taken at face value, normalising the most heinous violence through the ‘rotten eggs’ theory, which is paraded whenever questions of accountability are raised. According to this line of argument, the actions of a few do not colour the service and avowed professionalism of the Army writ large, and whenever identified, the personnel in question responsible for infractions, we are told, have been dealt with. No more details are available. The local mainstream media has successfully managed to ignore and downplay the entire story, revealing even post-war, what is a pervasive, deeply ingrained mentality, out of fear or just misguided patriotism, that holds the military above any law, scrutiny and accountability.
Our heroes, are our gods – they play us, for their sport.
Wilde was right, life imitates art. Both Arudpragasam and Chandran paint, in different yet equally compelling prose, a wonderfully evocative, horribly effective pastiche of Sri Lanka’s violent history, that I daresay we are cursed to rinse and repeat. But political will’s absence around accountability isn’t fiction’s burden to generate. Both books unflinchingly look at violence with an honesty, humility and humanity that escapes polity and society in Sri Lanka. We remain scared of what, and who, we cannot name. Fiction breaks these boundaries, with scant regard for a culture of politics that enables, nay celebrates, complicity, secrecy and violence. While transitional justice mechanisms remain elusive, fiction such as this may hold the key to not forgetting the circumstances that led to, and arose out of, war. They may also be the only vehicles through which, even just through literary criticism, we embrace the totality of war in a context where even the most heinous of allegations against the Sri Lankan military, very far removed from the theatre of war in Sri Lanka itself, just aren’t important enough to merit attention.
Demonisation, though, is easy. Here too, Chandran and Arudpragasam in their fiction offer a vital lesson. War’s victims and perpetrators are not easily distinguished. Not discounting agency and command responsibility, those who mete out the worst violence, are often those conditioned by duty, fear, habit or trauma. The violence outside Sri Lanka by those involved in the war, is also a direct consequence of the violence they faced and were co-architects of. Their burden, for life, is to harbour what they did, saw and defended, and it is human nature that the sheer trauma of extended exposure to violence manifests itself in ways that replicate violence. ‘Song of a Sun God’ and ‘The Story of a Brief Marriage’ show us, without overtly intending to, that the accounting for the past needs to be done with an understanding that even leading agents of violence are, fundamentally, human – as flawed as the rest of us, as normal as the rest of us. The ultimate tragedy of disavowing accountability is not just for the victims who have no closure, but in the perpetuation of violence, by those who were once at the frontlines. Justice is not just about incarceration, the gallows or electric chairs. It is about healing, by first acknowledging that barbarity happened – that it was real, planned and directed.
Put simply, if we continue to countenance the rape and sexual abuse of children, we are complicit in a violence that shames us all. The realities of Haiti and Nandikadal are inextricably entwined with the complex landscapes of Chandran and Arudpragasam’s writing. Though fiction can be forgotten, facts endure.
We forget this at our peril.
First published in The Sunday Island, 23 April 2017.