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‘The Amazing Racist’ by Chhimi Tenduf-La

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Unassuming, charming and an excellent sense of humor , that was enough for me to fall for Chhimi Tenduf-la and pick up his collection of short stories at BLF 2017. It was a huge leap of faith for someone who seldom read short stories and probably never that of an author previously unheard of. He didn’t disappoint. In fact, I was actually blown away by the slices of life in Sri Lanka and how he connected one story to another, almost imperceptibly. That was ‘Loyal Stalkers’.

Didn’t have to think twice when I came up on this novel of his that was published in 2015 – ‘The Amazing Racist’. Set in Sri Lanka, the story revolves around Eddie Trusted, anEnglishman who landed there to teach Economics, the whirlwind, elusive beauty Renuka Rupasinghe and her terror of a father, Thilak Rupasinghe.

The story starts with Eddie waiting outside Thilak’s office door to ask his daughter’s hand in marriage. Thilak has an apparent hatred to anyone other than pure bred Sinhalese and he has no plans to forgive the English as a race who looted all his mother land’s riches. So you can guess how Eddie would have been received.

How the relationship between the father and the prospective son-in-law develops in spite of the daughter and probably because of the grand daughter is what the story is all about. Said in a poignant manner coated in generous doses of humor that makes you break out in laughter many a time, this is one book and author you shouldn’t miss. The tough exterior of a man that is used to having his way, the convenient lie that he has hidden all his life, the knowledge that it is his pride and the fear of losing his daughter’s love that has made him so, is brought out in a way that you feel nothing but love for the old rascal.

His characters are human with their own petty weaknesses, but they are not apologetic about it. There are moral dilemmas which of them faces in their own way. You understand and even empathize with all of them. It emphasizes the fact the it is not always blood that makes a family, that your race or the color of your skin have nothing to do with how you may come to care for a person. And love doesn’t always come in sweet words and gestures, it might even be disguised in veiled insults and curses.

A breezy read, I started this while waiting for an appointment at the tax service center and almost finished it by the time I was done three hours later. And then couldn’t wait to finish the last few pages after reaching home.

A heart warming, witty read, you will not regret taking this up. Made me feel good about life and the people that are a part of it.

p.s. the author is half English, studied Economics at Durham University, currently manages Elizabeth Moir school in Sri Lanka and teaches Economics there. Wonder whether there are any autobiographic elements there 🙂 

‘This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War’ by Samanth Subramanian

islandThe abbreviation IPKF, loud speakers blaring some mumbo jumbo and the name Rajiv Gandhi resonating in our ears in the early morning hours from a hostel room, the disbelief, shock and painful pictures that followed and years later, the portly figure of Velupillai Prabhakaran with the marks of a gun shot on his forehead, the war in Sri Lanka could very well have been summarized in these fleeting pictures. Strangely, it was the names of the places that had stuck on – Jaffna, Killinochi, Vavunia, Mannar, Mullativu, Batticaloa – were as familiar as a Fort Kochi, Ambalappuzha or Changanacherry. The newspaper statistics were something to be read like the daily weather report. Until I read this book.

For most of the world around, the war in Sri Lanka ceased to exist when Prabhakaran was shot dead. The silence that followed was eerie when you think of it in retrospect. Samanth Subramanian has tried to break through this darkness. Travelling cautiously and talking in hushed tones to people, who many a time sounds like ghosts stuck in a time warp, he has tried to bring out stories of a race who was betrayed by a country they thought was theirs as well as by those who was supposed to protect them.

Reading mostly one sided stories from a Tamil perspective, the LTTE and Prabhakaran were almost heroic figures of my youth. And with a name that is so obviously Tamil, I am guilty of expecting a somewhat biased story from a Subramanian, told from a parochial perspective. And as happens with unfounded prejudices, I was proved wrong, and for once am glad about it. Setting a context to the origins of the war, going back as far as 2500 years or more, the question at the root is what was the war all about? If it was about ethnicity, history proves the very foundation of the war to be absurd.

“Nobody knows with certainty whether the Sinhalese were here before the Tamils. Both communities have lived on the island for over twenty centuries, and they have spent that time not only feuding but also intermarrying. Legend informs us that, 2500 years ago, even the progenitor of the Sinhalese race imported a Tamil princess to be his wife.”

As you read on, you understand the origins of LTTE. A majority race trying to suppress the minority, forcing a ‘national’ langauge, reservations for ‘natives’, a systematic and focussed propaganda network, side lining a  community that seem to have thrived and as always, the hunger for ultimate power. Simultaneously reading Ramachandra Guha’s ‘India after Gandhi’ and following the chronology, the uncanny similarities were scary in some places. But then, when war is told from the angle of those who are affected the most, it is the same wherever in the world the war might be.

Subramanian’s success is the impartial way in which he writes , irrespective of whether it is about Prabhakaran or Rajapakse. Both of them are intoxicated by the power they wield. Where the reader is hooked is in the human elements. The author narrates stories instead of reporting. Whether it is the wife of an abducted journalist, a reformed terrorist in London or the innumerable ordinary men and women whom he meets, it is they that show us the travails of a war that did no one any good. The gradual loss of faith of the Tamil population is poignantly brought out in these words,

“It was a scene where Tamils were beating up Tamils and sending them to their certain deaths. It shouldn’t have been like that. If this was really our cause, we should have wanted to go voluntarily. But we didn’t.” This was the war the Tigers lost first, the war for the unconditional affections of the island’s Tamils and for the uncontested right to fight on their behalf.

Predominantly a country of Buddhists, one would think that the monks could have played an active role in bringing peace to this ravaged land. That notion is dispelled as you read of monks who turn politicians and who are equally bad or even worse than the others. Yes, they have their own theories too, on the why. As the author says,

“Shrink the humanity of your enemy, and the fighting must see easier, more just, less complicated. Warfare consists of several psychological tricks, not least the ones you play upon yourself.”

The psyche of paranoia is unbelievable and it shows the extent to which a forest brigand could terrorize a nation. The erstwhile home of Prabhakaran is razed to the ground, even the sand was dredged and dumped in some unknown location lest people start deifying the land blessed by his feet. The systematic destruction of anything that is even remotely Tamilian can only be described as a genocide. It is more about destroying something you hate than establishing what you believe in.

What leaves you with more than a heavy heart are the families of those that were abducted in front of their loved ones and about whom there are only rumours. A group of people who live in eternal hope, refusing to let go. For, many of the camps were in undisclosed locations with no access for even organizations  like the Red Cross and very few people have come out from there to tell any stories. There is a feeling of sheer despondency as  he leaves you with these words,

“In the wretchedness stakes of post-war Sri Lanka, there was always somebody worse off. Even hitting rock bottom was difficult because it was so thickly carpeted by the dead.”

Verdict – A must read, for anyone even remotely interested in human stories.

4/5

(p.s. I am going in search of his first book, ‘ Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast‘)