A Book That Defies All Definitions: A review of the End of War in Sri Lanka
From 19 – 27 May 2010, Groundviews ran a special edition on the end of war in Sri Lanka. Over this week alone, the site received over forty-thousand readers and exclusively featured over eighty-thousand words of original content, one video premiere, over a dozen photos, generating over one hundred and fifty-thousand words of commentary.
Responding to numerous requests from readers, academia and others, this collection was published as a book in mid-2010. The first review of the book appears today in the Sunday Leader titled A Book That Defies All Definitions by Prof. Sasanka Perera, Professor of Anthropology and Head, Department of Sociology, University of Colombo. His review is the first instance where an entirely citizen media generated book has been seriously reviewed in Sri Lankan mainstream media. It is reproduced below in full.
The limited edition book is available from the Editors of Groundviews on request.
A Book That Defies All Definitions
I readily accepted to review Groundview’s recent publication, The End of War in Sri Lanka: Reflections and Challenges, as I thought it would complement some of the ideas that were reverberating in my mind during a relatively long period spent away from the country. However, when I finally completed the review two months later, I had also travelled to Jaffna for a few days under somewhat inhospitable weather conditions and had held some frank conversations with both close associates and relative strangers to me. In retrospect I think both these experiences – distancing from home and the proximity to a former combat zone – had some impact on the way I looked at the content. Edited by Sanjana Hattotuwa and Nigel Nugawela, this book is one of those publications that defies definition, therefore is almost impossible to review by adopting a conventional process of review: it is neither academic nor non academic; it is not fictional or nonfiction. The book consists of a collection of poetry, well thought out essays, contemplative notes, scattered and incomplete thoughts and opinions, prescriptive formulations, agreements and disagreements as well as photographs and other textual genres which perhaps can remain unclassified. Therefore, instead of a review in the conventional sense, I opted to record my reflection on thoughts that emerged in my mind while reading the book. For me at least, as a person who spends little time on the internet and is still not infatuated with its annoying clutter, this publication is an easier way to read the thinking of a group of people who opted to share their views in the backdrop of the first anniversary of the end of war in Sri Lanka.
The content of the book, of varying degrees of quality and consistency, was originally published in the website www.goundviews.org, and deal with issues related to ethnicity, nationalism, war and its resolution. More specifically, the contents of the book consist of a selection of responses received from individuals one year after the end of war in Sri Lanka; they offered their opinions on whether peace was simply a matter of the absence of war or the defeat of the LTTE, and these responses were originally published on the Groundviews website within a space of one week. Since it is impossible to review this content individually for the merit of each, I would simply attempt to very briefly comment on the overall politics this attempt entails. I outline thoughts in terms of language of the publication, access and the prevailing politics of expression. I also discuss some of the opinions, feelings and political positions expressed in the book and its internet version in terms of their class identity.
A cursory survey of the topics maps out the landscape of ideas, passions, emotions and contemplation that have been incorporated within the overall text. By any definition, what emerges is a landscape of disparate emotions ranging from Vivimarie Vander Poorten’s poem, Madness and V.V. Ganeshanathan’s contemplative note, We Regret to Inform You that Your Condolences Cannot be Accepted at this Moment which articulates in a nuanced and somber fashion some of the crucial internal contradictions of our society which we are yet to deal with, to more straightforward articulations of what one might call (within limits) the ‘way forward’ and ’taking stock’ as epitomized in essays such as Austin Fernando’s From Victory to Normalization, Rohini Hensman’s Getting Sri Lanka’s Economy Back on Track, Dayan Jayatilake’s The War and My times and Dayapala Thiranagama’s One Year After the Guns Fell Silent at Vellamullvaikkal. Therefore the pieces contained traverse a wide terrain that includes the rational, clinical, accommodating, hopeful, hope-less, post war scenarios of the future, politics of diasporas and so on. V.V. Ganseshananthan’s piece mentioned above, lyrical at times, is at other times very blunt in form and is symptomatic of the loss of hope. On the other hand, Marisa de Silva’s note Soldier: Hero, villain or both? encapsulates the ambiguities that the war experience has brought to the surface that we as a collective have not yet dealt with adequately. However, the multiple personalities of the soldier or the ‘war hero’ have been addressed quite successfully in recent times by a number of local visual artists working within the 90’s Trend. On the other hand, Austin Fernando’s essay, From Victory to Normalization in Sri Lanka is a ‘rational’ and almost clinical pondering of what the future could be in which emotion seems to have been suspended. It seems to me that these three texts are illustrative of the variation of emotional tone in the content of this book. To me, that variation is the reality of our post war existence. Our experience is not linear; our perceptions not black and white across the board; our take on the past and the future not a monolithic reality. What is unfortunate is that the reality of this variation has not emerged in the popular and the dominant discourse on war, conflict and peace in the country.
There is no doubt that the victory in war has been celebrated at various levels for a very long period of time since its end last year; and it should be. Despite the devastation it brought upon many of our citizens, its end is not a simple task that can be wished away. As cruel as its pain and loss, it also has stories of selfless sacrifice by very real people and a sigh of relief was heaved by many people that a process of terrible violence is over. The issue however is that despite the statements and the rhetoric, there is little evidence at the ground level and at the level of collective emotion that we have moved forward in any real sense. I guess many texts presenting feelings of lost hope spring from this realization. It is time that we address issues of emotion linked to war and its resolution whether it is publicly addressed or not. Without that, reconciliation would simply be an overstated word without much meaning. It is in this light that the subtitle of Thirangama’s essay, Is there Foresight to Settle our Political Score? becomes more poignant for all of us at the present moment. It is in answering this question that we as a nation, as fractured as it may be, have a lot of contemplation to do, to think both passionately as well as rationally as contradictory as this suggestion might seem. We have to be rational enough to resolve outstanding issues with the hindsight of history and wisdom and passionate enough to make what we plan happen by suspending some of our enduring biases and preconditions.
One may question the wisdom of publishing in print form something that already exists on the internet for easy access without payment. Despite the democratizing tendencies of the internet, the popular belief that the internet ‘freely’ enhances access to information is fundamentally a mythological assumption, when considered in the context of prevailing ground conditions of specific localities. It is quite possible that content on the internet allows many more people to read what is published in this fashion all over the world than a printed book ever could. Nevertheless, in a country like Sri Lanka where the digital divide still signals the exclusion of a greater number of individuals, where at the same time literacy is relatively high, the print form perhaps has much more clout. In that context, publishing these varied texts as a book makes a great deal of sense.
Even though the responses that constituted the original internet discourse seems to have been quite staggering as stated by Groundviews itself, this does not constitute the ideas of a cross section of Sri Lankans or others living in different parts of the world with an interest in Sri Lanka. These are certainly not the people who would have been marginalized in recent times due to the lopsided nature of the digital divide in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. These are the views of individuals who entered this discourse in English, which may even be their first language. As far as I can understand, this debate did not take place in Tamil or Sinhala. In that sense, this is a debate among a group of linguistic elites who cut across ethno-cultural and geographic borders. However, that is not to say that some of these positions are not shared by many others who work in Sinhala and Tamil. Therefore I hope that at some moment in time this content would be available in these two national languages, enhancing the reach of these ideas to local readerships much more democratically and opening up wider spaces for debate.
Let me now ponder a moment on the politics of freedom of expression in our times. After all, it is in this extended context that we have to finally evaluate projects of this nature on the internet or in print form. I think it is fairly obvious that the tolerance of a plurality of ideas has diminished in our country, particularly in formal settings; this is visible in mass media, in national and local politics and even in universities where ideas are supposed to be nurtured and explored. In this situation, the internet becomes one of the few domains of freedom of expression that is censored less — if we know how to use it well. It goes without saying that the internet is full of nonsense too; but it also offers sense, if one has the patience to explore. In a local context where the dominant political opinion is deafening to the extent of silencing all other voices that are even marginally contradictory and when many mass circulating texts both written and audiovisual are carefully choreographed, I have no doubt that the internet is our last hope for expression. But again, the digital divide will play a limiting role for a considerable period of time. This does not mean that Groundviews has no politics; it clearly does. It shows the possibilities for the future when the right to disagree needs to be protected as a right that we should cherish as a people.
But what about the present and the immediate future? I have no doubt that the A9 and other roads to and in the north will be rebuilt. I have no doubt that the destruction of war so apparent today will be erased through the reconstruction of damaged buildings, the replanting of burnt Palmyra trees and clearing of mines; people will travel to the former war zones and eat at new restaurants. New property will be bought and sold in the region. But while doing all this, I wonder how many of us would truly converse with ourselves and attempt to understand the nature of victory in war and the reality of pain of loss. Though we have to look to the future, it cannot be done without a meaningful reference to the past. In this context, what is presented in these pages is a reality check, as incomplete as it may be. Though the future remains to be entered, explored and fashioned according to our will, in the specificity of our context, its parameters are not entirely clear to me. What appears to be clear concerns me as does the way contemporary politics are being played out. It is in this situation that I also share the sense of hopelessness experienced by some of the writers, though our concerns may not emerge from the same sources. I think the following lines encapsulate my own thoughts after reading this text and in the wider context of local politics though they were penned in a different time and under different circumstances:
She peered into the flame
Of the clay lamp,
And into the sparkling crystal ball;
Beseeching all known deities,
Spirits, gods and demons,
But could not see
Even a glimpse
Of the future — (1991)