Books

Rohini Mohan
The Seasons of Trouble

Hiding up a mango tree, Mugil listens to the cries below from the five teenage girls in her Tamil Tiger unit as they are bashed, raped, then finished off by their Sri Lankan army captors. Mugil is now a disillusioned veteran of 21. She walks away from fighting to join her family. They flee between promised “no-fire zones” where bombs, shells and rockets rain down nonetheless, and diehard Tigers keep civilians in front of them. In the capital, Colombo, young Tamil man Sarva hopes to see the world as a merchant seaman, until men in a white van drag him away. Two years of brutal torture follow at the hands of the Gestapo-like Terrorist Investigation Department, which has effective power of indefinite detention. A chance encounter with a Red Cross official gets him listed as a political prisoner, however; his doughty mother, Indra, badgers jeering police and officials, most of them from the Sinhala Buddhist majority, until she secures his release, just as years earlier she got a shanghaied Sarva out of the Tiger ranks in Jaffna. 

Based on detailed interviews and on-ground verification, Rohini Mohan, a prize-winning Indian journalist, weaves together the stories of Mugil, Sarva and Indra in a masterly narrative with the power of Rohinton Mistry’s novels. It begins in the closing months of 2008 when the Tamil dream of Eelam, an independent homeland in Sri Lanka’s north and east, is crumbling. The government’s army is 200,000-strong, equipped with horrific firepower, and has thrown away any niceties. Tiger ranks are filled with 13-year-old conscripts who try to run away. 

The downfall of Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran comes in May 2009, to disbelieving followers. This book is more about the transition from war to something like the Roman subjugations described by Tacitus: “They make a desert and they call it peace.” Disappearances, torture and theft of land remain the Jaffna Tamil’s lot as the threat of Tiger resurgence is used to justify majoritarian terror under President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers, while Sinhala chauvinists move on to harass other minorities. Mohan’s narrative continues through the showcase Commonwealth summit in Colombo last year, where our PM excused it all (“We accept that sometimes, in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen”) to avoid accepting that some Tamils, like Mugil and Sarva, decide that survival and dignity means fleeing abroad. JF

Verso, 368pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 15, 2014 as "Rohini Mohan, The Seasons of Trouble". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JF