Rohini Mohan’s The Seasons of Trouble (2014) is one of the recent books of a growing corpus that draws on the closing stages of the Lankan Civil War to be penned by an Indian journalist. Five years after the military crushing of the LTTE by governmental troops, we now find witness narratives of the final onslaught — and other related incidents and offshoots — being given a spin on the bookshelves. Soon after the war’s closure we had the likes of Gorden Weiss, Frances Harrison and Paul Moorcraft excavating aspects of what was seen as a brutal onslaught by the Lankan military. However, writers such as Samanth Subramanian and Padma Rao Sundarji have expanded this discourse by yards. Of these, Sundarji’s narrative Sri Lanka: the New Country (2014) has many problems that I wish to grapple with later, in a separate entry.
Mohan’s The Seasons of Trouble builds up as an interweave of three narratives: that of Mugil, a female LTTE combatant who sheds her diehard loyalty to the Tigers and joins the thousands who cross the Nandikadaal into the custody of the governmental militia to be held at Menik Farm camp and to be “dumped” at Point Pedro for her to pick up life from whatever was left of it; and of Sarva and Indra — a son and a mother — whose lives are put to the acid test when the former is “white vanned” by a Lankan paramilitary group. In all, the three narratives are presented as biographical entries which present to the reader the complexity and ruthlessness of the surroundings to the last stages of the war, be it the North or the South. The stories of Sarva and Indra, in particular, complement with known histories and stories of the secret military units at play; and of the many extra-judicial and judicial gauntlets thrown at the multitudes detained under the notorious PTA.
Sarva’s story is a step-by-step revelation of how the mechanism that deems to “deter” terrorism operates: a system by which a detention and incarcaration of thousands take place which are — directly and indirectly — state-sanctioned; and through which unimaginable and unaccounted for torture is meted out on the detained “suspect”. Sarva’s story is not a single youth’s history at the hands of the TID. Rather, it is a story which has many complementary narratives in known literature. Sarva’s fate at the hands of the state militia — who has him incarcerated and tortured in a Police hideout near the Shore and Colombo harbour — is presented in sections that relate to the repeated blows he takes, the abuse and torture received without end and of him being suppressed and suffocated with a range of substances that spread from baton to petrol.
Torture used on Sarva complements with other narratives of torture meted out by the state military on suspects and detainees, held in custody for various “assumed” crimes. Narratives of these mechanisms used go as far back as the late 1980s, the “Reign of Terror” in the South. Rohitha Munasinghe’s එලියකන්ද වද කදවුර (Torture Base of Eliyakandha) is one such compelling narrative. Indra’s narrative is the story of a middle class Tamil mother whose family is hit by the fact of her son being held in the Police’s secret chambers. The intimidation and the injustice Indra, as a Tamil mother, has to go through sets up the violence as it is locatable in the disrupted domestic: the household and the homefront of a family under state surveillance.
Of the three narratives, Mugil’s narrative — coming from the war front at the height of the final tussle between the LTTE and the governmental forces — forms very intriguing reading; and this is not solely because Mugil, who seems to be a trusted and able combatant, manages to effortlessly pass off as an “ordinary” civilian and switch tracks into general civilian life; but, the narrative becomes intriguing as through Mugil we learn of the battle condition in places such as Anandipuram, Mullavaikkal and Puthukudyirippu in the months from January to May 2009. If Mugil’s narrative is trustable, she presents verification of the claims made by sources such as Weiss and Channel 4 on governmental bombing of sensitive civilian targets such as hospitals. The bombing of the Puthukudyirippu hospital by the government troops, for instance, is recorded with a note of poignant tragedy. The day before the bombing, Mugil herself delivers to the hospital a pregnant youth who is fearing for the life of her still yet-unborn. This young girl, barely in her teens, prefers to stay back at the hospital where she deems she is safe. The chapter ends with a blood-freezing reference; that the next day the hospital was repeatedly shelled for four hours.
Rohini Mohan’s text, however, has several insertions that take away from the realism and credibility of things. While these, in the context of Mohan’s larger project, are inconsequential, yet, leave enough scope for a germ of distrust to take root. This is so, as Mohan insists these narratives are witness records and are, in that sense, biographical. Sarva, for instance, is seen right at the very outset having seen a doctor near “the red Cargill building in Colombo” (3). This, by any standards, is an anomaly as that particular area of Colombo is not known to house private practitioners of medicine. The trishaw driver who takes Sarva to Armour Street on the day of his fateful arrest is said to smoke, as he steers his trishaw past the World Trade Center and other prominant buildings. Not only is a threewheler driver on a hire smoking away a bit unrealistic, but so is the need for someone heading from Cargills (as stated earlier, where Sarva gets a medical report) to Armour Street to go past World Trade Center. In fact, if you start at Cargills, Armour Street is 10 minutes away if you take Reclamation Road and turn right at Hettiyawatte.
Mohan cedes: “June in Sri Lanka brought on everyone’s worst mood. The oppressive humidity and heat seeped right through one’s clothes and into one’s nerves” (5). This, in spite of Sri Lanka being at its worst temperature in March and April. Sarva being unnerved by seeing a white van near the Armour Street recruitment office, too, is a bit fuzzy. This is as there could be plenty of white vans along the stretch of Armour Street at any given time. Indra “booking a bus reservation” to travel from Nuwaraeliya to Colombo by calling “her usual travel agent” (9) can only be accepted with half a cube of salt, as such practices are not generally known in Sri Lanka.
Referring to the arrest of General Fonseka in 2010, Mohan claims that “over 100 military policemen burst into his house, threatened his family and dragged him away” (193). Other versions indicate that he was forcefully laid out from his office and not from his home. This incident, Mohan suggests, was the “start of a stronger clampdown on all opposition, including the muzzling of press freedom” (193). However, one may argue that there is no necessary connection between Fonseka’s detention and the violent breach of press freedom. Even as this arrest takes place the likes of Dharmaratnam Sivaram and Lasantha Wickramatunge are already killed; and Prageeth Ekneligoda “vapourized”. With reference to Sarva, we are told that Sarva’s “own high school had been shelled and his primary school turned into a camp for the displaced” (195). But, a few pages later, it is asserted that Sarva had had his high school education in Hatton: the heart of the HIll Country Tamil community (214). Such contradictions easily make Mohan’s text look ridiculous.
In spite of these debatable insertions, Rohini Mohan manages to present a weave that very strongly urges the world to identify the Lankan war context as a bloodbath that had very little consideration and compassion for the lost innocence of the ordinary and the vulnerable. Mohan’s narrative by no means “spares” the Lankan military, but, yet, one notable aspect of it is the complex role with which the Lankan militia is identified: the occassional kindness and shows of generosity by individual personnel of the Army, in this respect, is given consideration alongside the ruthlessness of its collective, institutional play.
Mugil’s narrative opens with a scene where a group of female LTTE cadres — young girls in their adolescence — are gang raped by a group of Army men in a Kilinochchi jungle in October 2008 (22-23; 39). This is a compelling section: the last thing Mugil witnesses as a cadre before leaving the Movement to rejoin her family. Mohan’s narrative is also one of the first to reveal (from a lay reader’s point) detailed depictions of the Puthukudyirippu ground condition when being repeatedly shelled. For instance, the references to the use of drones and cluster-bombs present compelling evidence of “war crimes” and attempts at genocide.