Shyam Selvadurai belongs to a generation of migrant-cum-writers from Lanka who made the Civil Conflict (the Northern one, not the one in the South) their livelihood. As such, the two decades which begins with 1983 showcase a cluster writing from within and outside the Lankan geo-political space whose narratives vouchsafe representation of a nation caught in war and violence. Among these, there are writers who are critical and progressive – whose writings offer the complexity and the nuances of the political-historical shades of the conflict. Then, there are others – and these belong to the majority – whose “alien” vision from continents apart and their dishonesty at representation fail to grasp the pulse or the nuance of the historical fabric of which they volunteer to “tell tales”. Selvadurai belongs to this second category of persons.
When the LTTE was militarily crushed by the governmental forces in 2009, a throng of Indian journalists began to think that it is now their turn to enter the conflict zone as “story provider”. Over the next 5 years we witness a steadily growing corpus of “biographical” and “witness” narratives bearing the names of European and Indian writers writing on 2008 and 2009. The likes of Selvadurai who had upto then been “writing of the unreconciled” from the Global North would then move on to base 2: “write to reconcile” – the genius of a project where you get a group of largely youthful persons from (largely) non-combat regions to write empathetic and sympathetic (or, in between) stories that cut through what is viewed/recalled as experiences of conflict. These chosen writers are given a training of sorts, put through a concentrated camp experience in writing, and are supervised in their delivery of what we are told are stories that will help in reconciliation.
The sample authorship (going by their short “made important sounding” biographies) are often upper middle class (or above) and have, in most cases, not been victims of war at any level. Some are born overseas and have moved away from the conflict in physical and psychological senses, since. To the project’s credit, they seem to have gone for a diverse range as their sample – at least, from the surface, that’s how it seems – but, the actual voiceless victims who may have had to carry the numbing burden of a losing battle are definitely not in this project. We have university students and would-be entrants to prestigious universities in the South. Some base their stories on stories they have heard – a doubly “removed” representation, so to speak – while biography and memoir feed the narratives of a few.
Well, everyone unaffected by the war and everyone who could feel strongly of its end in an a-political, a-historical, superficial way were doing something in the aftermath of 2009. So, people who believed in “write to reconcile” – its funders, participants and organizers etc – should also be given their chance. In a country where there’s a “second country” zoned off by a heavy military presence (post-LTTE), where movement and freedom is at the mercy of ballast-wielders, and where one is displaced among refugee camps under the worst of humanitarian situations, yes – a clear need for “reconciliation” is there. This is very much the case, if the civilian-military ratio in a part of the island is 11:1 and if the government is being unequivocal in their policy towards settlement and redistribution: where some skeptical were even led to believe that the government had no policy to reconcile, at all.
A close group of people who believe that “reconciliation” can be smoothened out by a project like “write to reconcile” – that adolescent art can bear fruit where the soil of political policy is as hard as rock – have either spent too much time in the above-politics zones of the Global North, or similar zones of Colombo Central. They are either very shrewd business people, ready to cut off a pound of flesh without wasting a drop of blood, or else, they are naïve and baby-like. They are either unenlightened reductionists, or blindfolded optimists. The game they play by showcasing imaginative/wishful narratives of those who imagine/construct conflict for their pastime/project need (among, as already mentioned, some who at some peripheral level has a relation to war) is – on moral grounds – bilious and disturbing.
“Write to Reconcile” is now two editions old. How many editions more can we have, before “reconciliation” is achieved? Ironically, a decade ago one considered war as a never-tiring enterprise and a livelihood as good as any. Similarly, those who thrived at war narratives are now seen prompting narratives of reconciliation and peace. Shyam Selvadurai’s introduction to the second edition of Write to Reconcile II is illuminating. Other than taking a page to tell us how a story on the moral “all killing is wrong” told by Ajahn Brahm (the fashionable trans-national spiritual preference of the upper middle class) captured his imagination, Selvadurai lays down as the project goal the following: “the goal…is to gather together talented young writers committed to peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka who, through their work are willing to explore the hatreds that have torn apart this country”. This statement is both pretentious and phony in a patronizing way. The writers Selvadurai patronizes as “talented (and) young” are later specified as being “Sri Lankans and members of the Sri Lankan diaspora….age[d] 18-29”, along with “teachers and professors of any age”. In place of their Jaffna-Colombo workshops in round 1, round 2 had workshops in Batticaloa and Kandy. Thus, with a group consisting of largely a (supposedly) “peace and reconciliation”-oriented youth whose majority is alien to the North or the silenced narratives of conflict, the workshops go on in the most convenient and predictable capital and hill capital; with Jaffna and Batticaloa as two safe/convenient locations that justifies the project.
Selvadurai’s belief in the “restorative power of literature in a society like Sri Lanka” explains a lot, and his feeling that “literature has an important part to play in healing wounds between communities and creating empathetic dialogue in post-war Sri Lanka” is equally noble. But, these are merely lines that are fashionable in a Preface to a project like this. If these sentiments were true, this anthology of narratives would not be in English. Nor will the participants be of the class and social profiles we spoke of before. Nor, would Selvadurai have to declare to us: “the one perspective, however, that eludes both anthologies is that of the LTTE”. Selvadurai repeatedly insists of this absence, even though these narratives, to go a step further, do not have among their authorship a single survivor story. Is this a reflection of the project’s own failure? Or, is it to be recognized as a symptomatic moment of how “reconciliatory” the Lankan soil, yet, is for certain segments of the society?
Selvadurai, the resident Canadian, also takes Lankans who read his “introduction” for a bunch of half wits. He writes: “I feel if we are to really understand what happened in the last thirty years and make sure it never happens again, we need to understand, even though we might not condone, the viewpoint of those who truly believed in the LTTE’s cause. We need to understand why large segments of the Tamil population still believes in them” (italics mine). This is a Mesopotamian putting his hand up to say that he just invented the wheel and claims that such narratives (perchance) are curbed today due to anti-terrorism laws; and that we should look upto the diaspora for a “borrowed voice”. Selvadurai’s activism should be to counter state terrorism and the suppression of voices, than to look for fashionable substitutes. This is a very cynical indication, however, that reconciliation at the absence of a committed political programme is just a hoax which only the naïve and the desperate can be fed with.
The italicized section above is intriguing, as Selvadurai seems to suggest that the main ideological impetus of the LTTE (as well as of other political positions) – that of a political unit that fulfills the aspirations of the Tamil culture and people – is redundant. We know that the Southern political consciousness – with the exception of the Trotskyites, maybe – has often felt the same. In fact, post-1983 governments have come in and gone out of office based on what was seen as their leniency to a “homeland concept”. But, how audacious is it for a man seeking “reconciliation” not to “reconcile” with the emotions of a community that has been shattered based on the coincidences of being born to a particular part of the island, and of being the members of a particular culture?
Write to reconcile II may house some commendable stories and compositions. This is not something I will contest, for each contributer — for whatever their personal reasons are — has made an effort to submit a story of a sort. But, we are, as a nation, far after the point of listening to stories. Stories are comforts and luxuries, where we are still groping in the blind dark for the rudiments of a reconciliation that may heartily respond to calls of plurality, amidst stark signs of state neglect.