After the Tigers1
There was an odd and quaint calmness around Barker’s home—visitors from distant parts of the world came calling, as in the normal run of things—at a time when acts of terror erupted elsewhere on the island. The idyll within was rarely disrupted by the chaos without. This is not in itself surprising: when I visited the island for the first time in 1992, a Sri Lankan diplomat told me that Colombo was “safe,” because the war was over 350 kilometers away. The calm in a beach-fronted colonial hotel is almost always deceptive.
Barker briskly analyzes the initial cause of the violence: the Sinhala-dominated Government’s decision in 1956 to make Sinhala the official language. The move effectively disenfranchised Tamils, who formed a sizeable minority in the north and the east of the island. The history is familiar to those who have followed Sri Lanka’s tragic decades, but it is also a useful reminder, a useful foreshadowing, of other ethnic conflicts, which have been less lethal but more widely known in the headlines of the West. But Barker is not a historian, and I do not advise anyone to look to this book for political or historical analysis. Barker correctly notes the sheer range of cultures surrounding her in her exotic destination, and the complicated symbiotic relationship between Sinhalas and Tamils. She also takes note of the class structures that inhere in Sri Lankan society, but she does not probe further.
At one level, South Asia has perfected the art of dividing people in stratified groups, with the organizing principle being the caste. But the British added another dimension during their two-century rule in this region. This new dimension was of class. They brought workers from distant parts of the world to do menial tasks that neither they, nor the local population would do, adding an alien layer in the society, complicating relationships between communities which sometimes turned violent.
Barker arrived in conflict-ridden Sri Lanka in the immediate aftermath of September 11, when the world was relearning about ancient hatreds which stem from religion, replacing the ideological divide that had divided the world into “East” and “West” for nearly four decades. Barker was surprised that religion had not been a factor in the Sri Lankan war, even though the Sinhala were mainly Buddhist, and the Tamils, mainly Hindu. Fair point: but why? Does the imposition of one language over another explain the violence? Suketu Mehta, the author of Maximum City, a fine book about Mumbai, has reported out of Sri Lanka and noted these curious facts: Sri Lanka has suicide bombers with Hindu names, when Hinduism is supposed to be a tolerant faith, and a Buddhist-dominated government waging a brutal war, when Buddhism’s iconic image is the tranquil Dalai Lama and his peaceful struggle for Tibet, and a Muslim population that is peaceful and has nothing to do with the conflict. These are counter-factuals which complicate the linear narratives which emerge from lazy stereotypes.