The present world in which I am writing this review is vastly different to the one in which I began reading Vanni: A Family’s Struggle Through the Sri Lankan Conflict – a graphic novel focused on the final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war and its devastating human cost.
I first opened this book many moons ago on a packed train to work in Colombo from the outskirts of the city. Within days, the government declared an all-island curfew. Fear of death gripped me as the number of local cases of COVID-19 mounted. I abandoned my sister, who is a doctor, and sought the relative safety of my aunt’s house to reduce my probability of contracting the virus. In my paranoia, I even contemplated stocking up on oxygen cylinders in the event that I became severely ill. I did not get around to writing the review for three months because (I felt) I was not in the right mental space to undertake the task.
The Ramachandrans and the Chologars – the two families from whom the main characters of Vanni are drawn – could not, unfortunately, make such calculations when the war uprooted them from their world of relative peace and contentment.
By May 2009, between 300,000-400,000 Tamil civilians in the Vanni – a resource-abundant, forest-covered and thinly populated region in the northern reaches of Sri Lanka – had already spent the better part of the preceding two years under lockdown. They did not have multiple safe locations to choose from as the fighting between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) escalated. As the battle drew to a close, the Sri Lankan government declared ‘No Fire Zones’ – purportedly for sheltering civilians – but then rained artillery fire on these locations. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recorded widespread damage to civilian infrastructure and loss of civilian lives in an extensive report on alleged human-rights violations during the last stages of the war. The Sri Lankan military, however, insists till today that it only targeted rebel guns inside the No Fire Zones.
I first opened this book many moons ago on a packed train to work in Colombo from the outskirts of the city. Within days, the government declared an all-island curfew.
Unlike many who stocked up on rice and daal in preparation for the COVID-19 lockdown, civilians trapped inside the war zone could not. Many had lost their jobs and livelihoods and were dependent on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for food. They were cut off from the rest of the country. Their hospitals were overwhelmed and healthcare workers were ill-equipped to deal with the unfolding catastrophe. Those on the frontlines, short on training and gear, were fighting a losing battle.
Social distancing, too, was impossible. In the months preceding May 2009, thousands of families were restricted to temporary tarpaulin shelters built on a narrow strip of beach on the coast of Mullaitivu District in the Vanni – bordered by the Nandikadal Lagoon to the west and the Indian Ocean to the east. Famine was rampant. Choon paan (mobile bakeries) and elavalu (vegetable) trucks did not honk at the gate thrice a week. Uber Eats did not deliver select restaurant food: often, the only meal was rice cooked in ocean salt. The national postal service did not deliver medicine. Their shelters were not electrified, nor did Sri Lanka Telecom provide a weekly internet data bonus. Soap and shampoo were super luxury commodities: people traded motorbikes for a bar of Lifebuoy. They waited for days on end to wash themselves for lack of water. In any case, sanitising was not going to save them from death; a death that was always a near and immediate possibility. There was no time for a dignified burial or cremation. Often, the dead were found ‘cremated.’ And the Tamils of Vanni are still counting their dead.
An act of abandonment
When we first encounter Antoni Ramachandran (a protagonist in Vanni) in 2014, he is a taxi driver in London on his last trip for the day. His passengers, upon learning he is from Sri Lanka, retell their recent holiday there and ask Antoni if he visits the country often. At this point, we depart with Antoni as he reflects back on his earlier, now alien life all those years ago in the Vanni.
From this point on, Vanni follows the lives of two neighbouring families – the Ramachandrans and the Chologars – in the coastal village of Chempianpattu in the Vanni region. The families struggle through one calamity after the other – from the tsunami of 2004 to the climax of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009. It is through the stories of these two families that Benjamin Dix – a former United Nations (UN) worker in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province – and Lindsay Pollock – an artist and illustrator – distill the tragic experience of a people in their first joint production.
Choon paan (mobile bakeries) and elavalu (vegetable) trucks did not honk at the gate thrice a week. Uber Eats did not deliver select restaurant food: often, the only meal was rice cooked in ocean salt.
Dix, a British national, was on the last UN convoy out of Kilinochchi in September 2008 after the Sri Lankan government declared that it could no longer guarantee the safety of aid workers inside the war zone. In the ending note to the book, Dix admits to feeling traumatised by the UN’s act of abandonment, and being overcome with deep shame and guilt for his own role in the process. In the months that followed his exit, some of his local colleagues and friends died in the fighting. After the end of the war, Dix became a prominent international voice calling for accountability and justice in Sri Lanka. He features in Callum Macrae’s documentary, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, which is focused on the excesses of the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE in the final stages of the war, as well as in Frances Harrison’s collection of survivor stories Still Counting the Dead. His is a powerful testimony on the UN’s colossal failure in preventing civilian casualties.
Thus, Dix writes as an outsider who has established a degree of trust with the Tamil community through his past advocacy work. The book attempts to narrate the story of a severely underreported war to an oblivious Western audience in an accessible format. The literary space that Vanni attempts to occupy – English-language fiction focused on the end of the Sri Lankan civil war – is still in its infancy, with the only notable book capturing this time period being Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage. I say attempts to because even though Dix and Pollock describe their work as a ‘non-fiction-fiction’ graphic novel, it is more accurately a graphic history. Vanni is closer in form and content to Harrison’s Still Counting the Dead than it is to Arudpragasam’s novel – not just because Dix, Pollock, and Harrison are all British.
While ideally victims should tell their own story, there is nothing intrinsically objectionable in outsiders engaging with the troubled histories of a people so long as they do so truthfully. This is particularly true for histories that are intentionally obliterated by powerful forces. In Sri Lanka, the state continues to push back strongly against Tamils who grapple with war stories from the Vanni that do not neatly fit its official account. There is also the deeper question of what makes one local to an episode of suffering. I am an ethnic Tamil who lived in the Vanni throughout my childhood. Does this make me a victim of the Sri Lankan civil war? Yes, in certain unavoidable ways. But the truth is also that my hometown – Mannar, an island off Sri Lanka’s northwestern coast – was always under the Sri Lankan government’s control after my birth. As such my direct exposure to armed fighting is limited to hearing distant shelling and not so distant grenade blasts; I watched the war’s end unfold on high-speed internet while on a three-month trip to Tamil Nadu.
Thus, I engage with the present literature as strictly an outsider to the harrowing end to Sri Lanka’s civil war.
Vanni effectively captures how war violently destroys human lives. We first meet Nelani Cholagar as a caring if anxious mother, leading a quiet and happy life with her entire family – husband and four children – intact. Towards the end of the book, we find a broken and destitute Nelani in the No Fire Zone in the final days of the war. She is tired and desperate to feed her youngest son – the last remnant of her once large family. Her geographic location is no longer the unspoiled Chempianpattu coast but the parched shores of Nandikadal Lagoon, strewn with dismembered limbs and dead bodies. And for Nelani life would only get worse from here.
The main characters navigate an emotional landscape riddled with searing personal loss and bereavement. The tsunami devastates their houses. As they are displaced from one location to another, they build shelters that they are forced to vacate in weeks if not days. Death parts couples and children abandon parents. As I read the book, I wondered if experiencing tragedies at such high frequency fundamentally reorients one’s being. What does grief look like to someone who has lost all of her family to a single explosion? How do you live when the sound of death greets your mornings and the cries of mourning fill your nights? What do you do when a loved one goes missing, never to be found again: do you assume her dead or do you live in the hope that you will find her again? Is accepting a confounding certainty simpler than holding on to an improbable hope? How does one communicate when language is no longer adequate to convey the horrors of your reality?
Dix and Pollock convey a remarkable deal of complexity in their characters. There appears, on the part of the writers, a genuine and concerted effort to stay true to the witness testimonies from which the story arcs of the primary characters are distilled. This commitment to truth, naturally and subtly – in ways perhaps originally unintended – subverts popular, mythical imaginations about the people of Vanni and the circumstances in which they found themselves.
There is also the deeper question of what makes one local to an episode of suffering.
A clichéd Tamil nationalist portrayal of Chempianpattu under the LTTE, for instance, may have romanticised it as nothing less (or more) than an idyllic, coastal village and depicted its people as completely blissful. But in the book, while Pollock’s paintings do present vistas of vast and pristine beaches, tall palmyra trees, and quiet sunrises, we also find jarring preexisting realities. On the morning after Maveerar Naal – the designated day for commemorating and mourning dead LTTE soldiers in the rebel calendar – we find the Ramachandrans and the Cholagars gathered outside the latter’s house. The eldest son from the Cholagar family is about to rejoin his LTTE battalion. Even as the elders bid their farewells, the youngest three kids from the two families – all possibly under five years of age – engage each other in a shooting game. Nelani’s youngest son Bala, wearing his elder brother’s Tiger cap, points a stick at Antoni’s son Michael’s chest. “BANG BANG,” Michael and his sister Theepa fire back. This shooting game spans several illustration blocks and signifies how violence had become entrenched and normalised in the Tamil community.
On the other hand, for the majority of Sinhalese, even today, it is impossible to imagine the Tamil people – particularly those from the Vanni region – as anything besides gung-ho supporters of the LTTE and its war efforts, willing to strap on a suicide vest at a moment’s notice. Dix and Pollock, by contrast, describe a reality that directly contradicts such an imagination. Nelani’s reaction to her children joining the LTTE is characterised by a deep sense of anguish. Similarly, we find Antoni and his wife Rajini repeatedly hiding their children away from the LTTE’s recruitment patrols. Even those who are part of the LTTE do not exhibit unbridled, unquestioning enthusiasm. In the aftermath of the tsunami, we find Ranjan – Antoni’s brother and long-time LTTE soldier – passionately dissuading Segar (Nelani’s second son) from joining the rebel movement. “Nelani needs your help. Your Appa isn’t here to look after things. Right now, they need you more than the Tigers do”. Similarly, when a fellow member of the LTTE medical corps questions, “Isn’t that what we are doing? Keeping (our families) safe?” Priya (Antoni’s sister-in-law who gets forcibly recruited into the LTTE) responds, “I hope so.”
Many Sinhalese also reject the UN’s estimate that as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians died from the Sri Lankan military’s final push for victory (the Sri Lankan government’s own assessments place the death toll at 9,000 while human-rights groups and independent researchers assert a figure larger than the UN’s). To them, Sri Lanka’s armed forces – almost entirely made up of ethnic Sinhalese – can do no wrong. There is ongoing unwillingness to engage in truthful conversation concerning the Sri Lankan military’s repeated shelling of civilian targets and the sexual abuse, torture, and unlawful killing that its members allegedly committed against Tamil prisoners of war. Dix and Pollock do not shy away from highlighting such horrors.
In the penultimate chapter of the book, inside the government-demarcated No Fire Zone, Antoni picks a spot in close proximity to a makeshift hospital to build his family’s temporary shelter. He deems it a safer location from the ever-intensifying fighting. The Sri Lanka Army launches a midnight offensive with the object of infiltrating the No Fire Zone and splitting it in two. The makeshift hospital is razed to the ground in the shelling along with the adjacent shelters. Antoni’s family escapes the carnage but not without loss.
Antoni’s sister-in-law Priya is, almost certainly, a reference to the LTTE’s popular female newsreader Isaipriya. The fictional character’s final act makes this clear. A group of Sri Lankan Army officers separate Priya and her friend Kavitha from the crowd as they attempt to blend in and cross the Nandikadal Lagoon, out of the war zone. What transpires closely follows victim testimonies pointing to a disturbing culture of sexual violence instituted against LTTE cadres and suspects in the aftermath of the war. While we do not encounter Priya soon after this juncture in the book, we do know what happened to Isaipriya through the series of photographs Callum Macrae’s investigative documentary surfaced concerning the fate of the Tamil prisoners of war under Sri Lanka Army custody.
Through all of this, Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock keep the focus squarely on the human cost of war and violence. For instance, the authors spare hardly any attention to cover politics in the Sinhalese south – except for a single block of illustration announcing Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidential election victory of November 2005. The book does not get into the details of the origin of the conflict nor does it moralise or theorise about which side committed the greater crimes. There are no obvious heroes, only victims. In spite of the limitations the graphic-novel format imposes and the relatively short length of the book, the writers have retold the Vanni experience truthfully and with great empathy for its subjects.
Pollock’s beautiful illustrations (in the early chapters, I must add, as ‘beautiful’ is perhaps not the adjective one wishes to use in relation to the latter ones) – albeit in black and white – accurately capture the essence of a Tamil fishing community’s life and the coastal landscape. One must credit the London-based illustrator for his attention to detail. For instance, the casual attire worn by the older Tamil women in the book – and the designs depicted on the faded dresses – were altogether familiar. His capture of human emotion, particularly of loss and longing, is moving. Two full-pages (p. 126 and p. 127) show Antoni combing through dust, rubble, and strewn bodies for his mother. His only words are ‘aiyo’ and ‘amma’, and his expressions accurately convey the truth he understands even before he locates the body: that his mother is dead.
The main characters navigate an emotional landscape riddled with searing personal loss and bereavement.
The layout of the book works well in places. The use of differently-sized illustration blocks adds variety to the pages and a certain depth to the narrative by invoking ingrained memories from the time. For example, the full-page capture of the Manik Farm camp for the displaced in the immediate aftermath of the war’s end is possibly based on a very familiar Agence France-Presse photo. In other sections of the book, however, uniformly sized blocks may have helped the reader follow the flow of the narrative more intuitively. On a minor note, on occasions, I was not able to immediately distinguish between characters from the sketches. A case in point are Antoni’s brother Ranjan and Nelani’s son Segar. Even though we glean from the text that between the two there is a significant age gap, they look very similar in the latter chapters of the book.
Eleven years on
Mindless injustice repeatedly strikes the same people with unforgivable vengeance. Eleven years on, the lives of the Vanni Tamils remain in tatters. Gotabaya Rajapaksa – Sri Lanka’s defence secretary who oversaw the bloody denouement to the country’s three-decades-long civil war – secured an overwhelming victory in the 2019 presidential election. This outcome has all but extinguished fickle hopes for justice and accountability that Antoni, Nelani, and others like them may have harboured for wartime violations the Sri Lankan armed forces committed against them and their children. The Tamil Vanni region is amongst the poorest in Sri Lanka. Despite the passage of time, the Sri Lankan security apparatus still heavily surveils the people of this land. Vanni’s students, crippled by a persistent absence of resources, often underperform in national-level standardised exams, reflecting poor educational outcomes. Vanni’s women are particularly vulnerable to domestic violence and sexual abuse. In the past decade, cyclic drought and flooding has devastated farmers’ livelihoods in the region. More recently, the supply chain breakdown due to the COVID-19 crisis has severely reduced the daily earnings of Vanni’s fishermen who are already heavily indebted to local loan sharks.
This commitment to truth, naturally and subtly – in ways perhaps originally unintended – subverts popular, mythical imaginations about the people of Vanni and the circumstances in which they found themselves.
Like Antoni Ramachandran, my university batchmate Aravind (name changed to preserve privacy) and his family are fisher folk from the Vanni. The tsunami crippled his father’s business. As the war drew to a close, severely short on manpower, the LTTE recruited him to its ranks while he was still a school student – similar to Antoni’s sister-in-law Priya. Many of whom he fought alongside died but he, miraculously, made it out alive. After several months in a Sri Lankan government rehabilitation centre for ex-cadres, he sat for the Advanced Level examinations and qualified to study engineering. We were in engineering school together for four years, starting in 2013. A few months after his graduation, in July 2018, he met with an accident when returning home from Colombo; he was travelling back after confirming his first job appointment as a civil engineer in the state sector. He is now paralysed from below the hip and confined to a wheelchair. How similar is his story to that of Nelani Cholagar’s youngest son Bala who survives heavy artillery fire, aerial bombing, land mines, and machine gun bullets only to die from hunger induced poison intake days before the war’s end?
Aravind serves as a compelling personal reminder that we are not in this together. We speak of a shared humanity even as we are far removed from the experience and suffering of millions of people. We live in an appalling culture that personalises achievements and universalises suffering. We never attribute our wins to structural factors. Yet we shamelessly partake in Oppression Olympics: that intense competition whereby we contest for pieces of others’ personal tragedies and claim them for ourselves merely because we share their ethnic, social, or cultural identity. Victories are mine and mine alone. As are your tragedies.
We seek comfort in lies and numb our consciences with delusional notions of unity and equality: in the standard ‘we are one’ or its more recent ‘the virus does not discriminate’ variant. We pretend to know that which we do not, and fake empathy for those that we do not care for. We ignore, all the while, the simple and agonising truth: the only honest response to the sheer unfairness of the world we inhabit is crying out helplessly, hopelessly, and in pain: ‘for how much longer?’