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The best books on Sri Lanka

recommended by Ahilan Kadirgamar

In one of the saddest interviews on our site, Sri Lankan activist, Ahilan Kadirgamar, talks us through the books he hopes will be a source of inspiration to the next generation.  He picks the best books on Sri Lanka and its tragic civil war.

Ahilan Kadirgamar

Ahilan Kadirgamar is a researcher and activist based in Jaffna, Sri Lanka.  A Tamil dissenter, his views are often under attack from both sides in the conflict.

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Ahilan Kadirgamar

Ahilan Kadirgamar is a researcher and activist based in Jaffna, Sri Lanka.  A Tamil dissenter, his views are often under attack from both sides in the conflict.

Save for later

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in May 2009, just as the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil Tigers, bringing the country’s 25-year civil war to an end.

So the first book you chose was written back in colonial times: The Story of Ceylon by Evelyn Frederick Charles Ludowyk. Why choose such an old book?

This is my favorite history of Sri Lanka, or Ceylon, as it was then called. It was written in the late 1950s, just at the time of the escalation of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Ludowyk grew up in Sri Lanka, he was a Shakespearian scholar, half Sri-Lankan, half British, I believe, who taught at the University of Ceylon. He taught my parents’ generation, the generation that saw Ceylon gain independence from Britain in 1948 and after he retired he returned to England and died there. But before doing so, he wrote this book.

And for me, it is like reading something written by someone from an unimaginable era. Ludowyk tells the story of Ceylon, and he is conscious where it all might be heading, and you have glimpses of where 50 years later it could all end. But what is so refreshing for me is that it is also clear from the book that it didn’t have to go in this direction. That for people of that generation, and my parents’ generation, it would have been almost impossible to imagine the militarized conflict that would subsequently erupt. And looking back, it makes me wonder what went wrong: Why couldn’t we resolve our problems politically? Why did Sri Lanka’s history become so tragic?

I read this book a number of years ago and it made an enormous impression on me. Also because it takes a very sobering look at the history, which is at the centre of many of the claims made by both sides in the conflict.

History is at the center of the conflict? In what way?

Nationalism was used to polarize the two sides, and that nationalism was partly based on history.

On one side there is the myth of Sri Lanka’s origins. This idea that the country was blessed by the Buddha. That’s a large part of the basis for Sinhala nationalism. And on the other side the Tamils claim that certain areas always belonged to them, that they have had a clear homeland since time immemorial. And what Ludowyk points out is that in reality society was very mixed, very hybrid. The nationalists used history to polarize everything, but in fact the two sides were very interlinked, even by marriage.

So your next book is written when the conflict is already well under way.

Yes, The Broken Palmyrah—the palmyrah being a palm tree and a symbol of Jaffna. So the civil war really started in July 1983. This is when we had the horrendous anti-Tamil pogroms in Colombo, with over 2000 civilians killed, and it really marks the beginning of the full scale armed conflict. It was then that lots of young Tamils start to join militant groups – including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE.

So The Broken Palmyrah was written in the late 1980s, and by then the conflict had already escalated quite a bit. It was written by four professors: Rajan Hoole, Daya Somasundaram, K. Sritharan and Rajani Thiranagama. They were the founding members of the University Teachers for Human Rights, based in Jaffna. Jaffna, by the way, is the main Tamil town – on the northern most peninsula of Sri Lanka.

“The Tamil Tigers killed her for questioning them. She was a doctor, she had set up a refuge for women called Poorani and she had a very dynamic personality.”

By this time the LTTE campaign to marginalize other militant Tamil groups was already well under way. So these four individuals–two of them were mathematicians, one was a psychiatrist and Rajani, the last one, taught medicine—felt that at least within the university, they should be able to talk openly about things, and keep space for dialogue. And in their book, they take on all the armed actors and stand up for the rights of the civilians. So they document abuses by the Sri Lankan military, the Indian Peace Keeping Forces, by LTTE, and by other Tamil militant groups. Rajani, in her chapters, also raised questions about the role of women in the conflict – she argues that they were just being used cynically as armed cadres; that contrary to their claims, the LTTE really weren’t interested in women’s liberation at all, that women were just being used as fighters.

And I talk about Rajani in particular, because she was my neighbor when I grew up in Jaffna. She was only 35, and she had two small daughters. And, in 1989, she was assassinated by the LTTE for writing this book.

She was killed for writing The Broken Palmyrah? Why?

The Tamil Tigers killed her for questioning them. She was a doctor, she had set up a refuge for women called Poorani and she had a very dynamic personality. And I think that’s partly why they felt threatened. And this year marks the 20th anniversary of Rajani’s assassination by the Tamil Tigers. And she really is a beacon for the younger generation. She was only 35 but she had already done so much by then. Her life and work is the subject of a documentary by the National Film Board of Canada called ‘No More Tears, Sister’.

And her death was really a watershed, because afterwards, dissent became much harder within the Tamil community. Her funeral is remembered as the last time there was a major protest in Jaffna. After that everything went quiet. There was no more open protest against LTTE within the Tamil community.

So, your next choice is Lost Opportunities by Kethesh Loganathan. Who was he and what is his book about?

So Kethesh was part of one of the other Tamil militant groups, the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front or EPRLF. Originally he was a militant, but he saw the brutality of the armed struggle and so he abandoned that and became a journalist and then a political activist. And he ended up spending a lot of time reflecting on the possibility of other militants brutalized by the war turning to democratic politics. He was also one of the most knowledgeable scholars on constitutional change in Sri Lanka. And what his book does is try to document all the lost opportunities to bring about a political settlement to this conflict. Because throughout the 61 years since Sri Lankan independence, there have been efforts to solve Tamil and other minority grievances politically. Issues such as language rights, devolution of power to the regions, and power sharing. Kethesh’s book is a history of the attempts to resolve such issues, though tragically, we were unable to do so. The Sinhalese didn’t have the political will to really come forward with proposals to solve these problems politically.

But Kethesh was personally involved in many of these talks—when there were attempts to come to a political solution in the eighties and early nineties. So he had inside knowledge, he really knew what was going on and what all the players were saying and doing. He really knew the history. So that’s what makes the book particularly interesting.

And he was murdered too?

Yes. I have a huge intellectual debt to Kethesh—he was my mentor. I learned much about politics and how to be a political activist from him. He was assassinated by the LTTE, on August 12, 2006.

Your next book is The Arrogance of Power—Myth, Decadence and Murder by Rajan Hoole. Don’t tell me he’s been killed as well.

No. He was a mathematics professor in Jaffna, but after the assassination of his colleague Rajani Thiranagama (with whom he wrote The Broken Palmyrah) he went underground. He severed all ties with his friends and relatives, because it was simply too dangerous . So he has spent the last 18 years in hiding, where he continues to report on human rights abuses. His human rights group really has done phenomenal work.

So what is his book about?

He has been producing report after report, volumes and volumes of them. The book is a compilation of those issues and an excellent history of human rights and the deterioration of state institutions. It’s a very thick book, going into an immense amount of detail, and stretching from the 1970s to 2000. It is also, of course, about the arrogance of power – a detailed chronicle of violations by the state as well as the LTTE, the deterioration of the judiciary, the police and so on.

Could you give some examples?

Well one example is when the LTTE shot down a civilian airline flight in 1998, killing all passengers on board. And no one wanted to accept any responsibility for it, even though so many people had died. There is detailed documentation of the army’s massacre of Tamil civilians in the east of Sri Lanka in the 1990s. But there’s also lots of stories about individuals, people who have lost family members, a woman who loses her father in the riots, and a brother to the militant movement, individuals who get caught in the middle and have nothing to thank either side for. But Rajan ties it into broader issues, issues for society as whole. It’s really the ultimate record of this brutal conflict, what has happened to our community and to our country.

What about Playing Lions and Tigers, your next choice?

So what I’ve chosen here is a novel by a feminist writer, who lives in India, called Rohini Hensman. So the lion is a symbol of Sinhala nationalism and is on the Sri Lankan flag. The tiger is of course the symbol of the rebel group LTTE. And basically it’s a novel about what happens to ordinary people in the midst of a conflict like this. It’s about the lives of activists – people like Rajani who was killed in 1989; how brutal the situation is, and how resilient people and dissenters are in the face of it.

So is it just about Tamil activists?

No, no not at all. You have to understand that in Sri Lanka there are at least four different groups. There are the Sinhalese majority, who are based in the south. Then there is the Tamil community (most of whom are Hindu), and there is also a Muslim minority. And lastly, there are the up-country Tamils. They were basically indentured labor, brought over by the British from India. And they are the most exploited, socially deprived class of all. And ironically, they work in the tea plantations, where most of the country’s wealth comes from. This novel is about activists from all these communities. The war tries to tear us all apart, but there’s always friendships and relationships between all these different ethnic groups. And I hope that going forward people will come together, that is the big hope, that that could be the future of our country.

Finally, let’s talk about Like Myth and Mother by Sumathy. What’s this about?

So this book came out in 2008. Like Ludowyk, she teaches English at what is now called Peradeniya University. She is a poet, and writes plays that have won awards. So this is a selection of poetry and prose, written over the past 2 decades. And it’s a very personal way of looking at very difficult times. And it’s very critical of all of us—the activists, the intellectuals.

Looking at not just this, but almost all the books you have chosen: you are not criticizing the Sinhala government as much as you are criticizing the Tamil community, and the LTTE in particular. Why aren’t you angrier with the government?

It’s not that I’m not angry with the Sri Lankan government, or that I’m not looking at them critically. In 1983, when I was 12, my family was exiled from Sri Lanka because of state repression. I have no illusions about the brutality of the state, about the way the conflict was dragged on by successive governments. The question is how to confront the governments. And I suppose my view is that we have to begin by looking inside our own communities, that unless we look inwards, we can’t challenge our oppressors. That’s why dissent is so important. As a teenager, I too dreamt of becoming a Tamil militant. But when Rajani was assassinated, that’s when I realized there was something deeply wrong with the political culture of militant movements. And by the way, so far I have only talked about books in English. There have been some very engaging and though-provoking books in Tamil as well. I’d like to mention one in particular: Kovinthan’s Puthiyathoru Ullagam, which means New World. It was written in one month in 1984 by militants who were on the run from their own militant group – the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam or PLOTE . It had a tremendous impact on me. I read it a year after Rajani was killed and it talked about the internal violence and torture meted upon idealistic youth by these militant groups. It was really the starting point of my serious questioning of armed militant politics.

So what was your feeling on hearing the news that government forces had killed Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran?

I felt a great sense of relief that the war is at an end, particularly these last few months, the toll on civilians has been horrific. Now the big guns are silent. The Tamil Tigers took the Tamil community on a disastrous adventure, with their extreme demands, their insistence on a separate homeland.

So what needs to be done, going forward, in your view?

The discrimination against Tamils and other minorities, the grievances they faced that preceded this brutal war, that was the reason for this whole civil war – these issues have to be addressed. The minorities have to be treated with dignity and their rights have to be protected. And, so far, it doesn’t look to me as if the government is serious about resolving the political problem. In fact, the current government has given Sinhala Buddhist nationalism center stage. But beyond that, people of all communities have to come together now. We need to look inward and figure out – what is our responsibility, to ourselves, to the other communities? After 25 years, the Tigers have been destroyed. And large sections of the Tamil population supported the Tigers. We have to ask: ‘Why?’ This is a moment for deep self-reflection. It is always easier to blame your problems on someone else.

It’s also a time for reconciliation and for that, the abductions, the killings, they have to stop. After 25 years of civil war, we can finally, I hope, move forward. Before the war, we had 25 years of nationalist mobilization and polarization. I hope the next 25 years will usher in a new era of peace.

And that’s why I chose these books. They are very political choices. I have chosen them because they speak to my sense of solidarity, and collaboration, with some of the intellectuals, writers and activists who wrote them. The Tigers decimated Tamil activists, they targeted and killed them. It will take a long time for another generation to emerge. And maybe these books will be a source of inspiration for the next generation.

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