Sri Lanka's A-9 highway connects Kandy in the south, site of the holiest Buddhist shrine of the country, with Jaffna, the main urban centre of the north. The A-9 serves as a template for Padma Rao Sundarji in her important attempt to explain what is happening in Sri Lanka with the end of its bloody 30 year long civil war.
For three decades, the highway, connecting the Sinhala south and the Tamil north, was an elongated battlefield. Its traffic was "battle tanks and armoured vehicles" and the palm trees that lined it were headless, "their tops lopped off by whistling artillery." The people who lived along it were refugees or prisoners, their homes abandoned and wrecked, their lives a grim battle for survival in a war which at times had as many as three conflicting parties. Places like Batticaloa, Mullaithivu, Trincomalee and Jaffna, once names associated with beaches and serendipity, became some of the goriest battlefields in recent history.
Now the A-9 is "smooth, gleaming" with signs of economic activity and tourism all along its route. Sundarji travels along this highway, contrasting what she saw in 2002 with what she experiences eleven years later, and building a tale of a nation healing itself and a war whose reality is still being understood.
Much of this composite experience of postwar Sri Lanka is told through a curious cast of interesting characters that the author meets, each of them with a civil war tale to tell. She speaks to the former President and man who defeated the LTTE, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as well as the head of the postwar Tamil political parties. There is also K Pathmanathan, the LTTE's former gun-runner, who, by 2008, was desperately trying to explain to the Tiger supremo, Prabhakaran, that after 9/11 there was no tolerance in the international system for a terrorist army and that this was the time to give up arms. He now spends his time helping hundreds of war orphans. And Daya Master, well-known to many because of his years as the Tigers' spokesperson, and now a fervent defender of the Colombo regime.
Sri Lanka: The New Country by Padma Rao Sundarji, HarperCollins (Rs 499; PP 322)
There are a number of senior Lankan military officers, describing the tactics they used to defeat what was once the world's most feared insurgency army, and how their present challenge is the relief and rehabilitation of the Tamil areas under their command. Some of the characters border on the eccentric: Ravi Kumar, the Jaffna Tamil who became a fervent advocate of Buddhism to the discomfort of his fellow ethnics and Sinhalese alike, or His Royal Highness Raja Remigius, the last lost descendant of the Aryacacravarti dynasty that rule Jaffna in the 15th century.
Most effective, though, are the views of the ordinary Tamils, including ex-LTTE members, whom the author meets in north and east Lanka. Through them one gets a sense of how brutal and repressive the Tigers had become, especially in the last decade of the war. So much of this violence was targeted against their fellow Tamilians that one of the most difficult postwar tasks is overcoming the social boycott of ex-LTTE cadre by Tamils today.
"They had groups that would go out and scour for candidates. They would wait outside schools for classes to finish. They did this especially during the final examinations and on the day the results were announced. Students who had failed the exam would be forced to join the LTTE," says one Tamil aid worker. Families that resisted were shot.
The reporting is shot through with the strong opinions of the author. Thus she expresses her disapproval of the imposition of the 13th amendment of the Constitution which provides for devolution of power to the Tamil provincial government - something India negotiated into the island's peace agreements.
There is strong criticism of the Tamil diaspora for sustaining the LTTE and Tamil separatism long past their expiry dates. "Interestingly, not a single Tamil I spoke to within Sri Lanka over the postwar years has ever said he or she wanted a Tamil Eelam." This demand, she says, emanates entirely from the Tamil diaspora. The author only has to quote locals she meets to portray the role of the Tamil parties in India as particularly expedient and cynical. As one Lankan Tamil journalist said of the DMK and their ilk: "Curry leaf politics, we call them here! Like the curry leaf, they throw us into the recipe when it suits them, and pick us out again when they don't need us."
There is even a few pages dedicated to trying to find any record of the author's grandfather's years in the Tamil north, when he helped set up a chemical factory in north Sri Lanka in the 1950s. This is ultimately, however, about the catharsis of a nation that underwent a remarkable bloodbath and is somehow coming out of it in better shape than perhaps anyone could have expected.
As Daya Master noted, "There were 30 years of war here. Both sides committed crimes. But the past is past. It has been four years since the war ended.
Of what use is a post-mortem, over and over again?"