Review: Brotherless Night by VV Ganeshananthan - Hindustan Times
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Review: Brotherless Night by VV Ganeshananthan

ByRutba Iqbal
Jun 21, 2024 10:23 PM IST

Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2024, Brotherless Night is the story of a family caught between the violence of the state and of the militant Tamil Tigers during the Sri Lankan civil war

VV Ganeshananthan’s Brotherless Night, a devastating story of a family on the fringes of society caught in the middle of the Sri Lankan civil war, is a challenge to the politics of forgetting. As her family disintegrates, the protagonist, Sashi, steadfastly holds on to her dream of becoming a doctor, and her morality emerges as an alternate compass amidst the apathy brought on by the war.

Civilians being displaced from parts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts after the Sri Lankan army’s military offensive in January 2009. (Courtesy Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation)
Civilians being displaced from parts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts after the Sri Lankan army’s military offensive in January 2009. (Courtesy Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation)

VV Ganeshananthan maps the chaos of 40 years of the Sri Lankan civil war through the story of a family of four brothers and a sister. Each one of them responds differently to what’s unfolding around them. The weight of their choices is felt most intensely by Sashi as she loses her close knit family to the brutality of the state and the utopia of Tamil Eelam. The book opens in 1981 in Jaffna. The government is dominated by the Sinhala majority and the Tamils are discriminated against and persecuted under majoritarian policies. Sashi’s own brothers become targets of state-sponsored violence. Subsequently, separatist sentiments infiltrate her family.

368pp, ₹394; Penguin
368pp, ₹394; Penguin

Ganeshananthan has taken on the project of collating the voices elided by mainstream narratives. The events of the war are recounted lucidly and all the actors are established even as personal stories drive the plot. Sashi acts as an observer, recording everything around her. But she isn’t a mere receptacle. Her inner voice articulates her emotional strife. The novel is saturated with grief and loss that is, at times, performative and ostentatious. Sashi’s grief, however, is quiet and internal and heightened by feelings of helplessness. She is a young woman caught in a war fought by men, at times on women’s bodies. Even her anger and frustration collapse on each other in her quiet interiority.

Scenes of violence feature heavily in this tale. After two policemen die at a Tamil Tiger’s rally, revenge is unleashed on the population of Jaffna. Sashi recounts the rioting and rampaging by the police: “Later, one vendor my father knew swore he had stepped on the loose eye of a fish and felt it searing between his toes”. Ganeshananthan’s fiction captures the chaos, while simultaneously undertaking the insurmountable task of counting the countless. Amidst the slew of murders, the weariness and fatigue of war dominate. Nonetheless, Sashi emerges as a sane voice. She documents the violence of both, the militant LTTE and the Sri Lankan state. The fibre of family life is unraveled stitch by stitch as everyone close to Sashi is irrevocably changed by the violence.

The brutality that transpired during Black July left widespread displacement in its wake and economically incapacitated the Tamils. This premeditated violence is narrated through Sashi who is caught up in riots in Colombo: “I did not know that gangs of Sinhalese men who had gone down the streets seeking Tamil houses and businesses had voter rolls, to identify us by ethnicity”. With their businesses looted and plundered, many Tamil youth are forced to take up arms and join militant groups. India features as a major player in the conflict as Tamil youth cross over in large numbers to be trained.

When the Indian Peacekeeping Force arrived in Sri Lanka in 1987 to mediate between the Tigers and the state, their arrival was met with celebration. But the saviors are ill-equipped to deal with Sri Lanka’s complex politics. The Tamils, who expected the IPKF to save them, were deeply disillusioned. VV Ganeshananthan documents the acts of sexual violence committed by the IPKF. Their savagery is on such an unprecedented scale that civilians nickname them the “Innocent People Killing Force”. The Sri Lanka operation was a disaster and cemented India’s policy of non-involvement in military interventions overseas. The LTTE subsequently assassinated Rajiv Gandhi as revenge for the IPKF’s role in the Sri Lankan war.

As a diasporic writer, Ganeshananthan is documenting an experience that she has not lived. Sashi, in some ways, becomes her proxy within the book. She moves beyond her own experience, collating the stories of other victims. Writing becomes a means of survival and remembrance. Both Ganeshananthan and Sashi fill “the gaps between the narratives of ordinary people and the sanctioned ones belonging to the government, the Tigers and the Indians.” Built on the scaffolding of hard research, Brotherless Night is an echo against the gaps and omissions in history.

Despite the complete intrusion of the political into the personal, the novel also records the intimate and personal lives of people caught in the war. A professor named Anjali whom Sashi grows close to is based on Rajani Thiranagama, one of the authors of The Broken Palmyra, which meticulously documents war atrocities. A fictionalized version of this book appears in the novel too. Thiranagama, Anjali and Sashi understand that history as evidence is inadequate. It is not unbiased or neutral. They grapple with the impossible question: if the Tamil deaths are not counted and marked officially, how do they prove their losses? How do dead people become witnesses to their deaths? The reader is taken aback at the question: “Have you ever been haunted by propaganda?”

Author VV Ganeshananthan (Sophia Mayrhofer/Courtesy vvganeshananthan.com)
Author VV Ganeshananthan (Sophia Mayrhofer/Courtesy vvganeshananthan.com)

Within the novel, the atmosphere of surveillance and censorship throttles every relationship and female friendships emerge as the only comfort. These relationships are key to Sashi’s politicization. Brotherless Night is a true bildungsroman with the reader growing with Sashi in their understanding of a history that has been denied. Ganeshananthan’s historical fiction has created a space for all those who have been labelled as collateral damage by the state and the Tigers. The reader grieves not only for the loss of human lives but also for the loss of humanity.

In her essay, On Authenticity, Research, and Writing From the Diaspora, Ganeshananthan writes, “And rather than being a history I lived, or one I assumed, Brotherless Night has become the history I sought out, the history I chose to learn well enough to imagine.” It took her 20 years to write this novel and in this prolonged period, it seems to have absorbed several premonitions for our present and future. A cautionary tale about the fallout of majoritarian politics, it is also testament to the power of narratives. As Tamils and terrorists became interchangeable in mainstream discourse, the line between civilians and militants was also effectively blurred. It then became easy for the world to turn a blind eye as thousands of Tamil civilians were trapped with the LTTE on the narrow strip of land in Mullivaikkal. The novel ends at this very point in 2009, when an entire Tamil population was massacred as the world stood by. 15 years later, in 2024, other wars have broken out, and many are being fought digitally. But, as Ganeshananthan puts it, the question remains: Who is allowed visibility and who is not?

Rutba Iqbal is a writer based in Delhi. She writes on books, art, culture, and movies.

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