Rohini Mohan’s first book is a nonfiction account of three people living through postwar Sri Lanka. The book released October 2014 in the UK, US and India. Mohan will be doing a book tour (events here). The book is available to buy here. Read an excerpt from the book — “Soldier Girl” — at Guernica Magazine.
Too often, the stories we tell about war are masculine ones. War movies feature images of men building and using weapons, crossing enemy lines, and training for combat. Newspaper articles about war feature men negotiating treaties and, almost inevitably, breaking them. Radio shows feature male voices discussing conflict, arms races, and borders drawn and compromised.
Rarely do these stories concede that in the patriarchies in which most of us function, war, like all systems of power, is controlled by men, but experienced by us all.
Rohini Mohan’s new book The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War (Verso Books, 2014), is a different kind of war story. Based on five years of rigorous reporting, Mohan follows the lives of three Sri Lankan Tamils from the War, like all systems of power, is controlled by men, but experienced by us all.months before the destruction of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, widely considered the end of the three-decade-long ethnic conflict between Tamil militants and the Sinhalese dominated Sri Lankan state, until the fifth anniversary of what the Sri Lankan government calls the end of terrorism. Rather than focusing on politicians and generals, the book is populated with every day people, especially women and children. In fact, two of the three main characters — Mugil and Indra — are female; all are far removed from the halls of power, and face struggles specific to the intersections of their class, gender, and ethnic identities.
The book begins with the abduction of Sarva, a young Tamil man, by the Sri Lankan government on suspicions of terrorism. We follow Sarva through torture, jail, and exile, as well as new romance. Sarva’s mother, Indra, is the second main character, whose story viscerally traces the pain of attempting and, eventually, failing to protect children from the equally terrifying clutches of the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. From a step-by-step description of the mutton curry Indra prepares before going to visit her son in prison to the stolen moments when an imprisoned Sarva whispers desperate pleas into his mother’s ear to “get him out of here,” Indra’s and Sarva’s intertwined narratives provide a nuanced and compassionate portrait of motherhood in times of war.
When we first meet Mugil, the third main character, she is hiding high in the branches of a tree, watching Mugil’s is the rare story of a female combatant attempting to reintegrate into post-conflict society.Sinhalese soldiers sexually assault five new LTTE female recruits, an experience she later identifies as the moment she began to lose faith in the militant Tamil organization she had proudly served since the age of 13. Mugil’s is the rare story of a female combatant attempting to reintegrate into post-conflict society. Unlike her husband and brother, who surrender to the state, Mugil must keep her former identity secret, and teach herself how to become a mother and a housewife. Even simple acts like riding a bicycle or negotiating with clients for the snacks business she starts with her mother and sister become imbued with danger as she trades in her camouflage jeans for skirts and blouses and grows out her perpetually bobbed hair.
Some of the most powerful scenes take place in and around schools. Stories about war cannot fully be told without including the role education inadvertently plays in perpetuating violence.While in hiding, for example, Sarva only stops reading the Sinhalese papers when they describe the opening of new Tamil-medium schools in the north, but don’t acknowledge the destruction of the schools that had been there before. (Sarva’s primary school, for example, became a camp for the displaced.) Even more disturbing is Mugil’s memory of LTTE cadre visiting her school when she was only thirteen years old and, eventually, successfully recruiting her and her friends into service. The fact that Mohan did not explicitly set out to chart the influence of war on schools and children makes these examples particularly noteworthy, highlighting the fact that stories about war cannot fully be told without including the role education inadvertently plays in perpetuating violence.
The beauty of the book lies in the details Mohan chooses, each of which reminds us of the characters’ intersecting identities. The pride adolescent Mugil takes when she chops her hair into a bob, announcing that she is not a child any more, but a soldier. The text messages Sarva writes when Malar, his first love, finally sends him her photo. The way Indra throws her body over Sarva during an anti-Tamil riot in the earliest days of the conflict, praying that the then-baby will not reveal their position with an ill-timed cry. The games Mugil’s children play that, The Seasons of Trouble is a testimony to what — and who — is left out of most reportage on war.years after the end of the conflict, still involve cluster bombs and air raids.
It is these poignant descriptions that render Mohan’s book such a nuanced account of the struggle. In addition to explicitly chronicling the experiences of women and children in times of armed conflict, The Seasons of Trouble is a testimony to what — and who — is left out of most reportage on war. Most importantly, though, the book reminds us that in every conflict, no side is completely innocent or blameless. Mohan subtly reminds us that although winners may be declared, wars are always lost.
Mathangi Subramanian lives in Bangalore, India. A former public school teacher, Assistant VP at Sesame Workshop, and senior policy analyst at the New York City Council, she began writing full time after receiving a Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship in 2012. Subramanian is the author of Bullying: The Ultimate Teen Guide and the forthcoming YA novel Dear Mrs. Naidu. Her work has appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine, Quartz, Al Jazeera America, and Click!: When We Knew We Were Feminists. Find her on Twitter at @Mathangisub.