Reviewed by Charles Sarvan
Dundurn Publishers, Toronto, 2019
Exile, whether temporary or permanent; voluntary or enforced, is as old as human history. ‘Sadness of Geography’ (more memoir than autobiography) begins with what may be seen as the end of a journey: the memoirist arriving in Montreal and declaring that he’s a Tamil in need of refuge from what once had been his home. Then in a ‘flashback’, we are at the beginning of what led to his odyssey.
It’s 1983, Northern Sri Lanka and the (Sinhalese) army is raiding (Tamil) homes. The terror of helpless civilians fallen upon by a marauding, a racist and ruthless, army is vividly re-created. The attack and the resulting cries of fear and distress spread from house to house, like “toppling dominoes” (p. 15). The present writer, though now an octogenarian, going back in memory to what was then ‘Ceylon’ recalls similar experiences, though to a much lesser degree: such experiences are carved into the core of one’s psyche. Tharmathurai is honest in his narration, including even “shameful” but honest detail such as the teenager involuntarily wetting himself through fear. There rise the terrified cries of women and girls (p. 16): fear has become almost tactile, palpable. To quote words from a South African poem violence “like a bug-infested rag” is tossed and fear, at once both unformulated and awful, spreads everywhere. The thumping sounds of the helicopter swooping low are like fists punching the body. In an effective use of compression, Tharmathurai writes of “the dread-filled silence” (p. 19) that follows, to be broken by lamentation: Oh my mother! Why did god allow my child to be taken? When will I see my child again? But the days of the epics when the gods dramatically intervened to save the innocent and punish the wicked, are long gone. Now the sky turns away indifferently, If not with distant distaste. The wailing changes to sobs, long and drawn out like a mournful wind. There’s no justice – not in this world. These pages (11 – 23) represent writing of a high, creative order unmatched by the pages following. Punning on the word “civil”, Tharmathurai wryly notes there was nothing civil in that ‘civil war’ marked by rape and murder, pillage and destruction, bullying and humiliation. The teenager though terrified still notes and responds to nature: it’s a beautiful morning, with the blue sky arcing above the green rice fields (p. 16). The sky was “serene” (p. 21). Perhaps, it’s this contrast between the beauty and harmony of nature, and the violence and ugliness of human action that leads to the memoir’s title. But more on the book’s title later.
A current phenomenon is that of mass migration. President Donald Trump at the head of his “base” tries to close the gates of the USA, while boatloads land daily in Europe. Not coincidentally, liberal-democracy which had held sway from the end of the Second World War is now seemingly on the wane while the star of right-wing populism is in the ascendant in several parts of the world. The influx of thousands of refugees triggers deep-seated insecurity, fear and resentment. Maya Angelou in ‘All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes’ writes of the ache for home, a safe place where we can go as we are, but British-Somali Warsan Shire in a poem titled ‘Home’ writes that no one puts children in a boat unless the land has become even more dangerous than the ocean. With refugees, it’s a case of others seeing only the wood and not the individual trees. We usually are shown refugees in a mass or group, but what ‘Sadness’ does is to particularise by individuation. And it’s not only Tamils but refugees all over the word who are faceless and voiceless, looked at askance, with rejection if not with hostility. The memoir helps to keep in mind that any heap of humanity consists of separate, unique individuals, each with her or his story to tell; with her or his hopes, wishes and longings for the future. Statistics can blur, even hide, the humanity which on which their cold numbers and factual figures; their percentages and graphs are based.
The present memoirist, losing hope both in Sinhalese justice and in the Tamil armed struggle, decides to seek refuge abroad. “This country belongs to the Sinhalese” (p. 59) says a leading Buddhist monk. (And even some Sinhalese settled abroad who ask for inclusion and equality of their hosts, reject them for Tamils back on the Island.) In an act of vandalism comparable with the Nazis burning books, the Jaffna Library housing thousands of irreplaceable books and manuscripts on ola leaf, is burnt down. Whether one interprets it as irony or as defiance, only the statue of Saraswathi, goddess of learning and knowledge, is left standing (p. 77). It was an act of cultural genocide. And if culture, the way of life of a people, is destroyed, then their distinctive identity is made parlous. “Hatred is a hard enemy to defeat” (p. 81) and the memoirist asks himself a question which other Tamils too have pondered: What did we do to excite such intense and vicious hatred? (The Jews of Continental Europe under Nazi rule also asked similar, perplexed and soul-searching questions.) I have attempted a partial answer in the essay ‘Reign of Anomy’, included in my ‘Public Writings on Sri Lanka’, Volume 2.
Perhaps, the subtitle, ‘My Life as a Tamil Exile’ is not quite accurate because this memoir is more an account of the causes that impelled departure, and the journey to or into exile, rather than of existence in exile. It’s a hazardous and uncertain journey; a desperate leap into the unknown where fate (or chance, to those who reject divine ordering) plays a significant part. The start is not propitious as teenage Tharmathurai comes from Jaffna to Colombo only to realize he’s been financially cheated by his Tamil contact. But he’s helped by another Tamil, an unknown young woman. From Germany, he’s smuggled to Paris; lives with his elder brother for a while but then, attempting to fly out to Canada on a false passport, is arrested and imprisoned. Eventually reaching Canada; working hard and saving money, he’s able to bring his mother and siblings to join him.
I borrow words from an essay of mine on exile: The German word elend which translates as “misery” has the same root as “alien”, thus associating exile, foreignness and deep unhappiness. It suggests that to be an alien is to be in misery, as in the poem by Ovid (born BCE 43) titled Sorrows of an Exile. Icebergs vary but, as a generalisation, it is said that only about 1/8th of an iceberg is above the water-line, shining clear and beautiful. In the same way, there is a tendency to associate exile with the visible few above the surface, particularly with writers and artists; to a lesser degree, with intellectuals and academics, and with those who are “doing well”. (Unfortunately, given worldly values the statement that someone is “doing well” usually means that she or he enjoys a good financial income. As Oscar Wilde commented, we tend to know price but not value. Indeed, we equate price and value.) The duty and the difficulty is to see those who are unseen, to hear the unheard and to be aware of those who, having lost their home haven’t found another, and now are lost. Using language both literally and figuratively, one can say that many a refugee has walked and walked and walked, but never arrived.
To conclude, the epigraph of ‘Sadness’, “Do you understand the sadness of geography”, is from Sri Lankan-born Michael Ondaatje’s novel, ‘The English Patient’. It also functions as the title of this book. Yes, undoubtedly Planet Earth is beautiful. Time (though we use expressions like “those were cruel times”) is neutral – and so too is landscape. The phrase, ‘The Sadness of Geography’ is an instance of the use of the ‘pathetic fallacy’: the attribution of human emotions to things in nature; even to nature itself. (The word “pathetic” stands for “emotion”.) But it’s neither landscape nor time but we who create happiness or horror. As in Existential philosophy, the responsibility is with us, human beings. Sri Lanka has its share of beauty (not that of human endeavour and achievement but of nature) but is aptly seen as a “tear drop” in the ocean.
Retired after having taught in London, Nigeria, Zambia, the Middle East and Germany, Sarvan now lives in Germany with his German-born wife, a published poet.