Review of The Road from Elephant Pass

Nihal de Silva’s novel The Road From Elephant Pass follows Sri Lankan Army Captain Wasantha Ratnayake and ‘defecting’ woman LTTE cadre Kamala Velaithan on their journey from Elephant Pass to Colombo. When Ratnayake’s assignment to detain, protect, and transfer a Tiger informant turns haywire because the Tigers launch their 2000 attack on Elephant Pass, Ratnayake and Velaithan must travel on foot through the Vanni and Wilpattu National Park. As the characters combat hunger and thirst, feisty wild animals, the police and military, and a sex- and revenge-hungry band of army deserters, the reader witnesses the distrust and animosity one expects between a Sinhala army soldier and a Tamil Tiger transform into a love relationship. Furthermore, de Silva intertwines this love and adventure story with commentary on male-female relationships and the Tamil-Sinhala conflict.

Although the writing is absolutely horrendous and is permeated with poor punctuation, typos, and grammatical errors, de Silva is an undeniably talented storyteller. The action appears realistic, the descriptions are vivid, the characters are well-developed, and the story is gripping. These qualities make for a book that the reader simply cannot put down until she is finished—regardless of her ethnicity or preconceived biases.

Recognize, however, that The Road is not an unbiased narrative. The author works hard—especially in the leading chapters—to establish firm anti-LTTE credentials. However, farther into the novel de Silva apparently does his best to present reasonably objective perspectives from both sides of the conflict.

The Road is a worthwhile read, an engaging narrative with a politically educational twist.

 

The following are a couple of excerpts from The Road. These exerpts are a fictional presentation of the dilemma that is at the heart of all modern guerrilla wars:

‘Captain,’ she said quietly, ‘You must not believe your own propaganda.’

‘Our troups have strict orders not to attack civilian targets.’

‘So how do you account for the atrocities committed by your soldiers?’ she asked icily. ‘How is it they still burn down villages in reprisal attacks?’

I had to make an effort to match her tone, to stay objective about a subject that always got me angry.

‘If it happens at all now, it must be very rare,’ I said cautiously. ‘Under-trained soldiers sometimes get carried away in the heat of battle.’

‘Are you saying the authorities prohibited it but sometimes soldiers disobey orders. Is that what you mean?’

‘Yes.’

‘I am sorry to say that I can’t believe you,’ she said coldly.

Do you think I give a … about that?

‘I think you are quite mistaken,’ I said reasonably, ignoring the provocation. ‘We do have strict orders about retaliatory attacks. There is a lot of pressure on the government from the media and NGOs. But we know that at the back of all that is your propaganda machine blowing up minor incidents out of proportion and out of context. The international community gets taken in very easily. There is no one to tell the soldiers’ side of it.’

‘My uncle was killed in a reprisal attack recently,’ she said angrily. ‘What is the soldiers’ side of that?’

‘I’m sorry to hear about that,’ I said defensively. ‘I still maintain it is very rare now.’

‘And you, Captain?’ she asked, ignoring my argument. ‘Do you think even one incident should be tolerated?’

‘I have some…personal views on that’, I said. ‘They are not the views of my government.’

‘Do you mean you condone reprisal attacks on innocent villagers?

She hadn’t raised her voice but the tone had changed.

‘We are at war with an enemy who use their own people as a human shield,’ I said wearily. ‘A sniper can shoot and kill a soldier from a village hut but we are not allowed to shoot back for fear of hurting some civilian. When a claymore mine is planted near a village and the explosion kills a few soldiers, and a few others lose their limbs and eyes, we are expected to smile and say – “Oh, these are innocent villagers.” But the villagers are not so innocent. They damn well know about these things in advance. Because they do nothing, our men are mainmed and killed. They must pay a price for that.’

‘Surely you understand their fear?’ She was outraged. ‘If they inform the army, our people would punish them severely.’

Now I was beginning to get irritated. I fought to keep it under control.

‘I amazes me that the media and public, so many people, are unable, or unwilling, to see the absurdity of it. Call them what you like, your group are terrorists. When they shoot at a patrol from a village hut, they are inviting retaliation. They are the direct cause of civilians getting hurt. Our men are dying out there, they have to defend themselves.’

‘What are you trying to say?’

Was there a new steeliness in her voice? I didn’t care.

‘Again it’s just my personal opinion, but I think it is the only way to fight this thing. If a terrorist fired at me from the cover of the village, I’d fire back with maximum force. Once that policy is known, the villagers themselves are not going to take kindly to having their own ‘boys’ use them as shields. If my patrol hits a mine near a village, I’d burn the village down. Once the villagers know that there will be no mercy, they will start being more careful. They will either get their ‘boys’ to go further afield to lay their ambushes or they will sneak the info to us. It is our pity for the villager that the terrorist takes advantage of. I think it is a mistake and it puts our men at risk.’

‘Have you acturally put your theories into practice?’ She asked icily. ‘How many villages have you destroyed in your campaign?

‘I once burnt down a village after a mine took out one of my vehicles. They lost their possessions true enough, but I lost two men and another man was crippled. I was nearly cashiered for it though. Our generals are more afraid of the ICRC and the NGOs than they are of the terrorists.’

‘You really surprise me, Captain. You seem to be an educated man, yet your instincts are primitive.’ She said sanctimoniously. ‘Don’t you see it is this attitude that makes your army so hated? These are your own citizens. Have you no consideration for them?’

‘I can see you are missing a point here. I do feel sorry for these people. Most of them are truly innocent and have suffered greatly for a long time, too long. But I will not let your thugs derive a tactical advantage from any civilized instincts I may have. In the long run, I think this policy will help the villagers as well.’

‘I’m sure those who are dead and mained from your gunfire, those who have lost their homes and possessions, will be truly grateful that you have their greater good at heart.’ Sarcasm suited her.

‘Your people started this,’ I said, surprised at my own calm. ‘They are the ones who put civilians at risk. Why don’t you ask your leaders to change their tactics? Why have a double standard, civilized norms for us and any available tactic for them? If it means anything, I would probably…probably, do the same thing if the villagers were Moslems or even Sinhala.’

‘It is easy to say that, I suppose, when there is little chance you will have to act on it.’

I was getting bored with this.

‘Why don’t you give it a rest?’ I said wearily. ‘We have a long day tomorrow.’ [p. 61-3]

‘We will pass a number of water holes today. If we make good time in the morning, we can rest up at Manikepola and get to another villu, further on, for the night.’

‘They are all Tamil names,’ Velathan observed quietly. ‘Kalivillu, Manikepola.’

‘What about I?’ I asked.

I knew where this was going. The Tamils claimed about one third of the land are of the country as their ‘traditional homeland.’ Some of the evidence they used to justify their claims, and to demarcate boundaries of the so-called homeland were, to my mind, dubious to the point of absurdity.

That was why we were at war.

She said: ‘So maybe all this land was occupied by Tamil-speaking people in ancient times.’

I’d heard this kind of argument before and it always made me angry. How could anyone say, ‘my people were here a thousand years ago, so this land belongs to us.’ Someone else would have been there earlier anyway. Even if one race or tribe lived there in ancient times, what of it? They moved and someone else lived there later. Those who made these claims often had ‘evidence,’ based on selective research, to support their position. But I always came out poorly in these arguments, especially in my undergraduate days, because I didn’t know my facts well enough and because I got angry as a result of that.

When I began to get the worst of it I would rely on some facetious remark to divert the discussion or else offer to puch my opponent’s face in. But that didn’t mean my position was wrong, just that I was not familiar with the facts.

I stopped walking and turned to face her.

‘There may be a Tamil word to describe the moon,’ I said with unnecessary heat. ‘It will take more than a name to claim title to it.’

‘That’s a frivolous argument.’

‘You should expect that when you make a stupid statement,’ I snarled, starting to lose control. ‘This country belongs to all its people. We are not giving the Tamils any part of it for an exclusive homeland.’

‘You don’t have to give us anything, Captain,’ she said calmly. ‘The Tamils will take what is theirs.’

‘No, they won’t,’ I growled hoarsely, getting carried away now. ‘We’ll kill them all first.’

‘That’s common knowledge,’ she replied nastily. ‘You have been killing Tamils for years now. You killed my father.’

‘Piss off,’ I roared. ‘You Tamils try to steal our land and then complain when things get rough.’

Her eyes blazed with fury. I thought for a moment she would attack me. She controlled herself with a conscious effort and looked away, then walked off, leaving me to follow. [p. 121-2]

 

(The Road From Elephant Pass won the 2003 Gratiaen Prize for creative writing in English “for its moving story, for its constant feel of real life, for its consistency of narrative momentum, for its descriptive power, for its dramatic use of dialogue to define social context, capture character psychology, and trace the development of a relationship, for its convincing demonstration that resolution of conflict and reconciliation of differences are feasible through mutual experience and regard, and last though not least, for its eminently civilized handling of the last degree of intimacy between a man and a woman.”)

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Posted August 25, 2004