Smriti Daniel

Damian O’Brien, Shanmukam Thankamuththu, Ananda Chandrasiri: Demining Sri Lanka

In Aid Workers, Al Jazeera on January 22, 2016 at 7:13 am

Muhamalai, Sri Lanka – Not so long ago Shanmukam Thankamuththu had 25 goats; now she has only five.

The other 20 have been sold, each animal bringing in 9,000 rupees, or around $60, depending on its size. “I sold one and used the money to build this wall. I sold another to dig the well,” she says, explaining how her goats paid for her house.

This sturdy but cramped single-room structure is occupied by the 56-year-old, her husband and the two youngest of their seven children, along with two dogs and a ginger kitten. Thankamuththu is one of hundreds of thousands of people internally displaced – many more than once – over the course of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war.

Humble though their new residence might be, this time she is hoping that she will never have to leave.

Repeated losses have made a pragmatic woman out of her, but the thought of her first home of 17 years, close by but currently inaccessible, still fills Thankamuththu with emotion. “If I talk about it I will cry,” she says.

Her eyes fill as she remembers that first displacement back in 2000 – after three days of shelling had rendered their bunker ineffective, they finally fled on foot. They locked everything they could not carry in a room, but had to leave a water pump that had cost them $500 unprotected, and a fine chilli garden, whose remembered largesse is still a source of pride.

When Thankamuththu returned a week later, it was to find that the area was an active war zone. When she returned six years later, it was Sri Lanka’s largest minefield.


Sprawling over 12 square kilometres, the minefield at Muhamalai in the northern district of Kilinochchi is unique, even in an area on intimate terms with mines.

The prosperous village, once associated primarily with coconut plantations, was ravaged by violent confrontations between the insurgent group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan Army (SLA). The Tamil Tigers, as the LTTE were also known, wanted to establish a homeland for the minority Hindu Tamil population, in a country where the majority are Sinhalese Buddhists.

In the years that followed the Tamil Tigers would be designated a terrorist organisation – notorious for pioneering suicide bombings, assassinating dozens of prominent leaders, both Tamil and Sinhalese, recruiting child soldiers and – crucial to Muhamalai’s eventual fate – producing their own range of mines.

“From what I have seen here, the LTTE were among the most resourceful and disciplined rebel army that the modern world has seen. They had their own aircraft, they were building submarines. They had munitions factories and they waged a civil war for decades,” says Damian O’Brien, a programme manager for the international demining agency, the HALO Trust.

Particularly between 2000 and 2009, when the SLA finally defeated the LTTE, Nagar Kovil and Muhamalai would witness some of the most intense fighting of a long war.

The two sides laid out heavily fortified forward defence lines here. The minefields took the shape of a broad swath in Muhamalai, which narrowed as it crossed the neck of the Jaffna isthmus and then continued into the sandy soils of the former fishing village of Nagar Kovil.

The mine lines finally stopped at the Indian Ocean on the island’s east coast.

In Muhamalai and Nagar Kovil mines are present in great density across diverse terrain: hidden in scrub jungle, wedged amid rocky boulders, wallowing in sandy beaches and submerged in shallow waters.

An LTTE Rangan mine with detonator unscrewed. An intact Rangan can be safely removed from the ground if it is not linked to other devices [Devaka Seneviratne/Halo Trust Archives/Al Jazeera]

Other explosives

There are also plenty of other forms of explosives, ammunition and unexploded ordinance (UXOs) littering this earth.

Rajudurai Sritharan, a senior survey officer with HALO, says that he still gets as many as 10 calls a day asking for help with such finds.

“They tell me when there is a suspect item,” he says. In fact, he already had one this morning from a school close to the border of Muhamalai.

The DASH de-mining agency’s estimates, based on data from the National Mine Action Centre, place the total number of mines in the country somewhere between 1.3 million and 1.5 million, of which more than 600,000 mines have reportedly been recovered.

According to the Landmine and Cluster Munitions monitor, described as the “bible for de-mining efforts”, the number of landmine casualties by the end of 2013 was some22,150, which included civilians, SLA soldiers and ex-LTTE combatants.

According to the latest figures from UNICEF, another 22 lives were claimed by mines in 2013, with 45 percent of all casualties that year occurring in Kilinochchi. In 2014, 16 people were killed, but by 2015 that number had dropped to six.

Years after the end of the war, this plethora of abandoned weaponry still renders lethal long stretches of land where people once lived and worked.

Take the case of the A9, a critical road that connects Kandy in the Central Province with Jaffna in the north, and cuts through Muhamalai. The road and an adjoining train line were reopened in late 2013 after the HALO Trust cleared a 300-metre-wide strip on either side of the road. In this stretch that represented only five percent of the field, they found 8,000 mines.

Each pin on the map marks the location of a minefield [Devaka Seneviratne/Halo Trust Archives/Al Jazeera]

Delvon Assistance for Social Harmony

Retired Brigadier Ananda Chandrasiri was closing in on 60 when he co-founded and began running Sri Lanka’s only national humanitarian de-mining organisation, the Delvon Assistance for Social Harmony, better known by the rather jaunty acronym of DASH.

A little less than a decade later, the end of Chandrasiri’s mission feels like it is in sight. He has seen his fair share of fighting over 36 years, including as a colonel attached to infantry brigades in Kilinochchi and Mannar and at the head of an army engineering brigade. Even in those intense, last years of the war, however, Chandrasiri was more interested in taking mines out of the ground than putting them in.

He carries around in his head a virtual encyclopaedia of the mines deployed during the war. The army mines were imported from places such as Pakistan and China, but the LTTE’s explosives, in retrospect often surprisingly superior products, were made locally.

The first anti-personnel mine deployed by the LTTE was the Jony in the 1980s, Chandrasiri explains. The simple wooden box was packed with 90g of TNT.

Then in the 1990s, the Rangan 99 debuted with an explosive punch of 120g of TNT. “As far as quality was concerned, they could stay live for longer than conventional [imported] mines could,” says Chandrasiri, “maybe even 20 years or more.”

“At various stages during the war, the LTTE used a lot of improvised devices,” O’Brien says. “The major munitions factories that we have come across were churning out thousands and thousands of landmines and mortars. There are also attempts at more complex weapons like the LTTE aircraft bomb.”

Exactly how many mines were laid down, no one is quite certain. “We say they [the LTTE] didn’t give us any records,” says Chandrasiri, “but to be fair, I don’t think they had any to give.”

To unravel the orderly pattern of an SLA minefield, one had only to discover the first mine.

The LTTE on the other hand were unpredictable – planting a circle of explosives around a well where soldiers might stop for water or in the gardens of homes they abandoned to the advancing Sri Lankan army. Mines have been found in pots of curd and plastic cricket bats.

DASH’s records, drawn from the government’s National Mine Action Centre, reveal that the current estimate of contaminated land stands at just over 156 million square metres, some 88 million of which have been cleared with just over another 64 million due for clearance.

Sasi’s husband was killed in the war. She lost a leg to a landmine and when she returned  after years of displacement she found her land was mined. Now it has been cleared by HALO.[Devaka Seneviratne/Halo Trust Archives/Al Jazeera]

Protective de-mining equipment

One never knows what might be found in a former war zone. In 2015, de-miners with the HALO Trust found 403 grenades in one day, another team uncovered a store of 580 mines, five improvised explosive devices and three Bangalore torpedoes, while yet another team brought in 942 detonators and 9,340 bullets in a single haul. They have found bodies and bunkers.

However, the work, more often than not, is without surprises, and entails painstakingly unearthing one mine at a time.

Typically, manual de-mining is the slow but reliable option.

Today, Vimalasweran Gunamala is loosening the soil around a buried mine. Lean but strong, she plies her spade in a square of excavated earth .

The boundary line beginning close to her elbow is marked by a painted red stick and a sudden sprout of shrubs. Another mine sits literally right by that edge – this one, in the open. It may have been shifted by rains, but it looks simply like someone bent down, casually deposited his lethal burden and walked away.

When a break is called, Gunamala lifts off her heavy visor. In northern Sri Lanka, where temperatures have been known to reach 28 degrees Celsius, the thick pants, long-sleeved shirts, gloves, tall boots and padded vest of the mandatory uniform must leave her and the others cooking in their own sweat, but the de-miner does not complain.

“We know it is all the protection we have,” she says. The boots are also a nod to the presence of other dangers – at least two de-miners are taken to the clinic each month with a snakebite or scorpion sting.

Fifty percent of HALO’s de-miners in Sri Lanka are women. Many are the sole earner in their household [Devaka Seneviratne/Halo Trust Archives/Al Jazeera]

Female de-miners

Gunamala is a female head of household, one of an estimated 1.2 million in Sri Lanka, according to data from 2013 from the Department of Census and Statistics. Her husband, who has suffered from chronic liver disease for 13 years, is bedridden. They have three children, named with pleasing symmetry – Kajendran, Kanjaruban and Kajendini. Again and again, Gunamala says, “I just want to take care of them.”

O’Brien has championed female de-miners in this posting, and notes that unlike, say, in Afghanistan, it is actually possible to ensure that in Sri Lanka 50 percent of his de-miners are female.

At HALO, women are finding their way into higher management, and they now have three section commanders who oversee multiple teams. Speaking of these promotions, O’Brien says that he wanted “women to have opportunities for progression – because that’s what we offer the men”.

For her part, Gunamala appreciates the reliable pay cheque that comes with this job, but money is still tight and life hard.

She is woken every day at 2am to cook and clean, and returns in the afternoon to do more of the same. Things were not like this for her mother’s generation, she says. Then one could focus on housework and raising children, “but these days women are expected to do everything”.

In her office, P Jeyarani, the divisional secretary for the Pachchilaipalli area in Kilinochchi, acknowledges the issues female heads of households face. For many, each day is a constant struggle for economic stability and personal security.

The LTTE famously recruited women cadres, and today ex-combatants, both men and women, are a part of the de-mining teams of all agencies. Employees must clear security screenings by the army and the national Criminal Investigation Department before they can be considered.


In the meantime, other returnees with claims to large estates are planning to regrow their ancestral coconut plantations.

In an area experiencing unpredictable weather and labour shortages, even such homecomings are not without their problems.

Suresh Kumar drives some 60km to meet and explain how the $374,000 he has invested in his coconut plantation will take several years to turn a profit. In the meantime, he has plans for a poultry farm and hopes the government will assist him.

But the authorities are juggling many other priorities.

Jeyarani’s records list 257 families who have already registered their claims to mined lands in her district. That number is likely to increase with people returning from abroad.

Most families have deeds, she says. “Their problem is actually locating the land sometimes, because some have been displaced for 20 years.”

Determined to ensure a smooth transition, the divisional secretary sees her real challenge as the recovery of a traumatised populace. “We can easily give the housing and infrastructure, but mentally … that recovery will take time.”

De-mining technology

As a requirement of his own training, Damian O’Brien worked as a de-miner, doing his stint in Somaliland. The Englishman is now based in the HALO Trust’s Kilinochchi office, where he is a programme manager.

Working in a former warzone presents him with its own unique challenges.

“There are lots of workplace issues that clearly come from the fact that these people have been traumatised during the war: they have spent time in half-way camps, they’ve got difficult home lives and live in deprived areas,” he says.

It is partly why he plans to pause this week to celebrate the organisation’s achievement of pulling 200,000 mines out of the ground. “I don’t think the de-miners get enough recognition for the work they do.”

HALO’s Sri Lanka programme is pioneering in more ways than one, however, particularly in terms of the technology being deployed.

HALO is already using Handheld Standoff Mine Detection Systems, which help to clearly differentiate between mines and metal debris and have improved clearance rates in Sri Lanka by up to 40 percent.

Other innovations include using armoured flail machines and BeachTech sand filtering machines which come in handy on the right terrain and allow for rapid clearance.

They have also begun using Skybox, a satellite imagery service provided free of charge by Google to NGOs. “It’s been particularly useful when looking at post-clearance land use to show donors the impact their support has had,” says O’Brien.

Approaches that work here will probably be imported to other countries.

Obstacles to de-mining

However, HALO, traditionally one of the biggest operators in the country, has seen the number of its teams shrink – one indication that work in these areas has not always progressed smoothly.

Under former President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government, in a political context of suspicion and hostility directed at NGOs, all international operators were told that they would have to leave the country. Traditionally, de-mining in Sri Lanka has been supported by funds from the European Union, Japan, Australia, the US and Britain.

Donors balked, forcing HALO to lay off some 700 people, while other agencies closed down shop.

However, a new government elected into power in 2015 and headed by President Maithripala Sirisena lifted the directive and suggested an alternate deadline – that Sri Lanka be declared mine-impact free by 2020. In December, MM Nayeemudeen, the additional secretary of the ministry of resettlement, announced at a Meeting of States Parties to the International Mine Ban Treaty that Sri Lanka was seriously considering becoming a signatory – a move that could unlock more funding and speed up the process of de-mining considerably.


The task of de-mining this island nation is not as daunting as it appears.

For a start, the actual remaining area requiring clearance will be less than the figures listed, as identifying mine lines will help agencies to zero in on narrower stretches of contaminated lands. Yet, DASH’s Chandrasiri still pauses when asked if the government’s ambitions are realistic.

Speaking of the inevitability of some explosives remaining undetected in remote forests or deeply buried in the soil, he says: “We might not be able to take every single mine out of the ground, but the important thing is that people will be able to go on with their lives. They will no longer need to be afraid.”

Published in Al Jazeera on January 12, 2016. Text by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Devaka Seneviratne.

Amitav Ghosh: Writer on the move

In Academics, Researchers, Writers on January 22, 2016 at 7:01 am


What would Kesari do?

As Amitav Ghosh stood arguing with a taxi driver, a character from his book popped into his head.  For Ghosh, who in 2015 brought his enormously ambitious Ibis Trilogy to completion with the release of Flood of Fire, this is what it means to live with the people he writes into being. It’s difficult to imagine how Havildar Kesari Singh of the Bengal Native Infantry’s 25th regiment would handle a truculent New York cabbie, but Ghosh has fun trying anyway. “When you imagine a character it is not only an abstract thing. They become real because you imagine them in real situations. You imagine their responses and you think of what it’s like to be with them,” he says.

The last time Ghosh was in Sri Lanka, it was in 2005, and he was just about to begin writing Sea of Poppies, the first in a trilogy that would take 10 years of his life, sprawl over 1,600 pages and involve more than a million words. From the workers slaving away in the Ghazipur opium factory, to the homes of Parsi merchants in Calcutta and all the way to China and the shores of Hong Kong, his fictional recreation of the events leading up to the first opium war of 1839-42 would challenge Ghosh as none of his previous books ever had.

Connecting all the dots was the ship Ibis, on which many of the main characters meet for the first time before circumstance scatters them, and through which they remain bound in often surprising ways.

Though Ghosh has long frustrated curious journalists by describing his approach as being “nothing more than to blunder along,” he still admits that he has grown tremendously as a writer. Ghosh simultaneously researched and wrote each book. Though character-driven, writing historical fiction required Ghosh to understand how opium traders operated, how a Parsi widow would welcome a guest, or exactly what kind of ships were deployed by the British as they hammered the Chinese into submission.

In particular, no historian had analysed the military engagements, and so Ghosh was in fact conducting primary research in some cases. “I could never have done the Ibis trilogy, earlier in my life – the sort of technical skills that were called for, the organisational and descriptional skills, the structural knowledge, all these things I had never possessed before. It really called on everything I had ever done.”

As he rose to meet the challenge, the world around him too was altered in unimaginable ways. “I could not even begin to chronicle all the shifts – just think of how much Sri Lanka itself has changed,” he says.

That Ghosh was in Sri Lanka both at the beginning and end of his trilogy is not as much of a coincidence as you may think. His ties to this country are deep, reaching back into his childhood. The son of an Indian diplomat once posted in Colombo, Amitav lived here as a boy and was enrolled in Royal College. He still has surprisingly vivid memories of his classmates, his teachers and even the cane used to discourage them from talking in the classroom.

Every weekend, the family would leave the city behind to travel across the island and Ghosh credits those earliest experiences with embedding in him a lifelong love of travel. “There were so many places to see,” he says, “It’s no surprise it became an addiction.” In his novels, Ghosh often uses travel as a device to drive the transformation of his characters – women discover their freedom, men their limitations, and both are thrown together in to a maelstrom of history.

It has certainly transformed the author’s own life. “My family has been on the move since the mid-19th century,” says Ghosh. “We were originally from Bangladesh, but then the entire family scattered all over the place – to Burma and Germany. I feel very grateful to my family, because they have given me so much to write about.” According to family lore, they first left their home in Bangladesh, because the river changed course and drowned the village. Ghosh has said that in some sense his travels began with his family becoming ecological refugees.

Ghosh has journeyed extensively for study, work and pleasure. He completed an MA in social anthropology in Delhi before moving to Oxford to complete a PhD in the same subject. He would return to Egypt many times, where as a student anthropologist he immersed himself in village life (maintaining a journal all the while which he says taught him a great deal about how to write character and dialogue).

He has taught in American colleges including Colombia and Harvard and now he and his wife, the writer Deborah Baker divide their time between Calcutta, Goa and Brooklyn. Today, pointing eastward from a veranda in Galle to where the Mergui Archipelago lies, he tells me he just finished a sailing trip through those turquoise waters aboard a 110-year-old schooner.

Sailing was one of the things that Ghosh learned to do while writing the Ibis trilogy. “These for me are the fun parts of writing fiction – visiting interesting and out-of-the-way places, of having strange and marvellous experiences,” he says. He also began to watch a lot of wrestling (an art his character Havildar Kesari Singh is proficient in), which coincided serendipitously with his son developing a keen interest in the sport. Ghosh laughs as he assures me: “He was a very good wrestler. It gave me a very visceral sense of what wrestling is about. There is nothing scarier than to watch your little boy being set upon by another little boy.”

In writing the book, Ghosh also developed a working knowledge of Cantonese, which he practised on the owner of their neighbourhood laundromat. The author already speaks Bengali, Hindi, French, Arabic and English – a linguistic diversity which is reflected in the characters populating the Ibis trilogy.

The groundwork for Ghosh’s linguistic agility as a writer was actually laid in Sri Lanka. “Sri Lankan English was very distinctive, and that was the language we learned. The English we spoke, say even on the playing fields of Royal College, has a completely different tonality.” His research revealed that the island’s speech drew unabashedly on the various trading languages of the Indian Ocean. “It was a kind of nautical language that emerged from the world of the Ibis trilogy, and so it was interesting for me to use this language, these various registers of English in various ways.”

In fact, Ghosh is a fan of Carl Muller, who he feels uses English in a particularly innovative way. He so admired the Sri Lankan author of the Jam Fruit Tree that he actually landed up – with his wife and children in town – on Muller’s doorstep in Kandy in 2005. Muller, recently remarried, had on a singlet and a pair of shorts and had apparently been fixing a vehicle, possibly a motorbike, but he gave Ghosh and his family a warm welcome.

In fact, Ghosh seems hard pressed to relate an encounter with Sri Lanka that has not been memorable. When he landed here in 2001, to deliver the annual Neelan Tiruchelvam lecture, it was to see the runway bordered with wrecked planes – the result of the LTTE attack on Bandaranaike Airport.

In the same visit, he spent time with Arthur C. Clarke who he was pleased to discover was a fan. He had tour of Clarke’s remarkable library, and the two even played table tennis according to the legendary science fiction writer’s own rules.

We find ourselves returning to science fiction when we talk of Ghosh’s upcoming publication – a collection of lectures and essays on climate change and why art and literature has struggled to reckon with climate change in any significant way.

Sci-Fi writers were among the earliest to engage with environmental catastrophe in a really immersive sense, but Ghosh is surprised by how the unfolding events in Asia have not stirred the literary community to a greater degree. In Bangladesh alone some 100 million people are estimated to live within the danger zone – vulnerable to the smallest rise in sea-level. Ghosh speculates over what damage a really strong storm surge could do in Galle. In the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans, where he set his novel The Hungry Tide, several islands have been submerged in the last few years, displacing thousands.

“That is one of the things I am trying to understand – why is it that in contemporary fiction and arts, it’s very easy to engage with questions of identity, but it is so hard to engage with the non-human?”

Meanwhile, Ghosh will be signing copies of the Ibis trilogy for some time to come. His readers share with him both the fulfillment and the sense of loss that comes with the end of this wonderful series. Ghosh is almost wistful as he speaks of moving on to other projects and commitments: “The writing gave texture to my days. Every day would be different.”

Despite having enjoyed so much the process of researching the book, of learning how to sail, of engaging with readers or understanding the intricacies of a new language, he says it is the act of writing itself that he loves best. “It is just every day you are doing something you love. At the end of every day, every single day, I just think to myself how lucky I am to do this.”

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on January 17, 2016. Text by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Indika Handunwala. 

Jeet Thayil: Living outside history

In Musicians, Poets, Writers on January 22, 2016 at 6:52 am

When Jeet Thayil was 13 years old, he bought a copy of Catch-22.  His father, the noted journalist and editor TJS George, did not approve. When he found Heller’s book, he confiscated it. Thayil went out and bought another. Enraged, believing the book to be inappropriate for a young man, and certainly for one who was already pushing the boundaries of authority in uncomfortable ways, his father actually tore the second copy. Thayil remembers that his parent felt awful afterward – books were revered in their house. But it was still a lesson to him that reading could be a subversive act. When Thayil brought home a third copy of Catch-22, he hid it very well.

That early recognition of the possibilities for rebellion in between the pages of a book shaped the kind of reader Thayil grew up to be, but lest you judge his father too harshly he is also frank about the challenges he posed his parents – “I was a wild child,” he says. Casually, the author mentions “being in trouble with the police” at age 15, and by age 19, he had found his way to the opium dens of Bombay.

At 56, Thayil has yet to let life beat the wildness out of him. He is the author of Narcopolis published in 2012 which put him on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize and won him the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. He is far more prolific as a poet having produced four collections of which he considers These Errors Are Correct (2008), his best.

Thayil’s success with Narcopolis wasn’t unambiguous. Readers complained that it was disjointed and rambling. Some reviewers never seemed to get much further than the first line which stretched over six pages with not a full stop in sight. Evoking the headiness of that first pull on an opium pipe, that sentence is a masterpiece, straddling the line between poetry and prose.

The rest of the book, however, can feel uneven; there are moments of luminescence, but it requires patience to find them. In one of the wittier meditations on the book, Asian Age’s reviewer Raja Sen’s response to the novel took the form of a single sentence, this one only 679 words long, but still enough to convey his opinion that the ‘confounding volume’ was a ‘surreptitiously sucked-in hit that thrills only in bits…but nevertheless a quick ride with true merit and some steam.’

But mixed reviews aside, Narcopolis also ensured that Thayil has spent the last few years talking to journalists about how drugs shaped both him and the city he called home. Opium exported to China in the 1800s made the British East India Company and a group of Bombay Parsi merchants unimaginably rich, yet by and large the populace remain ignorant of the context of the Opium Wars.

“I think of the opium story as a kind of secret history,” says Thayil. “For me as a novelist, that is a history I never reference in terms of figures and numbers though I knew them. You can Google that. That’s not what a novel should bring you. I think literature can tell you far more of the truth than the stats ever could.”

Though the novel isn’t an autobiography, Thayil drew on what he had seen and experienced in his time as an addict. He first arrived in Bombay in 1979. “At the time, I was a reckless 19-year old, and it felt like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time because there was no way to be in a college hostel in Bombay in 1979 and feel in any way that you were not living outside history.” I am curious what he means by that, and Thayil pauses for a moment, before responding.

“I was a poet. I knew nobody, nobody knew me. I discovered the world of opium on Shuklaji street, my friends were vagabonds and criminals, most of them are dead today. I certainly felt like I didn’t matter in the world, and that I never would. I felt absolutely obscure, which poets do in any case, which is what being a poet means.”

Thayil makes no bones that writing Narcopolis was for him the opposite of cathartic. Instead he found himself reliving that time in all its despair and wonder. Though Thayil, along with Bombay would graduate from the oneiric, almost old-world romance of opium to the much harder and edgier one of cocaine and heroin, he remained a high functioning addict, holding down a job as a journalist and successfully concealing his addiction for years. He attempted to get clean many times, and when he finally managed it, the process was so harrowing, that it may have kept him from relapsing.

Today, Thayil says he is simply bored of talking about drugs. “A lot of the friends I had who were on drugs are now on NA – Narcotics Anonymous. They do rehab with the same fervour that they used to do heroin. I really think the healthiest thing to do is to stop fixating and simply move on.”

Thayil has moved on not only to prose but to poetry and music. In fact the last time he was in Sri Lanka, he came not as an author but one half of the relentlessly innovative band Sridhar/Thayil – they had only 15 minutes of music then, far too little to please the crowd, but eventually together the two produced an album titled STD. When Rolling Stone published a glowing review of it, they did so under the blurb: ‘eclectic pop twosome make a sexy mess.’  It is one of a handful of projects that showcases Thayil’s artistry as a performance poet.

An anthology of his poetry was received warmly upon its release in 2015. It evoked a “posthumous feeling” in him, he says. Having tried and failed to better These Errors Are Correct, he is unlikely to ever publish another collection. Thayil, who lost his young wife, the writer and editor Shakti Bhatt of a sudden illness, in 2007 was still raw with grief when he published that collection a year later, and its significance in his life remains outsized, not least because the book was dedicated to her.

“We started the Shakthi Bhatt First Book Prize after she died, it was a very small thing, the family wanted to create a way of remembering her,” says Thayil. Shakthi was working on two books when she died. Thayil co-curated the shortlist, though he was not on the jury that chose Rohini Mohan’s book about Sri Lanka, The Seasons of Trouble, as the winner in 2015. He says that the initial selection of non-fiction books all had one thing in common and it was that they “read like literature, and were books that would last well beyond their topic.” (A previous winner, Samanth Subramian who won in 2010 for Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast was also, by happy coincidence, at FGLF.)

Sometime in 2013, Thayil thought he was ready to publish his second book. He even told journalists it would be called The Sex Lives of Saints but a second read convinced him it wasn’t ready yet.

Did he feel terrible as realisation dawned that he would have to rework the book?

“That wasn’t the terrible feeling. The terrible feeling is now, two years later, when I still don’t know how close I am to finishing it.” He is willing to wait it out, to live with the “frustration, no, the self-loathing” rather than send something unfinished to the editor.

If Narcopolis was any indication, when this book is released, Thayil will be put through the wringer again, both the bad reviews and the adulation. Is he prepared?

He feels he has no choice: “It’s what you do. It’s your job. Without it you are nothing. Without it you are worse off. Without it you need psychotherapy. Sustained psychotherapy.”

It is clear that writing, whether poetry or prose, is for Thayil an emotionally turbulent, utterly unpredictable process. He wrestles with it, never certain of the outcome. It is in a memory though that I see most clearly the pleasure he finds in his work. We end where we began – with him in a room with his father and a book.

TJS George had a wonderful library. Thayil remembers reading the collected works of Dylan Thomas and the hardcover first edition of Ulysses that was his father’s pride. “He was the first adult who spoke to me intelligently about James Joyce,” Thayil says now. He remembers them dissecting the famously protracted sentence that Joyce concluded Ulysses with. “He said it with such admiration in his eyes. ‘You know this book carries with it a 40 page sentence.’ Thinking of what Joyce had accomplished, and the respect his father had for the writer, the boy thought simply: “Wow, wow. I want to be that guy.”

When I point out to him that, thanks to his six page long first line in Narcopolis, he did kind of grow up to be that guy, Thayil looks startled for a moment. Then he laughs with pleasure at the discovery.

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on January 17, 2016. Text by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Pushpa Kumara. 


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