Review by Brian Tanguay
“I recently sent a letter to a terrorist I used to know.”
When considered in the context of everything that befalls its author and its recipient, this opening sentence of V. V. Ganeshanathan’s sprawling second novel, Brotherless Night, encapsulates thirty-eight years in the life of a family and a troubled country.
Who is the terrorist? Why did the person become a terrorist in the first place? Where did this happen?
The island nation of Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon when it was part of Britain’s India colony. Prior to British rule it was the Portuguese and the Dutch who coveted the island’s tea, rubber, coconuts and spices. As with most former colonies, the transition to independence was turbulent, marred by conflict between the majority Sinhalese ethnic group and the minority Tamils. All the thorny, intractable, and irreconcilable issues faced by a newly independent country are present here: Who rules and by what means? How much autonomy does the majority allow the minority? What’s the official language and religion? Who controls the army, the police, the courts? Can ancient differences be resolved or must revenge be endlessly repeated?
Brotherless Night gives us a sense of people and place, particulars like food and family life, social rituals, experienced through the eyes of Sashi, a young woman and eventual author of the letter to the terrorist. Sashi has four brothers. The eldest, Niranjan, is the one she’s most determined to emulate as he is wise and accomplished, a respected medical doctor. Becoming a doctor is Sashi’s dream and she’s a dogged, no nonsense student who never takes her eye off her goal.
Sashi’s brother Dayalan is easy-going and likable, while Seelan is naturally intense; both are preparing for their university exams, hoping to become engineers. Aran is a schoolboy with his own mind and a tendency to stubbornness. Their father is a surveyor, a civil servant, often posted to remote areas of the island. It’s a close-knit family held together by Sashi’s mother until the ethnic powder keg ignites and their choices become desperate, unavoidable, and often fatal.
Just down the lane lives K, a friend of Dayalan and Seelan. K is a whip-smart young man on his way to becoming a medical doctor. With his dark, piercing eyes and nimble intellect, K is the can’t-miss young man everyone knows is bound for great deeds. He moves in and out of Sashi’s orbit as the novel unfolds, and even when he’s absent he’s only as far away as Dayalan and Seelan. Sashi has feelings for K, and he for her, but circumstances never quite align to allow these feelings to grow.
While Sashi and Niranjan are in Colombo, Tamil militants in Jaffna attack and kill thirteen government soldiers. An angry crowd gathers to meet the bodies when they’re returned to Colombo, and before long the crowd is a rampaging mob, torching Tamil shops. Sashi’s grandmother has seen riots before and knows what will happen: “They’ll come here,” she tells her grandchildren. And they do, carrying machetes and sticks and cans of petrol. A neighbor’s house is raided and torched. Sashi and her grandmother manage to flee, but Niranjan is murdered in grisly fashion.
And thus a deadly cycle is set in motion. Atrocity is met with atrocity. For Dayalan and Seelan this is a war for the right of their people to exist and they join the Tigers, the strongest and most ruthless Tamil militant group. K is already a Tiger, and with his brain and charisma is ascending the leadership ladder. Sashi’s parents are torn between pride and fear; they’ve already lost one son and are old enough to remember what happened in the past.
Revenge, retaliation and retribution is all consuming and deforming. Unchecked it can transform a cause of liberty and freedom into a murderous tyranny. Fevered passions can be used to justify the most heinous crimes and excesses. As so often happens, there is an ebb and flow to this ethnic warfare as it transpires over decades, with horrific eye for eye and tooth for tooth violence. It’s here that the novel strikes a universal tone. Ganeshananthan could as easily have been describing the violence, suffering and dispossession in Gaza and the West Bank, the Tigray region of Ethiopia, or the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Similar tactics, similar civilian casualties, similar official denials and obfuscations.
By some estimates the Sri Lankan civil war consumed as many as 100,000 lives. Government troops shelled civilians, Tamil Tigers murdered and terrorized their own people, and an Indian peacekeeping force deployed to restore order and quell the violence was implicated in hundreds of rapes.
Who tells the story of what happened and whose version becomes the accepted and most repeated one is another aspect of Brotherless Night that gives it universality. By the time Sashi joins her teacher, Anjali, along with Anjali’s husband, in a clandestine effort to document every atrocity they can substantiate with evidence and eyewitness testimony, regardless of which side committed it, she has already lived through multiple horrors; two brothers dead, her grandmother’s house destroyed, her family home commandeered by the Tigers, a beloved teacher murdered, and K, the can’t-miss boy, lost to a martyr’s death. She has treated the wounds of perpetrators and victims, including her own brother, heard their stories, touched their pain.
Documenting the names, location and manner of death is dangerous and emotionally wrenching, but without a factual narrative it can all be swept out of sight and forgotten, the victims rendered as deserving perpetrators by those in power. Terrorists. Rebels. Radicals. Through bitter experience Sashi knows this logic of erasure too well: if a dead boy is turned into a militant, his death is excusable.
Sashi’s reports so infuriate and unsettle the government and the Tigers that they trigger more repression, and not long after Anjali is kidnapped and murdered.
V. V. Ganeshananthan is a masterful storyteller. In Sashi she gives us a heroic character who suffers unimaginable losses; a character who has no time for herself, let alone a husband, child, or lover. She’s a sister, a daughter, a student, a doctor, but every role is entangled in the conflict she can’t avoid or escape. She has imposed on herself an obligation to do something, anything, to alleviate suffering in a place where suffering is everywhere. Even when it becomes too dangerous for Sashi to remain in Sri Lanka because of her work in documenting and publicizing atrocities, she can’t leave her country behind:
“But I could not leave such a country, or its war; it followed me and whispered in my ears, even when I clapped my hands over them and screamed for it to stop.”