Book Review - The Seasons of Trouble

In May 2010, after almost three decades of conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Sri Lankan government declared victory. But peace came at a high cost to the Tamil minority. Rohini Mohan, a Bangalore- based journalist, spent five years recording the experiences of three Tamils scarred by this brutal conflict.

In 2008, Sarva, a nautical engineer, was picked up by anti-terrorist police in one of their notorious white vans. He was badly tortured and imprisoned without due process. When he was eventually acquitted, the police claimed not to have received the paperwork. Sarva fled and spent the next two years in safe houses unable to visit his family and friends. Eventually, he decided exile was the only option.

Sarva’s mother, Mohan says, never gave up trying to protect her son. After his “disappearance”, she spent weeks trying to discover where he was held, employed a lawyer and subsequently visited her son every day in detention. Years earlier, she had risked her life and sanity to rescue him from the Tigers’ grip. There were, of course, atrocities on both sides, and one of the strengths of Mohan’s book is its exploration of the grey areas. Sarva’s training with the Tigers is “not easily compartmental- ised as voluntary or forced”. Despite never having engaged in combat, he was illegally detained and tortured, and his family was persecuted.

The third protagonist in this engaging account is Mugil, a committed Tiger who signed up when she was just thirteen. Towards the end of the war, injured and alone, Mugil decides to return to her family and two young sons. She witnesses the shelling of civilians and hospitals and other atrocities in the final months that left up to 40,000 civilians dead. After surrendering, Mugil and her family were detained in Manik Farm refugee camp. The insanitary conditions resulted in her father’s death. As former combatants, Mugil’s brother and husband were held in a “rehabilitation centre”, enduring torture and interrogation. On their release they were unable to get decent jobs and became increasingly alienated. Once reunited, they could only watch as the military appropriated their land and built hotels.

In large part a chronicle of war and its after- math, Mohan’s impressive study is also a Kafkaesque story of survival in a society riven by ethnic tensions and mutual distrust.

Originally published in the TLS