Maya Arulpragasam is a British-born rapper of Sri Lankan heritage, better known as M.I.A. Her background is rather different from that of most people working in the music industry. Her father was heavily involved in the fight to defend the rights of the minority Tamil community in Sri Lanka, and M.I.A. spent her early life in the northern, Tamil-dominated part of Sri Lanka. During the 25-year civil war, which saw fighters struggling to create a Tamil homeland before final defeat in 2009, she returned to Britain with her mother and siblings.
M.I.A. can speak to an audience of millions about what she saw. But the accounts of ordinary people caught up in the same horrendous conflict, which killed up to 100,000 people, are not usually heard. In a new book, “The Seasons of Trouble”, Rohini Mohan attempts to redress this balance by telling the real-life stories of three Tamils. She tells of Sarva, who was tortured by state forces before seeking asylum in Britain; his mother, Indra, and her efforts to protect her son; and Mugil, a girl who joined the Tamil Tigers, the dominant rebel group, at the age of 13.
At the start of his story Sarva exudes “a physical confidence”, but after torture he has trouble walking and suffers from insomnia and post-traumatic stress. Once in Britain he becomes agitated when surrounded by people “who couldn’t fathom the warped world he came from”. Indra, meanwhile, is defined by the efforts she makes to protect her son. On one occasion she lies face down in a field to hide, with a baby Sarva sleeping peacefully under her, as mobs wreak havoc in homes only yards away. When the adult Sarva is captured, Indra feels a sense of helpless anger: “She had never raised a hand to him, so who were these people to hit her son?” Mugil responds rather more violently to the chaos around her. When still a young girl, she tells her mother, “Housework is not what I was born to do.” She duly joins the Tamil Tigers and after making her first kill, realises that “She would never feel remorse for the killing of anyone, except him.”
The author spent five years talking to her three subjects. The first time Ms Mohan, an Indian journalist, goes to see Mugil in a refugee camp she is told: “I’m sure you’ll never return to see us.” Such people do not usually expect anyone to be interested in the stories of their suffering. But Ms Mohan makes sure that her readers are. She presents lives that have been almost swallowed whole by an everyday, disturbingly low-key sort of brutality that rarely registers on the Western consciousness.
Instead of detailing the conflict’s political and historical minutiae, “The Seasons of Trouble” focuses on the humanity of those caught up in the horrors. As a result, despite the violence its characters endure, it retains a poetic tone that helps Ms Mohan produce a thoroughly absorbing book.