Revisiting ‘Elephant Pass’ for Ethnic Reconciliation in Sri Lanka
‘Elephant Pass’ here is an ellipsis for the novel‘The Road from Elephant Pass’ written by late Nihal de Silva and published by Vijitha Yapa, Colombo, first in September 2003. It is a novel with a mission. Its reading and rereading can bring immense light to some of the ethnic issues underlying the conflict and misunderstandings in Sri Lanka, and could help bring reconciliation in the present context, more than ever.
When the 2003 Gratiaen Prize for creative writing in English was awarded for the novel, the reviewers said, among other things, that the novel convincingly demonstrates “that resolution of conflict and reconciliation of differences are feasible through mutual experience.”
This ‘mutual experience’ is something that people need to seek today for reconciliation at work place, farmland, neighbourhood, and places of worship. It should also be sought in organized manner in social work, development efforts, in politics and in Parliament.
Ilankai Tamil Sangam in a review in August 2004 said “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.”
“Objective perspectives from both sides of the conflict” is another thing terribly lacking today for ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
The story begins at Pallali check point, North of Elephant Pass, the strategic area dividing the army controlled Jaffna Peninsula and the then LTTE controlled Wanni, when an army Captain was assigned to bring an LTTE woman cadre, who had apparently turned an ‘informant,’ safely to Jaffna. She is supposed to have vital information that can change the war in the country’s favour.
Written in the form of a story of days’ happenings, spanning for thirteen days, Wasantha Ratnayake, the Captain, and Kamala Velaithan, the LTTE operative, are the two main characters. One is a man and a Sinhalese, and the other is a woman and a Tamil. Both are young with strong views on the ethnic divide.
The story is narrated by the Captain, so the so-called Sinhalese view is prominent in addition to the army one. As he initially says, “But there was no denying the Tiger’s audacity and determination. Their cadres, especially the women, had perfected the art, or science, of suicide bombing. They hated us, the Sinhala majority, with a ferocity that I would not have comprehended had I not seen and experienced it on the battlefield. I hated them back with equal intensity.” That is how the story starts.
“The woman was late,” so the attempt to reach Jaffna fails as the LTTE launches a massive attack cutting the road to Jaffna from Pallali. Two women soldiers escorting Kamala, and the driver Piyasena, also get killed in a landmine and the two protagonists become isolated depending on each other.
The Captain cannot abandon the mission as the information Kamala has – an exact date and time of the LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s presence in a particular location - is vital that could change the cause of the war. But she would not reveal the information unless to the Military High Command in Colombo in exchange of a passport and passage to Canada. It is apparently a deal on her part. The story appears credible, Kamal’s one, and the Captain has to follow her insistence in crossing Wanni towards South.
The Wanni was crossed in two days with many odds and then comes the Wilpattu jungles where they come across many challenges, both of humans and beasts.
The army deserters and poachers were the main menace. It is the interdependence of the two for survival and protection that builds a mutual human relationship between them seemingly transcending ethnicity. They both are bird lovers as well that brings some additional affinity.
In crossing Wanni, the Captain has to depend on Kamala; likewise Kamala depends largely on Wasantha for protection and care in crossing the Wilpattu jungles. Two adversaries at the beginning, Wasantha and Kamala become close friends if not incipient lovers at the end.
When in Colombo, at the brink of meeting the High Command in revealing the ‘vital information,’ Kamala admits to Wasantha that the information was a ploy to discredit the government by prompting an air-raid on a visiting Indian dignitary ostensibly as the place of Prabhakaran’s visit.
At the end, it was left to Wasantha to twist the story and protect Kamala from obvious reprisal of the Sri Lankan army if the ploy was revealed. Wasantha’s twist works and Kamala is saved. The captor of Kamala, the Sinhala army Captain, becomes the defender of her for human reasons.
The story has a sad ending, unlike the movie produced later by Chandran Rutnam based on it, when the Captain goes back to the battlefield and reported missing.
The fate of Kamala is not revealed, however the following was their last encounter.
“I forced myself to speak calmly.
‘Once you get to Canada, will you write to me care of Pali? Promise me that at least?
She hesitated and finally nodded.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I promise.”
The story has an impressive narrative with quite stimulating dialogues. That may be the most positive aspect of the novel. As a thoughtful blog on popular literature, Chasing Bawa, posted by Sakura said (16 February 2010), “As soon as I landed in Colombo, my father spoke excitedly about a book he had read recently, a book which one of my good friends had said I must read. My father, who likes to read books slowly, said he finished it in two days. And being jet-lagged and un-acclimatised to the tropical heat, I began to read it that night and finished it in 4 hours.”
The most sophisticated is the manner in which the male-female relationship between Wasantha and Kamala is handled in the narrative. It is almost exemplary and instructive (also funny) until Wasantha’s friend Pali comes into the scene. The respect of dignity and privacy of each other and constant communication, irrespective of being bitter adversaries in the war, is the basic feature of this relationship perhaps that brought final ‘reconciliation’ between the two.
Kamala and Wasantha had to spend a night in the abandoned Murunkan station.
This is how it is narrated. “We cleared out two corners to sleep in and shared the newspapers to spread on the ground. Velaithan [Kamala] selected the corner furthest from the one I had selected, but still stayed in the same room.” When eating, “We sat on the newspapers on my side of the room, our backs to the wall.
Velaithan placed the parcels of food and the bottle of water between us.”
Then in the following morning: “The sound of rustling newspapers woke me from an exhausted sleep. There was just enough light to see Velaithan gather her clothes and leave the room. I knew she had gone down to the stream and wouldn’t want me around. I dozed off and woke again when she returned.”
It might be possible for serious literary critics to find some weaknesses in the publication such as grammar, punctuation, typos and formatting. It shows perhaps the lack of proper editors and/or proof readers for such publications in Sri Lanka (I think this is something Yasmine Gooneratne said). But there is no argument that the work is a compelling read and the message and the approach is most persuasive.
The story also has all hallmarks of an adventure novel where the author’s knowledge of the Wilpattu jungle terrain that the story unravels and his love for wild life and particularly the birds were pertinently, and sometimes excessively, utilized in the narrations. After Nirupama Subramanian of The Hindu interviewed Nihal de Silva in April 2005, she noted the following.
“Modest to the point of sounding embarrassed by the success of his first book, de Silva even asks if the birds were "a bit much" and, almost shyly, says they were his way of showing common ground between the Sinhalese and the Tamil.”
When he wrote the novel, Nihal de Silva seemed to have a clear vision on the ethnic conflict and told Subramanian that "When we talk of the conflict, we always seem to focus on the differences between the Sinhalese and Tamils, which is mainly the language. But we also have a lot of things in common.” He further said, "I feel strongly that the road to settling our problem is for people to interact and that their humanity has to do the rest."
It is extremely unfortunate that De Silva is now dead and gone and it was ironic that he succumbed to the injuries of a landmine in May 2006, with some Sinhala and Tamil friends when they were touring Wilpattu, the areas that he narrated in the novel. He was born and bred in pre-conflict Sri Lanka with friends from both communities and could have further contributed immensely to ethnic reconciliation in the country through his creative skills and writing if he were living today.
Apart from a rare occasion that Kamala and Wasantha encountered in their career, one as a LTTE operative and the other as an army soldier, the ordinary life of different communities in different parts of the country are full of common ventures although the conflictual political culture of the country does not properly allow those experiences to come into the public focus.
The common tragedies that the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims had to undergo during the Asian Tsunami were such a mine field with rich encounters and experiences. There are many actual stories about Tsunami where the different communities mutually cooperated and worked together. These are yet to be told and depicted in artistic form to bring positive light to ethnic reconciliation.
‘Sinhala’ Point of View
It is possible for one to argue that the book gives, by and large, a ‘Sinhala’ point of view on the ethnic question. But it would be difficult to deny that it is not a chauvinistic one. Among many of the sorts, the following could be quoted for clarification from pages 121-22.
“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,’ Velaithan observed quietly. ‘Kalivillu, Manikepola.’
‘What about it?’ I asked.
I knew where this was going. The Tamils claimed about one third of the land area 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 punch 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.”
There were many arguments between the two. They argued about Mahavansa, an ancient Sri Lankan chronicle, the coming of Vijaya and more recent matters like the Black July 1983 or massacres by the LTTE. Sober conversations at times turned into bitter ones. The following was another.
“Are your parents still alive?’
‘My mother is. My father died seven years ago.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said automatically.
‘You should be. Your people killed my father,’ she lashed out suddenly angry.”
The above is from page 115. Then they argued about ‘Homeland’ again and 1983. The following was again a ‘point of view’ on the question of homeland.
“But the Sinhala do not claim exclusive rights to the entirety of this land,’ I pointed out. What we say is that every citizen should have the right to live and work in any part of it. It is the Tamils who want to carve out a part of the land and say, ‘This is exclusively ours’…How can you possibly justify that position,’
‘There are many, many justifications.’ She sounded detached as if reading a lesson. “The history of violence and cruelty towards our people is the primary reason’….
She paused and then continued: It is only by having a ‘homeland,’ a place where our rights are both primary and unassailable, that our nation can live with dignity.”
There are many more sections or quotations of the book that would shed light to the disputes between the two communities from both points of view. Even in an extensive review like the present, all are not warranted.
There are several editions of the book and it has been accepted as a reader for English Language at the GCE (Ordinary Level) examination. To the credit of the author, the book has won several national and international prizes and accolades.
But over time, and perhaps as a result of the untimely death of the author, enthusiasm for the book has slightly waned. This is unfortunate.
There is a popular Sinhala movie called ‘Alimankada’meaning Elephant Pass with English and Tamil titles remaining the same in full. The word ‘Road’ in the title is extremely significant. It could symbolise the ‘road for ethnic reconciliation.’ But there are no English or Tamil versions of the film except subtitles.
As it was mentioned before, the movie has a happy ending with Kamala and Wasantha having a baby in Toronto, Canada. It has become a ‘love story’ between a Tamil and a Sinhalese. That might be called a distortion of the novel, although it is a good movie on its own.
There are unfortunately no Tamil or English translations of the book yet. As the book might portray largely the ‘Sinhala’ point of view, although moderately, it might be a good reader for the Tamils to understand the ‘others’ point of view. It is equally good for the Sinhala readers to sober their extreme points of view, towards more moderate ones.
- Asian Tribune -