A version of this essay originally appeared on TheWire.in in July 2016. It is reprinted in Brick 98 with their kind permission.
It takes a long time to tell the story to friends: to say that I have a book just out, that I worked on it for five years without speaking openly about it, that it is a memoir written in the voice of a naval officer who was held captive for eight years during Sri Lanka’s civil war, and that he speaks of that experience in an accepting way.
This acceptance is the most surprising thing about the story and, almost immediately, people ask, “Did he go Stockholm?” I tell them it is a joke the Commodore makes. “Maybe I have Stockholm syndrome,” he will say and laugh. How is he to know, or I? We are not able to make a diagnosis, any more than the people who ask the question.
But over time I have wondered why this particular question recurs, of so many possible questions. It contains inside it an urge to know—to be able to identify as something we recognize a story that doesn’t fit the format we expect. It suggests that we might know better than the man who is telling us his story. We are quick to make an illness of his survival strategies. Above all, we are schooled to resist the story being told.
Five years ago, I was told there was this man. He had been an officer of the Sri Lanka Navy who was captured and held for eight years by the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the middle decade of the island’s long civil war. He wanted to tell his story; might I be interested in working on it with him?
I was interested but cautious; I felt I had to know more about the Commodore’s politics first. I am embarrassed now by the arrogance of this reserve, but I do not want to belittle it. I knew the story must be fundamentally personal to Commodore Boyagoda, as the war itself is personal to all of us associated with Sri Lanka. If his feelings about the war and mine were opposite, we might struggle to work together. I hope unlikelier collaborations will indeed be forged, but I was not there yet.
The first time I met the Commodore, he said a list of things that struck me:
He said, “This war was a mistake.”
He said, “We should have done a better job.”
He said, “People write about the LTTE all the time. I lived with them for eight years and no one ever asked me what they were like.”
“You come back and when you want to go to the toilet, you look around for someone to ask. You can go insane.”
He said, “Why did it happen? Was it for a sin I did?”
What struck me most of all was the understated way that Commodore Boyagoda spoke. He told me that in one of the places he was held, the prisoners were “quite free,” meaning they were not held in chains and could move around three rooms of a house, as long as they did not talk to each other or try to go outdoors. It was apparent to me that he was speaking from inside his reality, not ours.
The Commodore described how, occasionally, when he was moved at night, without blindfolds, he used his naval training to navigate by the stars. In his cell, he tried to work out the progress of a battle: from which direction were the shells coming? In which direction did ambulances travel afterwards? Ten years later, his memory of captivity served as a prompt for piecing together the progress of the war. He told me his story with none of the drama we perceive in it but rather with a forceful pragmatism. I knew that was precisely the tone and plain language in which I had to write the book, if it was to be a faithful account.
This instinct was reinforced by an everyday conversation I had sometime later—completely unrelated to the Commodore’s story. I had moved for a short time to the east coast of Sri Lanka and had just found a room to rent. I went with my brother to pay a customary courtesy call on my landlord. It went as these conversations go. The landlord kindly offered us a cup of tea and introduced us to his mother-in-law. We spoke of our family to reassure him of our values and respectability. He spoke of his family and told us his son was just visiting from university in the United States. This reminded him of his own travels as a young man: he recollected that time and—to account for it—mentioned that his sister had worked for an airline, enabling his travel. Then he said, “But she was taken by the LTTE in 1990 and we haven’t seen her since.” He did not need to explain, and I imagine one could not, easily. He was speaking from within context and expecting us to listen from within context. Two things struck me then: one, that I knew this tone already; two, that it was something to record. It would teach us things, of people’s lived experience, that dramatization could not.
I began to meet with Commodore Boyagoda two mornings a week at my home. He would arrive and ring the doorbell. I let him in. He sat down at the dining table while I made coffee in the kitchen. I returned, poured the coffee, and switched on a voice recorder. I would remind him where in the story we had stopped, sometimes ask a question, and he would talk. After about an hour and a half, we would conclude the session, usually with my suggesting we’d probably talked enough for that day. Occasionally at that point we would briefly discuss the present: the political climate or other weather. Then I would walk him back down the stairs to the door. With some long breaks we followed this routine for three and a half years.
How Commodore Boyagoda felt about these meetings I don’t actually know. You must understand that the spare voice in which we tell his story in the book is much like the one in which we spoke. Nothing is being concealed from you—rather, I have striven not to add to this story any sense of significance that Commodore Boyagoda himself did not give it.
I was trained, by working in the theatre, to trust in the value of repetition. The Commodore told me his story many times. The first time, I tried not to interrupt his account but simply to receive the story. That stage took about a year. Then we went over certain episodes. I would ask some questions and he would give his account again. There are a few pivotal moments in the story that we discussed many times while I listened for variations, distillations, emotional truth.
One of the most instructive recognitions for me as I listened to the Commodore was to appreciate how much he had forgotten. “It was a long time ago,” he said. At first I found this surprising. Commodore Boyagoda had been through the extraordinary experience of being a prisoner—how could he have forgotten any of it? Was he suppressing something? But later I began to take the Commodore’s ordinary forgetfulness as a reminder that perhaps it is not possible to live through an experience like this while thinking it extraordinary.
I did not wish to interrogate him—that was not right. It was important to me that I respect his privacy, and I suspect at another level I was also protecting my own. It simply felt like we had as much conversation as we could. Later on, I asked the Commodore if he would have told the story differently to someone else—for example, a military man of his own age rather than a civilian woman young enough to be his daughter. He said he told the story the same way always, and he said it with deliberate emphasis. I have come to understand that Commodore Boyagoda has decided the terms on which we should know his story. There is something about this stance that I can only respect.
My instinct was to trust Commodore Boyagoda because I found I did, and because it was the only fair way to work with him and retell his story. Yet I also remember the early anxiety of working on a project about which I had only instincts, no certainty. I worried about how to win the Commodore’s trust when, for a long time, I would not be able to show him signs of material progress on the book. I felt the exercise would be a failure if it was painful for him or I lost his trust.
The political climate in Sri Lanka when we started working in late 2010 was also quite different, you may recall. Would I be complicit in creating a new risk to Commodore Boyagoda? Was I going to expose my own family to unnecessary scrutiny? At the very least, we were not sure we would be able to finish what we had started.
But deeper than all these reservations, I had been schooled to test knowledge and to question what I was told. What did I really know of the war anyway? How could I verify the Commodore’s account? I told myself it was important to ask these questions. I believed it would naturally strengthen the book to have it tested in this way.
One of the areas in which this conflict played itself out was over the question of collaboration. Rumours had abounded that Commodore Boyagoda collaborated with the Tigers. He told me about these rumours. I asked him for his account. It was the same every time: he said he answered the questions his captors asked but knew he was not giving them privileged information. He was not privy to official secrets himself so he had none to tell, he said. I believed him. But I came back to the issue many times. I played the devil’s advocate with myself, asking fierce questions in capital letters in my notebook. I remember the shame I felt when one day the questions in my notebook caught Commodore Boyagoda’s eye. I realized that in my need to be accountable to other people, I could fail the man I was working with.
I tried to have honest conversations with myself. For me, there was no national question. With the benefit of hindsight, I saw nationalism as an unfortunate ideology through which to have approached our problems in Sri Lanka—both Sinhala nationalism and Tamil nationalism. I told myself it didn’t matter to me whether Commodore Boyagoda had collaborated with the LTTE; that in a hundred years’ time, we would allow the smaller complicities of small men trying to survive a war.
But then something happened to question my confidence. Commodore Boyagoda received a call from a former LTTE cadre who had been one of the first people to interrogate him. This man told him that while working in the LTTE’s intelligence operation he had also been passing information on the LTTE to India’s intelligence body, RAW (the Research and Analysis Wing). RAW had blackmailed him into service, he said, threatening to expose a love affair that was forbidden under LTTE rules. Later he had, out of a different necessity, become an intelligence agent on behalf of the Sri Lanka Army. Commodore Boyagoda was amazed by this information, as he was to receive the call in the first place.
The man had found him on Facebook. He said that Commodore Boyagoda had been an important part of his story and that he wanted to thank him. He wanted to send the Commodore a manuscript to read in which he recounted his own story. Commodore Boyagoda didn’t read it, but he emailed the manuscript to me. It took me a long time to open it. The man had not intended for me to read it, nor known the Commodore was working on a book of his own. But again I made Cartesian arguments against my scruples and at least ran a search on the name Boyagoda throughout that manuscript.
What I found was Commodore Boyagoda characterized as the traitor from whom this man had learned to be a traitor. Despite my earlier confidence, despite what seemed an unreliable narrative, I was a little shaken by the suggestion. I realized then that it did matter to me—not that Commodore Boyagoda remain true to the Sri Lankan government’s cause but simply that he should not be duplicitous. I did not want him to have lied to me and I did not want him to have lied to the world. I put the question to him again.
Amazingly, Commodore Boyagoda did not seem fazed by my anxiety. He remained consistent with his own story and—most interestingly to me—did not care as much as I did about this other version coming out in the world. He’d seen it all before. “Besides, what can we do?” he asked me. “Most of the people who can testify for me are dead.”
Gradually, I understood—from this episode as well as simply through more time, thought, and conversation—that my schooled mistrust would do more to limit the book than to deepen it. I was not going to be able absolutely to verify stories, any more than I could absolutely anticipate the response of the Sri Lankan political establishments, often impassioned and polarized in their reactions. Not only the Commodore but I too had to take some risk. I could be proved right or wrong. There were no safeguards. Even the knowledge I did gather was incomplete and could not in the end prove a better measure than instinct.
With these realizations, I abandoned plans I had made to talk to the Commodore’s closest cellmate and other people he had mentioned in his story. While I had earlier imagined I would be supplementing Commodore Boyagoda’s story with the accounts of others, what I felt most sensibly now was the sense of obligation that such conversations would bring. If many people made time to tell me their stories, it would only be fair I serve their stories in the book. Addressing all these accounts partially, I would have to take charge of the narrative in a different way. I could demonstrate my own ingenuity in discovering a supposedly objective “truth,” but I would cease to tell the Commodore’s story. I was more interested in his voice than my own; I was sure the reader would be too.
In the end, the only person in his story that I spoke to besides the Commodore was his wife because it felt polite to do that much. I also read the letters he had received from his family during his captivity, sent through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Of his own letters, Mrs. Boyagoda told me he’d said, “What’s the point of hanging on to them?” I hesitated when the Commodore brought me the bundles of ICRC forms, loosely bound together. He refused my qualms, saying, “The ICRC read them, the LTTE read them, why not you?’
I began by reading the letters from his sons. To read the letters of a woman to her husband in captivity was an intrusion to which I had to come round slowly. But it turned out also to be painful to read the letters of children to their father. To see the tentative handwriting of an eight- and nine-year-old (the youngest being at the time still too small to write) was an initial shock. They asked their father if his ship was still broken. They asked if he couldn’t ask the “LTTE uncles” to let him come home. Gradually, they grew up and their letters knew more. Sometimes they revealed their troubles, sometimes they hid them. It was from the changes in the Commodore’s sons that I really learned what a long time eight years is. I found it most heartbreaking to read the sensitive observations of the Commodore’s middle son, who confided in his father that his mother said she was fine but she was not. It was immensely difficult to read those letters, knowing this feeling child had been killed in an accident less than a decade after his father’s return home.
But these things did not go in the book. The story I retold, as I had heard it, was the one the Commodore recounted, its strengths and weaknesses intact. “And if it turns out you were mistaken about him?” someone asked. “I’m not going to like it,” I said.
To write, I listened to the recordings I had made of my conversations with Commodore Boyagoda. I made notes of the elements we had to include; these notes formed the basis of the document I turned into sentences. By listening again and again to the way Commodore Boyagoda spoke—the rhythms of his speech—I caught more of the nuance in his meaning. Needless to say, it took this much listening—to perhaps two hundred hours of conversation—before I felt I could write in his voice.
As I wrote, I talked less to the Commodore and more to other people. While he had been confined to a cell in each location, many more people beyond the prison walls were living the daily realities and difficulties of war. I wanted to hold them in mind even as I wrote the Commodore’s particular story.
I don’t begin to suggest that I did extensive research. I went on road trips to parts of the country where the Commodore had been held, changed though these landscapes may have been since the time he had known them. I usually travelled with my parents, not only for their willing and excellent company but also so we might look like an innocuous family party at a time when the authorities were suspicious of any sort of observation or investigation. The soldiers we met on beaches were rarely taken in—looking past my parents, they would ask why I was there, what it was I did for a living.
More crucially, I simply talked to friends, mostly those who had lived in and around Jaffna town throughout the war. Jaffna was the only place in which the Commodore had been held where I also knew people. These conversations were not formal interviews, you understand—rather the extended conversations one has with friends, informed by sharing different parts of the same history.
My memory of the war in Sri Lanka starts with a return to the island in 1984 and a recurring conversation my parents had with their friends, some of whom were then choosing reluctantly to emigrate. It was a conversation about something terrible that had happened the previous year. They never mentioned what the thing was; among themselves they didn’t need to. I was five years old then and couldn’t work out what had taken place. I don’t remember when it was explained to me what these friends had faced in July 1983 and how they might never feel safe again; I only know that in my memory there is no seam between the period in which I didn’t know and the period, ever after, in which understanding was implicit. Indeed, I grew up with this pattern of knowledge—to know increasingly difficult things, without shock, without moments of revelation.
I made successive trips to Jaffna throughout 2013 so that conversations might unfold naturally, aware too that I did not wish to mine people for accounts of personal and sometimes painful experiences. I merely told my friends what I was working on. The effect of doing that was extraordinary. My friends received the project universally not only with interest but also with a kind of vindication and relief. They seemed to suggest that here was a clearing in the forest where we might talk about the war in a subtler way. I was relieved in turn, and enormously encouraged by this response, although it redoubled the sense of responsibility I felt.
You see, the people I talked to were also the people to whom I felt accountable. I wrote this book most immediately, I suspect, for people like myself—who feel a burden of grief and responsibility for the Sri Lankan war. People who never did enough, understood enough. My parents’ generation saw this war begin; my generation lived its full course. I don’t believe any of us will pull this island completely out of its mire. We will tend it all our lives—as we must—so the generations that follow can do much better than we did. If anything, this book will be one small trace among the tens of thousands that help them piece together a picture of what they’ve inherited. I cannot yet imagine that generation. In the meantime, if I held myself especially accountable to anyone, it was to the people who felt this war much more deeply than I did because of where they were or who they were or what they chose to do or what they had to do. Yes, I do mean those people who are culturally or ethnically Tamil—that is an important aspect of experiences I cannot speak for—but I don’t mean only them.
So my relief, when I told my friends what I was working on, was that they did not see it as a betrayal. Indeed, none of them asked the Stockholm question. One friend asked me many questions about Commodore Boyagoda’s story. He seemed to feel vindicated that the story blurred the harder truths people tell about this war. He seemed pleased the story was an unexpectedly good one—then suddenly, he said in anger, “How typical of the Tigers to treat outsiders well and their own people so badly.” In a flourish of resentment he said, “Perhaps it is better these people won the war; imagine a reality in which the Tigers had won.”
All this was said with an irredeemable bitterness—there was no real “better” in the reality my friend described. But mostly he told me his own stories. I listened and he talked. He talked to connect to the things I had told him about from Commodore Boyagoda’s account, and then he talked just to connect things. He told me stories from his own childhood. A little older than I am, he would have been a young teenager when the war got going. I wish I could replay for you the force and beauty of his account in which he used symbols—a set of coloured towels his mother treasured—to convey much more than either of us could put into words.
I remember a conversation I had in a car with a friend while her husband was refilling the tank at a brand new postwar petrol station on a newly widened junction of roads. My friend told me how she and her brothers had inherited their parents’ perspective on the war. Her parents were of the generation that believed in the new country after the British, she said. When war began, they blamed the LTTE for breaking the peace—and so for decades they had to continue holding the LTTE responsible for everything bad that happened. My friend and her brothers had to grow up before they could come to a more complex view. Later, sitting in her garden at dusk, she traced for me in the sand the LTTE camp that had occupied her neighbourhood. She remembered that the cadre in charge was tall and good-looking and missing a leg. We both wished he might be the guard Sridharan from the Commodore’s story, but it seemed unlikely. We talked while she cooked. I listened to the stories she told but I also watched the way she caught each dish before it would spoil, turning it into something else that would keep. Although she now had a fridge, she was more accustomed to managing without one, after years of blackout during the war.
More than once I asked myself whether I had discovered the true reason I was writing this book with Commodore Boyagoda: that it would be an opening to other conversations. I had begun this project on an instinct and here I was being shown the meaning of that instinct. I struggled with a wish to share those encounters with the reader. It felt wrong that the writer of the book should have the best experience of it. Yet I did not have permission to share those stories. I never asked for it; the conversations were not set up that way. I suspect that if I had asked for stories I could put in a book, I would not have got any.
All I can hope is that this book will be another spur to readers to have conversations of their own.
This book is emerging at a time when such conversations are much easier to imagine. When we started work on it in 2010, it felt that we in Sri Lanka lived in a kind of shocked silence. Yet, even before the recent political changes, around the middle of 2013, I noticed that the language in which we talked about the war was beginning to change.
Immediately after the war ended, few people said anything. There were always brasher voices to be heard, but beneath them was a silence, a different silence than the one enforced by our rulers. In the south, the phrases during the war or since the war came quicker, not surprisingly. These terms were difficult to relate to, even for those of us who had lived more apart from the war. The way the war ended made us uneasy with casual summings-up. But it was also difficult simply to conceive of an end to the war, when the war had been there for twenty-six years and the conflict was still there. I have one memory of picking yellow flowers outside our childhood home that—if I stop to think about it—predates the war; that is all.
Then, in 2013, I began to hear friends in the north and east start to use those phrases but with a different quality. It seemed not to mean “now that is over” (as it sometimes did in the South) but “in that phase” or “in this phase.” I began to notice people recounting their lives as stories. We have yet to see how far this goes, what histories we turn out to tell.
We have in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, a more sinister vein of “storification” in which testimony is sometimes removed from lived experience and displaced to other realms. We speak in the language of mythology and of art—an idiom too important to be used euphemistically—because we don’t know how to describe a woman who still doesn’t know what happened to her son, except as a woman with a “story.” Art is not here to offer us a way out; it does not exist to make experience easier to consume (easy for those who don’t relate to the experience; alienating for those who do) along with a good glass of wine.
But we are not impartial; I would not wish that we were. The ways in which we tell and receive these accounts are inevitably personal. So too the contents of this book are personal: for Commodore Boyagoda, for myself, for those whose voices are not heard in it, and for many of our readers. Alongside the lives told are always lives lived, lives lost. Most histories don’t make it into book form—often not into words at all.
Sunila Galappatti has worked with other people to tell their stories as a dramaturg, theatre director, and editor. She started her working life at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. Now based in Sri Lanka, she commissions and edits non-fiction stories for Commonwealth Writers. A Long Watch is her first book.