“I recently sent a letter to a terrorist I used to know.”

This opening line of VV Ganeshananthan’s Brotherless Night sets out some of the core ideas of the novel. Set in conflict-torn Sri Lanka, the book explores the obvious political tensions between various factions involved in a prolonged civil war but also, more importantly, traces the often-unchronicled histories of gendered trauma and resistance in war-ravaged cultures. Establishing a dialogue with the reader, Sashikala Kulenthiren, protagonist and narrator, says she used to be “what you would call” a terrorist, herself. “We were civilians first. You must understand: that word, terrorist, is too simple for the history we have lived...How could one word be enough? But I am going to say it anyway, because it is the language you know, and it will help you to understand who we were, what we were called, and who we have truly become.”

In this simple yet definitive act of separating herself from the reader, the “you” who is outside of her personal and political history, Sashi becomes both witness to and transcriber of a people’s history. Starting with her already tumultuous question of what turns a civilian into a terrorist, the book poses several more about responsibility, culpability, agency, home, exile, and love. Despite its obvious political intent, Brotherless Night refuses to be preachy. It does not check boxes of political correctness or posit easy solutions. Instead, it calls attention to injustice and demands accountability, even as it delivers a story that is entirely immersive.

An endless wait

Sashi’s narrative opens in Jaffna, in 1981. Jaffna, the Tamil-majority northern peninsula of Sri Lanka, was a major site of the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict, brought into sharper focus by the rise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the LTTE, in the early 80s. Sashi, at 16, wants to be a doctor, like her grandfather, so she can help people. Her four brothers, Niranjan, Dayalan, Seelan, and Aran, each with a distinct path chosen for himself, are all absorbed into the conflict, in varied ways. The “brotherless night” of the title is a reference to an interminably long night when her eldest brother goes missing in the anti-Tamil pogrom of Colombo in 1983. “Brotherlessness” becomes a condition Sashi is forced to grapple with over the course of the next six years she spends in Sri Lanka.

War interrupts her education, breaks up her family, takes away the boy she was falling in love with, and creates a constant state of unease and fear. The detailing of Sashi’s life in Jaffna, her brief relocation to Colombo, her work at a field hospital of the LTTE, her experiences of violence and the complete erasure of human rights in a land turned hostile are what drive the story. Bookending this decade of unrest is a prologue and a final chapter set in 2009, the year the Sri Lankan military finally defeated the LTTE, bringing the war to an end, at great cost to civilian lives. “Do you see now?” Sashi asks the reader. “Do you understand?” This insistence on the reader seeing and understanding a harsh truth remains the defining motivation for the protagonist as well as the novel.

In her 1989 work, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, Cynthia Enloe asked, “Where are the women?”. With the same agenda of getting the unfamiliar, typically English-speaking, global reader, to see and understand, she wrote: “One of the most important intellectual benefits that comes from paying serious attention to where women are in today’s international politics – and investigating how they got there and what they think about being there – is that it exposes how much more political power is operating than most non-gender-curious commentators would have us believe.”

Brotherless Night is an insightful study of some of these destabilising structures of power. As more and more boys leave home to join militant outfits, Sashi’s life, with its jagged, disrupted patterns, becomes an endless act of waiting. “Waiting was my true career,” she remarks. “I waited for my brothers, for governments, for politicians, and for examiners. I waited for K, I waited for my father. I waited for the war to start.” As war becomes a reality and militant groups take control of Jaffna, other strange patterns begin to emerge. Women’s bodies have been sites of violence in all wars and Sashi’s community has fared no differently. As militant groups start driving the army out, girls begin to feel safer. At the same time, women are pushed into stultifying gender roles and expected to be caregivers, providers of food to the cadres, and submissive, when it comes to the many sacrifices they are required to make. It falls to the women to “do the needful”, Sashi realises, as she negotiates the complexities of that liminal space between a civilian and a “terrorist”.

Women and war

The novel starts with an epigraph credited to Rajani Thiranagama that reads, “There is no life for me apart from my people.” Feminist, human rights activist, and teacher, Thiranagama was captured and subsequently assassinated by the LTTE for her very vocal critique of their violence. Ganeshananthan models one of her central characters, Anjali Premachandran, an esteemed teacher of anatomy, the only woman on the medical faculty at the University of Jaffna, and a formative influence on Sashi, on Thiranagama. Anjali becomes a crucial face of resistance, inspiring Sashi to pursue the difficult path of truth-telling, to write facts as they happened, to chronicle the people’s history, as distinct from the versions of it told by the government, the LTTE, and the IPKF.

One of the most powerful parts of the novel is its reconstruction of the Mother’s Front, a social movement in the 1990s that mobilised thousands of women across class lines. In the novel, the mothers come together to bring back their sons, taken away by the army, initiating a demand for accountability from the government. Resistance to coercive power need not only be covert, but the book also asserts again and again, bringing into focus women who refuse to silently comply. Ganeshananthan’s women are often angry, frequently assertive, and always acutely aware of their sociopolitical context.

The suppression of minority rights and the consequent rise of separatism has been an unfortunate part of the history of South Asia, as has the often-disastrous nature of international intervention. Brotherless Night is a commendably cohesive account of what happens to a people when their ethnic identity becomes the cause of their oppression and intended erasure. It turns a critical lens on the state’s failure, the excesses of militancy, as well as the extremely contentious role played in Sri Lanka by the Indian Peace Keeping Force, sent to resolve tension but soon transformed into yet another aggressor of the Tamil people. Counterpoised against the violence that marks the lives of Sashi and her brothers, is the fragility of a love story that could have been. There is also grief, stemming from various kinds of loss.

In a moving passage, Ganeshananthan writes about how in the pre-war world, there were no rituals of death for the young: “When the young began to die, we had no words for it.” There is much that is similarly unspeakable and unpalatable in the fractured world of the novel. It is tempting to read the book through the lens of international conflict feminism, but doing so would limit a powerful narrative to the reductive parameters defined by first-world concerns and vocabulary. The book is a story, told in the voices of those it belongs to, addressed to those who need to “see” and “understand”.

Brotherless Night, VV Ganeshananthan, Penguin Viking.