In A Long Watch Commodore Ajith Boyagoda of the Sri Lankan Navy reflects on how the story of the Sagarawardene, the ship of which he was captain, was one he had read long before it was one he told. Commodore Boyagoda was the highest ranking prisoner detained by the Tamil Tigers during the civil war. He spent eight years in captivity before his release in 2002.
When Commodore Boyagoda finally decided to speak about his experience in detail, it was to Sunila Galappatti. The memoir they have produced together has been described by Michael Ondaatje as “the best book yet on the war in Sri Lanka.”
One of the things that makes it so is the writer. A Long Watch marks Galappatti’s debut. A former Director of the Galle Literary Festival Galappatti has also had stints at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Live Theatre.
Written from Commodore Boyagoda’s perspective, A Long Watch is narrated with an honesty that does not fear the complexity of human relationships. It finds a quiet space amid the noise of a country at war with itself. It makes room for the sometimes impossible contradictions Sri Lankans have long lived with. Beautifully observed, elegant without embellishment and deeply felt, this feels like a story that makes many other stories possible. Excerpts from an interview with Galapatti in the run-up to the launch of the book.
I’d like to begin at the end, with a line from your acknowledgements. You write that “it was a book written first for those who knew this war and then for those who did not.” How did this determination shape A Long Watch?
What mattered most to me, and to the Commodore, was how this book would feel to a reader in Sri Lanka, wherever else it might be read. Sometimes I read books about Sri Lanka – good books – and feel alienated. When too much is explained for example, or there is bold summarising of our lives, then I know the book wasn’t written for us. Have you had that experience? I’m sure insiders always feel this way but I think it can be especially painful to those who have lived through conflict (in many very different ways); whose experiences feel not only personal but complicated, contested, unprotected.
When you were approached to write this book, your first, what drew you to Commodore Boyagoda’s story?
The way he told it. This book has all the ingredients of a sensational prisoner of war story – an attack on a ship at night, chains, rumours of collaboration, a hunger strike – but in a way I took it on for the opposite reason. At my first meeting with Commodore Boyagoda, I was struck by the understated way he spoke.
He described his captivity in very normal language – it had of course been his normality for eight years of his life. I felt there was something we might learn from hearing that quiet voice. It reminded me of the way I’ve heard others speak of experiences of loss and disappearance through our many conflicts – experiences that are now intrinsic to their lives and which they have to live with every day.
Throughout the years in which I worked with Commodore Boyagoda on this story, he continued to speak in this voice. Often it would be a throwaway comment that reminded me how extreme the experience was he was describing. He told me how in one camp he used to go to the door of his cell and try and pick out an object far away to focus his eyes on – a tree or the sky. The muscles of his eyes would never otherwise get to relax, he said, as in a 10 x 3 foot cell you’re only ever focusing on objects close at hand.
The Commodore is not a man to go in for elaborate description – it was often the smaller details that I found most moving. He had the fortune to be a declared prisoner, and was sent books to read by the ICRC. He told me that one of these books was A Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela’s account of his own life and imprisonment.
Commodore Boyagoda said the book served to remind him of greater strength and tenacity – if Mandela had survived a longer, harsher prison sentence, surely he could manage his own. Sometimes, he said, he would read to the end of the book, then turn back to the beginning and start again.
Walk us through how this book took shape. Did the book settle into its present structure early on? When did you begin to feel like you could narrate this story in his tone, his voice?
You know, I realise that I have now almost forgotten the work and deliberation that went into this book. When I was going through my papers for a photograph to give you, I found old notes, plans, timelines, lists of questions, newspaper cuttings and of course bundles of the ICRC forms on which the Commodore and his family wrote to each other.
I’d packed everything away carefully, terrified that a leaking roof might damage the Commodore’s letters before I could return them to him, and opening that cupboard reminded me that I’d spent five years working on this book.
But the way I wrote the book really followed instinct I’d had at the start – that I had to tell the story in the Commodore’s voice: as a first person narration and with a discipline to tell his story, not to colour it in myself. It wasn’t automatically easy to write in his voice – he being a military man of his generation and experience, my being a civilian woman of my own time and place. I finally felt able to do it after a lot of close listening.
For about three and a half years Commodore Boyagoda and I met, twice a week, for two hours at a time. He would tell his story and I would listen. Then for another year, perhaps, I listened to recordings of those conversations. Eventually, I felt I could catch his tone and meaning with enough nuance to put it in writing.
My training comes from working in classical, contemporary and documentary theatre – I found that the precision and discipline I was taught in that trade was the most useful to me in completing this project.
Commodore Boyagoda draws on his own experience in personal recollections of high ranking LTTE officials and reflections on ways that both the LTTE and the Forces conducted themselves through the war. In doing so he challenges binary narratives of the conflict. What do you hope will come of sharing these stories with a wider audience?
We should be very clear this is not a whistle-blower book; not an exercise in naming or shaming. The Commodore always said, “We’re not here to light more fires.” We set out only to tell one among the hundreds of thousands of stories that exist about this war, knowing too that it is not a typical story.
If I hope for anything, it is that when people read this book they will be moved to speak of their own histories. I think books sometimes work this way – the story in the book sometimes gives shelter and protection to other stories that we tell each other, around it.
As someone pointed out to me last week, it helps that the Commodore tells his story so gently – we don’t feel shocked or distanced from it; rather, it reminds us of gentler ways to talk of what we have experienced and to reflect on our history. I don’t mean that it will be painless, or that it will right the wrongs of the past; only that it is another way to talk.
One aunty at school told me that you would come home with Ammi. I was waiting for Ammi to come home.
After Ammi came home, she cried and cried. If I had come with her to see you, we would have found a way to bring you back, no? Don’t the LTTE uncles know that we’re here in Colombo?
Appachchi, I came third in the swimming meet but later they said I was fourth. I have left the band. We went on a trip with the band. Ammi also came. I’m in the choir for Poson bakthi-gee, and I play badminton in school. Wednesdays and Fridays, Ammi comes. Tuesdays and Saturdays are Elocution. Ammi and Appachchi are like the Titanic story, no? My Aiyas said so.
From Chuti Putha— (Translated from Sinhala)
For me this book, despite its specificity and its loyalty to a single perspective, is about more than the man himself. It is about how Sri Lanka has changed as well. Some of the most moving sections come early on, when Commodore Boyagoda remembers for instance the relationship the forces had with civilians before the conflict broke out. What was your response to these glimpses of Sri Lanka’s past?One day the Commodore said in passing that in the old days the crows in Kandy were different from the crows in Colombo. And suddenly I remembered that from my own childhood. We would drive to Colombo from Peradeniya, where we lived at the time, and the air would change and the birds were quicker and more ashen in the city.
But I, born at the very end of the 1970s, don’t really remember the country before the war got going. So it was by talking to the Commodore that I think I began really to appreciate the scale of the change that took place in the fabric of everyday life.
He says himself, had he remained in the world at large throughout that time, he may not have registered it either. But coming back after eight years in captivity the impression was stark. I sometimes think of this book as a sideways look at a history we need not have had – had we anticipated it better – but which is now inside us.
You chose to write Commodore Boyagoda's story in this book. His is one view and there will be countless others. How did you address that tension in your writing and in your conversations with him?
I admit thought about this a lot at the start. We are schooled to question every story that is told. I asked the Commodore questions, I wondered how I could get the facts all straight. But over time I grew to understand that even after all the material I gathered what was most revealing were in fact the personal reflections of a man making sense of his life and his history.
Neither he nor I would ever suggest this is the only authoritative account. The Commodore has often pointed out that his cellmates would have their own stories to tell and that many others who could add to the story are dead.
One day I went to talk with Mrs Boyagoda. I was meeting her for the first time; a woman whose courage had been very clear to me in the account I’d heard from her husband. The stories she told remain with me still, from the moment she heard the voices of friends at her window one night and realised something must have happened. She told me how she decided to break the news to her sons in stages: their father had been captured and she could give them no satisfactory answers about what would happen next.
The boys were at the time nine, seven, and less than two years old. There is at least another book to be written, even within this one family, about the experiences of this woman and her sons over the subsequent eight years.
This interview was originally published here in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka.