Magazine article The Spectator

Dear, Unhappy Isle

Magazine article The Spectator

Dear, Unhappy Isle

Article excerpt

MOSQUITO by Roma Tearne HarperCollins, £14.99, pp. 296, ISBN 9780007233656 . £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Roma Tearne's first novel of love and war is set almost entirely in the strife-torn island of Sri Lanka, and sweeps away only in its final pages to Venice and to London. It is a heart-rending story of an expatriate who returns to his homeland only to find himself immersed in a poisonous civil war that slowly escalates to shatter both relationships and any hope of safety.

Jealousy and revenge are the two strongest emotions in Sri Lanka, and when the British finally granted the country its independence in 1948 the politically powerful Sinhalese moved quickly to assert their power and position in politics. For eight years, following Ceylon's independence, the island was governed by the United National Party (UNP), really an interracial coalition of moderate and Westernised élites dedicated to peace and stability. In the 1956 elections, however, the UNP was replaced by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) under Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike. Although a member of the English-speaking élite, he had ties with the rural Sinhalese and knew how to harness Sinhalese nationalism under the slogan 'Religion, language, nation'.

Nationalism had been growing as a political force for linguistic, cultural, religious and economic reasons -- fully supported by the anti-Western Buddhist resurgence of the 1950s, the wish to preserve the Sinhalese language and traditions, and the discontent of the village élites who resented the power of the new urban elites. As unemployment rose, as agricultural land became scarcer, and as government jobs and contracts became harder to obtain, the Sinhalese majority turned against the United National Party and its allies, the Ceylon Tamils.

The Tamils, though a minority concentrated in the north, had done well under British rule because of their hard work, intelligence and fluency in English.

Comprising only 18 per cent of the population, they occupied more than 50 per cent of the civil service in 1956. Their numbers were also increasing thanks to the effective control of malaria; they were moving into traditional Sinhalese territory.

At the same time, the Sinhalese began coveting Tamil jobs. …

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