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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Like the lady who married Vikram Seth’s great uncle, Ruth Prawer was a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany. However the Indian she married, a Parsi architect, returned to India, so that it was as an Indian that she established herself as a writer. Indeed The Householder, her best known novel before she won the Booker Prize, had an emphatically Indian subject, a young man who takes time to fall in life with the wife to whom he had been married by arrangement.

Much of her work however was British in subject matter, if not in outlook. Esmond in India for instance is about a Englishman working in India after independence, who nevertheless behaves as though he could get away with anything. He is married to an Indian, but has an English mistress, and also takes advantage of various Indian women to whom his race marks him out as something special. Jhabvala’s exposure of a certain type of Englishman abroad, after Empire but with a sense of privilege, parallels Paul Scott’s account of the same phenomenon in a brilliant vignette in The Jewel in the Crown.

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This article is taken from the FOR THE RECORD section of the Reconciliation Website, www.peaceinsrilanka.org which subsumes the old site www.peaceinsrilanka.lk used by the former Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP). The articles in FOR THE RECORD are intended to counter those who promote division.  Though problems should be raised, and addressed, there must be balance, so as to avoid the perpetuation of bitterness.

I looked earlier at what I believe is the only specific allegation about war crimes brought against Sri Lanka, namely that based on the video broadcast by Channel 4 – though, as noted, the place where the incident was supposed to have taken place remains unspecified, and the time has been specified divergently. Apart from that there are only vast generalizations, and some assertions that were later belied.

The greatest of the generalizations is that of the numbers killed during the last few months of the fighting, where the figure enunciated by the Times, 20,000, is now seen as a base on which to build, and build, and build, regardless of evidence. No matter that the Times gave three different – and contradictory – reasons for its assertion, and that the base on which it built, 7,000, which it attributed to the UN, was denied by the UN. I have gone into all this at length[1] but obviously anything I say would not have anything like the impact of established newspapers, even if they are now obviously identified as politically driven. My Periclean scholar, who had heard of the Times figure, had not read any critique of this. Nor had she looked at the ICRC website with its record of the wounded who had been taken to government hospitals with the support of the navy, just around 6000 of them, suggesting that the number of fatalities (including combatants) was much less.

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This article is taken from the FOR THE RECORD section of the Reconciliation Website, www.peaceinsrilanka.org which subsumes the old site www.peaceinsrilanka.lk used by the former Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP). The articles in FOR THE RECORD are intended to counter those who promote division.  Though problems should be raised, and addressed, there must be balance, so as to avoid the perpetuation of bitterness.

It was I think Aristotle who said that the roots of injustice lay in comparing like things with unlike things, and unlike things with like things. Sadly, Aristotle is no longer well known in the West, not even intuitively, with Platonian certainties seeming a better way of dealing with current problems.

I am generalizing, of course, but I suspect Aristotle does not figure large in the general awareness of the bright young lady[1] who interviewed me with regard to un undergraduate project she was preparing, comparing Nazi Germany and Rwanda and Sri Lanka with regard to war crimes. The topic seemed dictated by the belief that what had happened with regard to the first two countries could provide guidance to what she termed the International Community as to the role they should play ‘in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s civil war’. She did note the possibility that they ‘should not play’ any role, but the whole approach seemed designed to beg the question – including the exaltation of terrorists into combatants in a civil war.

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Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth is arguably an odd writer to figure in this series of outstanding British prose writers of the last century. In the first place he is Indian and he did not stay on in England after his education, unlike Naipaul, an Indian who grew up in Trinidad but has since lived in Britain. Whereas Naipaul settled down in England after his undergraduate days at University College in Oxford, Seth (who was at Corpus Christi College) went on to America for graduate studies in economics, did field work in China, and finally returned to India to settle down.

Secondly, while I have not excluded books that deal with the colonies, the others I have looked at are concerned with the colonial or post-colonial experience, and Britishers figure largely as protagonists. Seth’s best novel, on the other hand, A Suitable Boy, is emphatically about Indians in the period after independence. So, brilliant though it is, that alone would not have been reason enough to include him here. And then, his first novel, The Golden Gate, was not only set in San Francisco in California, the opposite end of the English speaking spectrum from England, it was also written in verse. Besides, of his major prose works of non-fiction, one is a travelogue about China, and the other an account of his great-uncle and his German Jewish wife.

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This article is taken from the Reconciliation Website, www.peaceinsrilanka.org which subsumes the old site www.peaceinsrilanka.lk used by the former Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP).

Mass wedding of ex-LTTE combatants

While I was in Vavuniya last week at the Rehabilitation Centre where the Entrepreneurship Training Programme for Ex-Combatants was taking place, I was shown a video of the mass weddings of former combatants that had taken place a few months earlier. Vivek Oberoi had signed the register, and I had been told the occasion was one of great rejoicing. However, when we had a meeting with Civil Society regarding the Human Rights Action Plan, which our Ministry had formulated in 2009 and which is now being finalized by the Attorney General, it was alleged that the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation had forced youngsters into wedlock.

Questioning revealed that this was the usual type of loose statement indulged in by individuals who see themselves as operating protection agencies, or rackets, that depend on extorting money from frightened donors. The best way of frightening them is alleging untold horrors. Indignant allegations of rape had been for instance a favourite, soon after the welfare centres were established, though calls for evidence and careful sifting of allegations soon revealed that what had occurred was within the welfare centres, with no involvement by the security forces. Unfortunately, whether in extended families, or in crowded tents, unscrupulous elements had taken advantage of vulnerable women.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

February 2011
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