How Do You Understand War?

“We were eighteen forgotten men. We believed our government had given us up for dead. Six years is a long time to continue neither living nor dying.”– (Galappatti, 167)

The Commodore’s wife had been staying up late the night she heard of her husband’s fate. She’d been putting book jackets on their children’s school books. Her husband’s coworkers came by her house and she knew, as soon as she heard their voices outside, something was wrong. The first thing she did was ask them to get her mother. Then, in the morning, she woke the children. She did not tell them the news. She told their teachers. Her story would have been easier to write. Less muddled, and more congruent. Her anger was far stronger, far more potent. In a way, that’s understandable. He knew his fate for eight years; his family was left to fret over one horrible scenario after another, limited only by their imagination.

Any story about war will be devastating. The destruction, the crimes, the injustice. Stories about prisoners of war—well, you can’t imagine anything other than the monstrosities that they’d faced at the hands of their captors.  You expect the story to be full of anger, pain, and stories that will make you cringe to read. You expect the person who lived through them to be full of resentment and hate for his captors. Commodore Ajith Boyagoda, who was held as a prisoner of war for eight years by the Tamil Tigers, was not. The story is, to quote Michael Ondaatje, “tender and intimate, about one thread of a very long war”. A Long Watch was written as the memoir of a prisoner of war, but it is as much about the captors as it is about the prisoners. As much about war as it is about the injustice of it.

When the Commodore first approached Sunila Galappatti – who has worked with many people to tell their stories – about writing his memoir, she was hesitant about taking on the work.  Their first meeting, which she recaptures in the book’s prologue, is what convinced her.

“I made a decision,” reads Galappatti from the book, “when I was released from captivity that I wasn’t going to help make things worse. Over my career I had seen divisions between Sinhala and Tamil communities deepen enough. I wanted no further part in creating a cause for war. So when people asked me how the Tigers had treated me, I always said they treated me well. This was also the truth—my experience only fluctuated according to the goodness of each individual guard.”(Galappatii, x) She asked him why he was willing to put himself through the process of writing a memoir. “The war is a mistake”, he told her. “We won’t ever really understand it unless we know the stories that make it up.” His understated tone, his humble recounting of events, and his understanding of the injustice of war is what convinced Galappatti to begin a five-year journey to write his memoir. He was a military man who was questioning a military project. “If he had not seen the injustice, I would not have been able to write it,” Galappatti says.

Hearing one of your favourite authors interview another is a gift, a rare experience. There is a solidarity and an eloquence that is absent from the usual interviews, and Michael Ondaatje conducts the interview as only a master of his craft can. He asks about the process, the voice, the plan – how she approached the writing, how she made the choices about how to tell the story. For the most part, she says, she told the story as he told it; allowed him to drive the narrative. “We had three years of conversation. But it was five years total, as I was writing and calling him up when I needed to meet again.”

To capture his voice, and his version of events, repetition was key; she listened and watched the recordings of their sessions over and over to properly capture his tone. “Art is about transformation”, Galappatti says, as she didn’t want to write the story verbatim but important that we the readers experienced the story in his voice, one that was reflective of people who lived in Sri Lanka and experienced the war. With that said, she also wanted to capture the understated, calm, and judicious tone of a man who understood one major point: “I know mine is not the only story. I have heard screams coming from underground cells. But this is my story, such as it is.”(Galappatti, xi)

The notion of one story in many is something that Galappatti kept in mind throughout the project: “It was important to me to always keep in mind that I am writing one thread of a war; one story. This was his experience but I had to remember this is one story in hundreds and thousands.” She interviewed many others who had lived closer to the war, and the richness of the conversations and stories were the most rewarding parts of the process for her. While she did not deviate from the Commodore’s story, she always kept their lives and experiences in mind even as she told this particular story.

I know what happens to prisoners of war. Or at least, I have an idea. Two of my uncles were prisoners of war before I was born. Until I was ten I wasn’t even aware they’d been captured. They’d always been cheerful, carefree, full of jokes, and humour. One day a family friend turned to my aunt and said: “The war really changed them. They were so much happier before.” My aunt replied: “They came back from prison after two years. It changed them, even when they try not to show it.” When Galappatti tells us of the Commodore’s life after captivity, this is what I think of: You can’t go back to normal even if you imitate its motions, even if you do your best to put as much distance between now and then.

“When I came back I tried, in a way, to say as little as possible. I wanted to be man who had left eight years earlier. I didn’t want my wife and children to feel any more alienated from me than they did already, after such a long absence. I wanted to seem familiar around the house. I was not, of course.”  (Galappatti, ix)

So, how do you understand a war? Through what your politicians tell you? What the media shows you? Or do you listen—really listen—to the stories of the people who make up a war?