“[T]ime never seemed to be heading anywhere but was always circling, returning, and repeating, bringing the self back to itself.”
This line from Anuk Arudpragasam’s second novel, A Passage North (2021), hauntingly encapsulates our ongoing, living crisis – one that is marked by recurring lockdowns, waves of disease, and worst of all, the fear of death. As I made my way through the novel in July this year, the Subcontinent was still reeling from the ravaging second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Sri Lanka, cases and desperate pleas for help continued. Burial grounds – such as the one in Oddamavadi in the island nation’s Eastern Province – saw a sudden surge in the number of bodies, also as a consequence of the revocation of the government’s controversial mandate of cremating the deceased. Meanwhile, escalating clashes between Afghan security forces and the Taliban was a portent of yet another distressing picture for the country’s civilians.
One of the questions A Passage North asks is – can one emerge unscathed despite being unharmed by conflict? The novel quietly reflects upon the discordance with the self, the emotional cost of displacement, and the survivors’ guilt that continues to gnaw at those spared by violence and tragedy. A certain wistfulness drifts over the narrative, protracting time and slowing down the suddenness of occurrence.
Set in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil war, the book is narrated by its protagonist Krishan – a young, middle-class man working for an NGO in Colombo. An unexpected phone call informing him of the death of his ailing Appamma’s former caretaker Rani makes him undertake the titular train journey from Colombo in the southwest to Kilinochchi in the Northern Province – the erstwhile administrative centre of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) until 2009, still recovering from the horrors of the war – to attend Rani’s funeral. Rani, we are told, died under mysterious circumstances (possibly by suicide, Krishan suspects), found at the bottom of a well. Her irreparable trauma, induced by the deaths of her sons – one killed by shelling on the penultimate day of the war, and the other who lost his life fighting as a recruit of the Tigers – is an incontestable trigger for her death.
He writes in ambulatory, disquisitional sentences – sans dialogue – the kind where the reader ends up hearing the hammer of hard truths.
In May 2009, the Sri Lankan government declared victory over the LTTE – a separatist militant organisation that demanded an independent nation state for the Tamil ethnic minority in the island’s north and east – thus quashing the idea of Eelam, or a promised Tamil homeland. Anti-Tamil pogroms, often camouflaged by the government as a ‘rescue operation’, had reached an inflection point. Enforced disappearances meant that the deaths of those who were missing couldn’t be accounted for. According to an estimate by the United Nations, the war killed between 40,000 to 70,000 Tamil civilians and left over a million displaced, even though human-rights organisations postulate that the figure was higher, while the Sri Lankan government vehemently disputes it. In Arudpragasam’s account, the characters’ continuing experience of the trauma long after the war had ended makes the reader attentive to its lingering aftershocks and not just the immediacy of the carnage. As the author puts it, “sudden or violent deaths could occur not merely in a war zone…but during the slow, unremarkable course of everyday life.”
Sites of dissonance
In Arudpragasam’s debut novel The Story of a Brief Marriage (2016), a harrowing scene plays out during the near-culmination of the war. One of the lead characters, Dinesh, a young Tamil man, and his mother are moving from one encampment to another when a series of detonations go off. Gathering their possessions, they scramble towards the main road when Dinesh’s mother collapses to the ground. The indiscriminate bombings constrain Dinesh to abandon her, as “staying or slowing down could only mean death.” The circumstances leave him helpless; he does nothing but drape a sari over her body, perhaps as a hurried gesture of offering dignity. Feeling the need for a strange sense of reassurance, he leaves their two bags beside her, thinking they would “protect her and provide her also with some identity” and that she “would not be alone.”
The desertion of Dinesh’s mother, Rani’s sudden death, those who succumbed during the pandemic, and those who are killed by way of conflict and displacement are all losses that could have been averted. People die in ways they do not deserve to die. In times that have come to feel entirely splintered, nothing you read about Arudpragasam’s work prepares you for the blow of it, as “for most people in most places, even Sri Lanka, death was a process that began decades before the heart stopped beating.”
A measured circumspection
Born and raised in the Sinhalese-majority capital of Colombo, Arudpragasam – who studied philosophy at Columbia University – writes about the violence that he barely has agency over and is sufficiently cognisant of his status and sheltered privilege. He does not merely recognise this to validate his conscious self but does so with tact and grace. Just like Krishan, Arudpragasam navigates an urbane, modern, postcolonial landscape with ease, one where strife has barely had a peripheral presence. The fact that Krishan was able to safely return to Colombo from New Delhi – where he was studying – at a time when numerous Tamils were forced to flee their country is telling of his comfortable distance from poverty and shelling.
People die in ways they do not deserve to die.
Perhaps it helps that Arudpragasam is insulated from ground reality in terms of both circumstance and location. Having witnessed the war only virtually, he uses the Proustian trope of the recovery of a lost past and the stimulation of unconscious memory to attempt to bring forth his position as an inside-outsider, an artificer of a world he hasn’t inhabited. Who is telling the story no doubt matters, and he iterates in earlier interviews that the novel was written out of a sense of guilt. We see this extended to Krishan, who, overcome by his powerlessness and near-solipsism, has “a desire to punish himself for what he’d escaped by exposing himself to it as violently as he could,” as he immerses himself in images and videos of the war online, and feels “shame at his own easy existence.” Arudpragasam works through the details of the conflict circuitously; history is whittled down to the level of the individual. At one point, while debating whether he should approach Rani with an offer to live with them and look after Appamma, Krishan mulls about how he would “feel guilty living opposite someone who’d suffered so much and now had nothing, not even her mental health”. Even though his father was killed in one of the Tiger bombings of Colombo, Krishan had grown up ensconced in comfort and “never had to experience violence directly…nothing more than casual racism here and there, threatening interrogations by police and soldiers on the street.”
Arudpragasam does not lay out the political underpinnings of the war, nor is his novel deeply rooted in historical research. In his writing, he is an empathetic observer who refrains from approaching the conflict head-on but does so with measured circumspection. He consciously keeps explications of the origins of the war at bay, probing into the political largely by means of the personal. The political discourse is quelled, perhaps because doing so gives the reader a more sombre, intimate confrontation of the psychological repercussions of violence. By attending the funeral, Krishan thinks that he will ascertain the actual cause of Rani’s death but is left grappling with the thought that the chronically depressed were “compelled to take their minds with them wherever they went, like moveable, invisible prisons in which they were trapped.”
Mapping a psychogeography
The train journey Krishan undertakes is a catalyst for another journey – rather a hankering delirium – he lets the reader in on, one that plays out in his mind. He harks back to a brief romance he once shared with a woman named Anjum whom he had met while in New Delhi a few years earlier. They are two people trying to make a go at togetherness – their relationship is impassioned and often confusing, manifesting a swarm of contradictory emotions and deluding self-awareness, and a “tenderness that marked the transition between falling in love and actually loving someone.” Anjum, an activist, is deeply invested in her political work, and even though she likes Krishan, he feels that she is one among those people “whose being was so taken up with a yearning for another world that no single person, no love or no romantic relationship, could ever fill the absence in her soul.” Upon parting ways, Krishan experiences a sense of respite tinged with despair, of having to confront “the strange nonexistence of his person,” which felt carefree in the presence of Anjum but once he was by himself, “he experienced only as an unsettling loss of self.”
One senses that Anjum represents several things Krishan wants to be, and that she is in some way more closely related to his world: devoting her time and effort towards women’s and labour movements, working towards a cause with conviction. Arudpragasam acknowledges and illustrates this conflict – of being with one’s own self versus being with another – with disturbing clarity, by leading the reader towards Krishan’s sense of, at times, feeling tethered to Anjum, compelled by “a need to prove both to himself and to her that he had a cause of his own, an independent destiny that would lead him somewhere with or without her.”
Arudpragasam’s characters prophesy possibilities, defer desires, mull over the outcomes of their impending actions, and hope for possibilities of another world – worlds that do not yet exist, but might.
While The Story of a Brief Marriage takes place over the tiny capsule of a day and a night along a narrow coastal strip in the throes of war, A Passage North oscillates over stretches of time as Krishan sifts through them in his mind, long after the war is over. In the former, Dinesh, living in a camp, and struggling to stay alive, spends his time burying the dead and tending to the wounded, constantly in fear of armed agents or imminent shelling, whereas in the latter, Arudpragasam approaches violence only obliquely. Dinesh has lost his entire family to the war, and is married off hastily to Ganga, another Tamil evacuee living in the same camp. Marriage would offer women an odd kind of freedom during the war – to escape from detention or the clutches of forcible military conscription, or as a marker of security from the infliction of abuse.
Arudpragasam’s protagonists have a propensity to let their minds wander. Both Dinesh and Krishan are perceptive, their comportment and composure sensitive, their thoughts and actions deliberate and cautious. Dinesh, for instance, “needed to be shut off completely in order to cry, as far away from other people and in as enclosed a place as possible,” takes long, careful steps, “becoming increasingly anxious about stepping on something dead,” and in an attempt to talk to Ganga, feels that if he waited too long, “it would be difficult to resume talking…each of them would fall back into their separate worlds, and the conversation would come to a permanent end.” Meanwhile, upon arriving at Rani’s funeral, Krishan looks at her relatives “with an uncertain smile, searching their faces for any sign of resentment, for any sign that they, if not Rani’s daughter, might hold him responsible for what had happened,” and on the train with Anjum, he cannot help “suspecting that her feelings had changed, that she no longer felt the same overwhelming urge to put aside everything else so they could give themselves up to each other.” The loneliness of both Dinesh and Krishan is mottled by their undertaking of painful personal excavations. In fact, as Krishan thinks about Rani and pieces together wreckage from the war, he is also thinking of people like Dinesh.
Taking a line for a walk
Bleached of line breaks, direct speech or full stops, sentences flow in a stream-of-consciousness manner in Arudpragasam’s work, reminiscent of the writings of Clarice Lispector or José Saramago. He writes in ambulatory, disquisitional sentences – sans dialogue – the kind where the reader ends up hearing the hammer of hard truths, and plunges into Krishan’s roving thoughts. What propels the prose forward is not action or event but an unhurried, sustained inquiry. Sentences do not lose their firmness; they saunter, no doubt, but are almost sinewy to the touch, each attempting to make a distinctive point without succumbing to ornateness. The narrative is smack in the middle of the personal and the political – an emotional battleground where the characters’ hopes and fears play out.
The novel quietly reflects upon the discordance with the self, the emotional cost of displacement, and the survivors’ guilt that continues to gnaw at those spared by violence and tragedy.
The reader is not shepherded into Arudpragasam’s worlds – there were junctures where I had to pause, shut the book, and go back to it after a few minutes. His proclivity towards arranging the story in the form of a slow-motion bricolage comprising stasis and staccato through the prism of memory and time as opposed to a chronological progression lends it a tacit, near-meditative quality. He further tries to anchor Krishan’s itinerant mind by alluding to documentary and archival material – such as the story of the inmate Kuttimani and the Welikada Prison Massacres of 1983, or retellings of classical Tamil, Pali and Sanskrit poetry as a metaphorical tool.
Anatomising the “infra-ordinary”
Arudpragasam taps into – as French novelist Georges Perec would put it – the “infra-ordinary,” the opposite of extraordinary, or those elements one would otherwise sidestep. Like creating object lessons or field notes, he is attentive of disquiet, and makes miniatures of quotidian moments and the vulnerabilities we tend to forget – be it smoking a cigarette alone, noticing strangers’ gazes on the Delhi Metro, or being transfixed by flames engulfing a funeral pyre. Portrayals of grief are far from explicit; instead, grief is stowed away in the actions of the everyday.
Arudpragasam’s characters are drawn out in near-forensic detail – they flinch, second-guess, hold back and speculate. The overt use of the words “perhaps” and “maybe” in the novel denotes the probability of what gets buried with the passage of time and distance. His characters share strange companionable silences. They prophesy possibilities, defer desires, mull over the outcomes of their impending actions, and hope for possibilities of another world – worlds that do not yet exist, but might. One gleans from the text that each character lives out their life in quest of a person or place or situation that is marked by absence, pining to dwell in an alternate existence. For instance, while Appamma, who is slowly receding from the present, seeks to be able to participate and be attuned to the moment, Rani aches for a world that existed before she lost her two sons. This desire for another world is also epitomised in Tamil history, where the evacuees escaping destruction coveted a world free of separatist movements, but whose only memory of the place is that of violence.
A deliberate erasure of memory
The seeds of the civil war were sown in the decades preceding the conflict. The Sinhala Only Act of 1956, passed by the Parliament of Ceylon eight years after independence established Sinhalese as the state’s official language, thus failing to recognise Tamil, which was spoken by around two million of the population. The burning of the library in Jaffna in 1981, with tacit support of security forces, was a colossal spur for the separatist movement. After the end of the war, the Sri Lankan army demolished cemeteries across the Tiger-held territory of the northeast, leaving barely a trace of the cadres “who’d died fighting in anonymity for a future that never materialized.”
Memory is a double-edged sword – it can both trigger and heal, but being compelled to repress memory by those in power is perhaps akin to subjugation or inducing amnesia.
Sinhala-Tamil tensions, however, were not the sole trigger for the war. A history of prior colonisations, including incursions by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British, and the slave trade at the behest of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), perhaps contributed to the unrest. The policies introduced by the Sri Lankan government post-independence – particularly while designing the constitution – deliberately marginalised the Tamil population. The disenfranchising of Indian Tamils; ethnic-based quota systems which fuelled Tamil discontent; and the Sinhala-led insurgency of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna in the south led to further turmoil. The newly-elected United Front government’s promulgation of a new constitution in 1972 granted Buddhism the foremost place in the country’s religious hierarchy. The relationship between the Left political forces and the majority ethnonationalist ideology, followed by the gradual decline of the Left in the late 1970s, are other watershed developments that cumulatively built up to the sharpening of separatist ideologies, and eventually, the war.
The closing weeks of the war in early 2009 – a chunk of which played out in the coastal village of Mullivaikal in the northeast – saw some of the most brutal atrocities in modern history. No Fire Zones were bombed by the army (while the Sri Lankan government admits to using artillery to target the LTTE forces, it denies targeting No Fire Zones), desperate hunts for missing family members were met with nothing but mangled limbs and marred bodies, evacuees were compelled to bury their dead in mass graves, and as the LTTE lost literal ground, a slew of alleged horrors began to be inflicted upon Tamil prisoners of war. But Arudpragasam does more than simply laying bare the facts or even documenting a sort of all-embracing plaintiveness to the suffering. While the pursuit of recording the war and its aftermath has yielded a number of non-fiction accounts, through his novel, we are reminded of what fiction is capable of endeavouring. Thinking about these acts of horror, Krishan realises that in the absence of “the physical objects that allowed it to operate organically, memory had to be cultivated consciously and deliberately.” But how could the average person get themselves to “actively cultivate their memory of a world now gone when there were so many more urgent concerns, how to make ends meet, how to rebuild their homes, how to educate their children, concerns that filled up all their mental space?”
In Arudpragasam’s peregrinatory prose, grief comes back in small and big waves.
Rani’s inability to disremember her loss sharply contradicts the state’s efforts at erasing memories of violence. Memory is a double-edged sword – it can both trigger and heal, but being compelled to repress memory by those in power is perhaps akin to subjugation or inducing amnesia. Losses like those of Rani’s should exist in some way outside of those who have experienced these losses so that others do not fail to recall.
The rest of the world knew little about the war as it unfolded. The Sri Lankan government was accused of war crimes, and omissions from global news meant that the atrocities inflicted by the state were largely invisibilised. Early in the novel, Krishan recounts how his initial reluctance to realise the sheer magnitude of what had taken place at the climax of the war was shattered first in 2011 when a Channel Four documentary was aired, “accusing the government of war crimes and genocide,” and later that year when the United Nations published a report with an estimate of how many civilians had lost their lives. Those on the social and geographic margins were left to deal with the consequences themselves – of communities being polarised, homes pockmarked by bullet holes and an indelible stigma of being termed as a “refugee”. Those who managed to escape to Tamil Nadu are still denied citizenship by the Indian state, their refugee status in limbo, threatened by deportation. This is further compounded by the fact that India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Unsettling parallels of state-sponsored tyranny emerge in the Subcontinent in recent times: the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status, Muslims in Assam stripped of citizenship and detained under the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and denying Rohingyas the right to live in Myanmar.
A gendered violence?
For asylum-seekers and those who had previously joined the LTTE as combatants but left mid-way – women, in particular – reintegrating themselves into society remains a challenge. At one point in the novel, Krishan is fixated with thoughts of the intrepidness of Dharshika and Puhal, two cadres in their twenties belonging to the Black Tigers – a division of the LTTE specialising in planned suicide missions and attacks on political leaders – who fought for the cause for a separate Tamil state, and in the process, gave up their lives. While Dharshika is seen to possess a sense of unfettered bravado, Puhal’s conviction involves a willingness on her part to “reflect on her vulnerability in ways that Dharshika seemed unable or unwilling.” He first encounters them in a documentary he had watched many years ago, and is struck by their feisty nature and the fact that “they not only had no fear of dying but were in fact looking forward to it…even impatient for it.” Moreover, if a cadre betrayed the cause of the Tigers, they would be punished with execution, and Dharshika and Puhal – despite being best friends – would not flinch even the slightest if the need arose where one had to kill the other. For those like Dharshika and Puhal, death was, more often than not, planned and controlled; and if they did not die in this manner, they would be relegated into social exile, abandoned by their families, subjected to sexual violence by the Sri Lankan army, or labelled for straying from gender norms to become commandants with the Tamil Tigers. For people like Rani, trauma was “something that had to coexist with all the various exigencies of daily existence,” and in this context, Arudpragasam’s novel also becomes a lens for understanding the gendered ostracisation and psychic consequences that continue well beyond the war. In fact, while Krishan is no stranger to the trauma of those in the northeast where his work occasionally took him, “he hadn’t become close enough to anyone to witness their traumas first hand. It was only on moving back to Colombo and living opposite his grandmother and Rani, observing the dynamic that had formed between the two women, that he began to wonder whether it was his own stance that had been misplaced.”
An attempt to commemorate
The place of imagination is political in Arudpragasam’s attempt to memorialise, viz writing, becomes an act of commemoration. By bearing witness through material memory, the author memorialises both Tamil lives lost during one of the most brutal clashes in modern history and the moments of daily life that otherwise slip past. For instance, Krishan, at Rani’s funeral, is a mere spectator and not a participant. The funeral is performed by narrating a gradual account over three chapters since it is not possible for one to memorialise publicly; writing then becomes a process of archiving, of history-keeping.
In Arudpragasam’s peregrinatory prose, grief comes back in small and big waves. He creates a world that is appropriately plangent – at several junctures, painfully beautiful – about the human condition. A Passage North is intimate yet extreme; the novel’s quiet feat is that it makes the reader think about their own mortality, and what it means to be alive when encircled by loss.