Akil Kumarasamy’s story collection, Half Gods, is, I think, a collection that requires a bit of background reading before readers open its pages—unless readers are familiar with the Indian epic, the Mahabharata. Half Gods references the epic in character names, themes of war and exile and sacrifice, and, I’m sure, a lot of other things I missed because I am not familiar with Hinduism and Indian literature. Even without understanding the cultural references, these stories create an affecting portrait of an exiled Sri Lankan family (and their acquaintances) who fell apart when they lost their homeland.
Even though this is a collection, it’s best read as a whole work because the stories are so interconnected. I picked up the book after putting it down for the night and had to co back and re-read the first two stories because of all the call backs. As the stories move back and forth in time, a portrait of the Padmanathan family develops that spans from just before Sri Lanka became independent in 1948 to the present. Each story is either narrated by or focuses on a member of the family or acquaintance who knew the Padmanathan family.
Every character in these stories struggles to cope with loss. The family patriarch is perpetually angry at having to go into exile because he is a Tamil, an ethnic group that was (and possibly still is) oppressed by the Sinhalese majority. His daughter tries her best to be a good wife, but she falls in love with her brother-in-law and loses her marriage. The grandsons feel adrift between their Sri Lankan past and their American present. One of those sons, Karna (named for a character in the Mahabharata), wrestles with his sexuality.
Watching the characters battle internal and external fights creates an opportunity to look at the world through the eyes of an exile. What might it mean to know that you can never go back to a place where people speak your language, understand your world view, and so on? It’s little wonder that most of the characters carry a heavy emotional burden of anger or sorrow that they can’t find a way to put down. I suspect that, if I had read the Mahabharata, this collection would have been more than just a family portrait. Perhaps, the stories might represent an entire diaspora. That said, this is still a unique look at a family dealing with problems most people have never considered before.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 5 June 2018.