A Passage North, by Anuk Arudpragasam

A Passage North, by Anuk Arudpragasam, breaks a lot of the “rules” of fiction. There is no recorded dialogue between the characters. There is plot, but the bulk of the story consists of the recollections of the main character as he travels north for the funeral rites of the woman his family hired to take care of his aging grandmother. These recollections are beautifully written, full of Krishan’s thoughts about his former girlfriend, his grandmother’s reactions to getting old and unwell, the efforts by northern and southern Sri Lanka to recover from their long civil war, and the seemingly insurmountable distances between people who can’t find a way to fully communicate their inner lives to each other. This is one of the most meditative books I have ever read.

Krishan lives in Colombo with his mother and grandmother. He works at a job he doesn’t seem to care about very much. For fun, he goes out with unnamed friends to get drunk and smoke cigarettes or joints. He doesn’t seem to have many goals other than just living from day to day. And yet, Krishan doesn’t seem to rise (fall?) to the level of official depression. He’s sad and regretful about the end of his electric relationship with Anjum, who he met while he was studying in New Delhi—but he seems to understand that it couldn’t have worked out in the long run due to their personality differences and goals in life. Krishan strikes me as one of life’s observers; he lives like an outsider who is constantly watching and thinking about everything rather than engaging.

The simple plot of A Passage North begins when Krishan receives news that Rani, the woman his family hired to help his grandmother as she slowly declines, has died in an accident while visiting her family in the north. Obligation and affection lead Krishan to buy tickets to travel for her funeral. Rani, we learn, was deeply depressed at the deaths of her two sons and husband at the end of the civil war—to the point that she needed regular treatments of electroshock therapy—but helping Krishan’s grandmother seemed to give her a new purpose in life. As trains and buses take Krishan north from Colombo to Kilinochchi, he thinks. He thinks a lot.

A train on Sri Lanka’s northern line in December 2019 (Image via Wikicommons)

The train trip serves as a perfect metaphor for Krishan to think about the distance between people. Though he can understand the motivations and feelings of others intellectually, I was struck by how unconnected Krishan was from the rest of the people in his life. He doesn’t have big goals like activist Anjum. He doesn’t cling on to living the way his grandmother does. He doesn’t mourn the way Rani did. Even the literature he references in his memories—mostly centuries’ old Tamil poetry—feature characters who are physically or emotionally separated from their loved ones and just can’t communicate their deepest emotions and inner thoughts. Krishan doesn’t point to language or mental health as the failure point between people. Rather, it seems like distance between people is as natural as the weather.

Krishan’s trip north takes hours, but the ideas and feelings this book touches on shouldn’t be raced through the way the train covers the miles between north and south. A Passage North is a slow read. Arudpragasam, through Krishan, touches on loneliness, forgetting, remembrance, the passage of time, loss, regret, love, and so much more. Not only is there a lot of food for thought in its pages, it is also full of exquisitely beautiful prose. The writing is so lovely and expressive that it’s almost ironic that this book is about a character who can’t or won’t communicate his inner life to anyone. Readers who want to slow down and think deep thoughts for a while will find a lot to love in A Passage North.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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