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.

Half Gods, by Akil Kumarasamy

36348067Akil 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 MahabharataHalf 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.

The Story of a Brief Marriage, by Anuk Arudpragasam

Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage captures the same feeling of ponderous mindfulness of L’Étranger by Albert CamusThe main character, Dinesh, has been living every day as though it’s his last. Given that his country has been gripped by a deadly civil war, this is not a radical position. The Story of a Brief Marriage unfolds over a scant two day period in which Dinesh might have the opportunity to look ahead to a future without war, if he and his new wife can survive the present.

Dinesh has, after months of constant moving, fetched up in a refugee camp where he works as a sort of orderly in a makeshift hospital. He hides in the nearby jungle most of the time because the camp is frequently shelled and cadres of the “movement” are always looking for healthy men to press into service. Dinesh has gotten used to thinking that he could die at any time and the chapters are full of long, detailed descriptions of Dinesh taking in everything about his bodily functions and actions. Early in The Story of a Brief Marriage, for example, we are treated to pages of Dinesh making what he thinks might be his last bowel movement. Everything is significant to him because it might be the very last time and he wants to remember what it felt like.

Dinesh is one of the few young, relatively healthy men left in the refugee camp, which makes him one of the few options for a old man looking for a husband for his daughter. The man worries that, without him, Ganga will have no one to protect her. So he talks Dinesh into marrying her, arguing that the movement might be less likely to take a married man and bribing him with the deed to his house and land. Dinesh takes the offer, but mostly to learn what it would be like to be married, to have companionship after so long alone.

Once married, Dinesh reflects (at length) about trust and touch and what the future might be like for he and Ganga. Ganga is understandably wary of Dinesh and I appreciated her prickly practicality, especially after Dinesh’s fleshy meditations. Dinesh is so zen-like most of the time that I admit to skimming paragraphs of his ponderings. Because of the title of this short novel, however, I knew their relationship wouldn’t last. I was braced for whatever it was that would end it.

I thought a lot of L’Étranger as I read The Story of a Brief Marriage because they are both existentialist. L’Étranger is a philosophical, slightly artificial examination of existence by a bored, disaffected pied-noirThe Story of a Brief Marriage is much more realistic in that Dinesh constantly faces his own mortality. Both novels have a slow pace, full of reflection and wondering about the meaning of every detail and action. The pace forced me to slow down as well, to consider the outsized significance of the little details of living in an active war zone.

The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jeffries

Gwen was not at all prepared for life on her new husband’s tea plantation in the highlands of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Her loving veteran husband, on his home turf, is taciturn, secretive, and far too willing to grant the wishes of his sister and former lover. The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jeffries, is the story of a young woman who has to learn to navigate the complicated family history she has landed in the middle of and find a measure of happiness for herself.

In the first third of The Tea Planter’s Wife, Gwen strongly reminded me of the second Mrs. de Winter, from Rebeccathough her story is much less sinister than that poor girl’s. Gwen’s husband is a widower, but no one will talk about Caroline or how she died. Still, Caroline’s memory casts a long shadow over Laurence and Gwen’s marriage. There is also a big difference in the newlyweds’ ages. Laurence pushes aside many of Gwen’s concerns, especially ones that have to do with how he interacts with his former lover. (There’s too much flirting and too many business deals for Gwen’s liking.) Gwen struggles, alone, to find a place for herself.

Events turn when Gwen gives birth to twins. One, a boy, is white, but the other, a daughter, has dark skin. Gwen is terrified that someone took advantage of her the night she got blackout drunk at a party (even though the supposed parentage of her twins is biologically dubious). So Gwen does the terrible thing she feels she must in the deeply racist white society of Ceylon. Gwen has her servant take the girl away to be raised with a Sinhala family. Now that Gwen has her own secret, she fits in much better with her new family.

The Tea Planter’s Wife runs from 1925 to 1934. Over those years, Gwen slowly pieces together the family’s history while concealing her guilt and agony over her abandoned daughter. On the surface, the Hooper family seem like some of Ceylon’s leading lights. But underneath, the family is severely dysfunctional. I enjoyed the ethical complexity of the family; Gwen is no innocent like the second Mrs. de Winter and I found her much more interesting (though hardly sympathetic for it). The flaw in this book is that the ending fizzles with too-quick resolutions of the major plot threads.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley and Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 27 September 2016.

River of Ink, by Paul M.M. Cooper

Throughout Paul M.M. Cooper’s novel, River of Ink, protagonist Asanka is taunted by his lover that “poetry does nothing.” For the first third of the book, this is easy to believe. Polonnuwara (northern Sri Lanka) has just been conquered by Kalinga Magha. The previous king had his eyes gouged out and was beheaded right in front of Asanka. Asanka is terrified of the new king, too afraid to act when others around him start resisting and rebelling. Besides, what can a court poet do anyway? By the end of River of Ink, we learn that a poet can be a hero.

Asanka doesn’t lose his position as court poet after the old king’s murder. The new king is paranoid and violent, but has aspirations to bring the glories of Hindu religion and culture to the island. So, in the middle of the violence, Kalinga Magha gives Asanka a task: to translate the Shishupala Vadha into Sinhala and Tamil from Sanskrit. The epic poem, which tells the story of Krishna killing the villain Shishupal, is extraordinarily complex. Even in peacetime, without a madman supervising the job, translating the Shishupala Vadha would be a huge undertaking. It’s a wonder that Asanka can take on even a small part of it without dissolving in a puddle of terror.

Surprisingly, Asanka finds a way to turn the mad king’s favorite poem against him. The sabotage starts small. First, Asanka starts to describe the villain of the poem using Kalinga Magha’s enormous eyebrows. The king doesn’t spot the caricature, but the people do. Asanka’s parody of the king gets bigger and bigger. By the end, Asanka is mocking the Hindu gods and heroes—to the delight of everyone who can see the comedy. The oblivious king helps spread the poem by having it copied and published as soon as Asanka completes a section.

While Asanka continues his subterfuge with the Shishupala Vadha, he has a mystery to unravel. He starts to receive short poems that break all the rules of poetry he spent his life mastering. The poems are narrated by characters from the Shishupala Vadha, explaining their motives and adding to the story. The secret poet helps Asanka make bigger changes to the original poem, pushing further into satire and mockery.

Throughout River of Ink, Kalinga Magha tells Asanka it’s his dharma to translate the Shishupala Vadha and bring it to the people of Sri Lanka. Dharma is usually translated as duty, but this misses the nuance of the word. Kalinga Magha believe that the poet’s dharma is whatever the king tells him it is. But in truth, dharma is a higher duty to do the right thing.

The Bhagavad Gita is referenced a number of times in River of Ink. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is told over and over (by Krishna, no less) that it’s his duty to make war on his brothers. By making war, Arjuna will restore the status quo. This is the simplest reading of the Bhagavad Gita and the one that Kalinga Magha espouses: might can make right. But Asanka, near the end of River of Ink, says something that reminded me of the philosophy professor who taught me the Bhagavad Gita when I was an undergrad. Perhaps one’s higher duty, one’s dharma, is to respond to violence with nonviolence. (My philosophy professor would be pleased. He told us that he cited the Bhagavad Gita when he declared himself to be a conscientious objector when he was drafted for Vietnam.)

Does poetry accomplish nothing? Not in Asanka’s hands. In spite of his cowardice, Asanka’s translation takes away much of the fear people feel for the invaders and their new king. The king tells Asanka that it’s his dharma to translate the Shishupala Vadha and, while this might be Asanka’s fate, the poet still has the free will to decide how he will translate the poem.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 26 January 2016.