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Posts from the ‘Anuk Arudpragasam’ Category

“A Passage North”

He couldn’t help thinking, as the train hurtled closer toward his destination, that he’d traversed not any physical distance that day but rather some vast psychic distance inside him, that he’d been advancing not from the island’s south to its north but from the south of his mind to its own northern reaches.

If literature had an equivalent to the culinary slow food movement, then the Sri Lankan writer Anuk Arudpragasam would surely be one of its leading proponents. He can spend paragraphs, sometimes pages, observing characters in his two novels as they go about simple activities such as sleeping or bathing. His first novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage, plunged the reader deep into Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war which lasted from 1983 to 1989. In that book Dinesh is a young man living in a crowded refugee camp of some tens of thousands of people. He volunteers at a clinic where he meets a young woman Ganga, whose father immediately suggests that the two marry. Marriage just might provide a modicum of protection from some of the risks they face as individuals from the soldiers from both sides of the war when they occasionally raid the camps. Single men are more easily forced into conscription and taken away to fight. Single women are routinely raped.

In his second novel, A Passage North (NY: Random House, 2021), Arudpragasam tells us right off the bat that one of his main subjects is going to be time.

The present, we assume, is eternally before us, one of the few things in life from which we cannot be parted. It overwhelms us in the painful first moments of entry into the world, when it is still too new to be managed or negotiated, remains by our side during childhood and adolescence, in those years before the weight of memory and expectation, and so it is sad and a little unsettling to see that we become, as we grow older, much less capable of touching, grazing, or even glimpsing it, that the closest we seem to get to the present are those brief moments we stop to consider the spaces our bodies are occupying, the intimate warmth of the sheets in which we wake, the scratched surface of the window on a train taking us somewhere else, as if the only way we can hold time still is by trying physically to prevent the objects around us from moving. The present, we realize, eludes us more and more as the years go by, showing itself for fleeting moments before losing us in the world’s incessant movement, fleeing the second we look away and leaving scarcely a trace of its passing, or this at least is how it usually seems in retrospect, when in the next brief moment of consciousness, the next occasion we are able to hold things still, we realize how much time has passed since we were last aware of ourselves, when we realize how many days, weeks, and months have slipped by without our consent.

Sure, there are other capital letter topics in A Passage North, like Love, War, and Death, but nearly every paragraph of this novel is imbued with an almost desperate attempt to stop the present from rushing on too quickly, or an attempt to recall and reexamine the past at a much slower pace. Very little occurs in real time in the book. Krishan, the main character, receives a phone call which informs hims that Rani, the woman who had taken care of his aging grandmother Appamma for many years, has died in the far north of Sri Lanka. He takes a long walk along Colombo’s Marine Drive, which faces the sea, and then he makes the slow train journey northward in order to attend Rani’s funeral. That’s it. Everything else that fills the pages of this novel is something that takes place in Krishan’s mind, either the result of a deliberate recollection from the past or Krishan’s observations about the things he sees during the two or three days in which the events of this book take place. Arudpragasam has a Ph.D. in philosophy, so it is perhaps not surprising that he has created a main character whose primary activity is thinking.

Krishan, a Tamil from Sri Lanka, attended a university in India and didn’t experience the civil war first hand. While in India, he had an on-and-off affair of several month’s duration with Anjum, a bisexual Indian woman with such “unwavering dedication to the women’s and labor movements” that she scarcely seemed to have time for a lover. During his affair with Anjum, “almost as a kind of self-defense . . . driven by a need to prove both to himself and to her that he had a cause of his own,” Krishan started to think that he ought to do some kind of work back in his native Sri Lanka working with refugees from the civil war. And so he eventually returned to his native country and worked for a succession of NGOs doing just that.

Arudpragasam writes long, uncomplicated sentences and long paragraphs. There is no dialogue in A Passage North; all conversation is reported obliquely by the book’s omniscient narrator. After a phone call, for instance, Krishan thinks of “what he had learned.” And instead of quoting the “three or four carefully rendered sentences” of an email Krishan receives, the narrator rephrases them so that everything comes to us in his voice, filtered through his sensibility. A Passage North is set into three sections: “Message,” “Journey,” and “Burning.” “Message” acts as a prelude of sorts, setting up the necessary conditions for the train ride north, which occurs in “Journey.” In “Burning” we read about Krishan’s experience in the small Tamil village in the north of Sri Lanka where the funeral and cremation take place.

The phone call from Rani’s daughter “had compelled him to think, paradoxically, not about Rani but himself, to look at himself from the outside and to see from a distance the life in which he’d been immersed.” Coincidentally, moments before this phone call, Krishan had also received an email from Anjum, whom he hadn’t seen or heard from in several years. These two communications set the stage for Krishan to begin a self-examination and a reevaluation of his relationship with the three women—Rani, his grandmother Apamma, and, most of all, Anjum.

Just prior to the train journey to the north, Krishan feels “something close to a sense of liberation.” This feeling comes from realizing that

at such times, he was permanently suspended in the blissful but always vanishing space between desire and satisfaction, in that region of the self where one is no longer anguished by the absence of something one feels to be necessary for one’s salvation, but not yet saddened by the disappointment that attainment of desire always seemed to bring. . .

In short, Krishan realizes that when we are young, desire and yearning make us want to know what is on the other side of the horizon and that is an unachievable goal which prevents us from truly perceiving and appreciating everything that happens to us from day to day, the “waking up, working, eating and sleeping, the slow passing of time that never ends.” And so it is through this lens of the the slow observation of the mundane and the ordinary that Krishan begins the long train journey northward.

During the passage north, Krishan reviews and questions his memories of his relationship with Anjum. “Maybe she’d never even felt the same way about him as he did about her, maybe he’d been mistaken thinking his feelings reciprocated to begin with.” At one point their relationship was so intense that the two were

hardly eating and hardly sleeping, as if their time together were some kind of ascetic practice, the more dangerous being together somehow seemed, their personalities beginning to disintegrate, their private moods beginning to dissipate, as if in the time they spent together they were pushing farther and farther into some realm of existence or being that was connected to the so-called real world by only the slenderest of threads, so that the farther they went into this other realm the more possible it seemed that the thread might be cut, that they might find themselves suspended, suddenly in some other place, unable to return to the familiar selves.

Krishan hints that such a state might have been fine for him but the only yearning that was capable of fulfilling Anjum was her political work. “No single person, no love or romantic relationship, could ever fill the absence in her soul.”

As Krishan’s train nears its endpoint in the northern tip of Sri Lanka, his thoughts at last turn to Rani, a melancholy woman who had left her home and come south to be the in-home help for his grandmother for the last few years. One of Rani’s two sons had died as a fighter in the civil war, the other had died in in a shelling on the day before the war ended. This leads Krishan on to the subject of his country’s terrible civil war, which has haunted him since his days as a college student. Krishan then recalls becoming obsessed over the life and death of one of the Tamil leaders, Kuttimani, who was captured by the government in 1981, convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. But before the government could execute him, he was murdered in an infamous prison massacre in which Sinhalese mobs of prisoners, most likely aided by their government jailers, brutally tortured and murdered a number of Tamil Tiger inmates, included Kuttimani.

In the book’s final section, “Burning,” Krishan arrives at the small village in the northeast of Sri Lanka where Rani lived and where she will be cremated. This section is a brilliant piece of writing in which Arudpragasam blends the exterior world of a remote Sri Lankan village and a Hindu funeral and cremation ritual with the interior world of Krishan’s thoughts on both the bravery and sacrifice of the Tamil Tigers and what he knows about Hindu philosophy. He walks to the house where her daughter lives and where a large crowd of two or three hundred people are mourning the open casket. Outside the house, drummers are are accompanying the “collective lamentation” of the mourners. At the center of the swirling village scene is the open casket containing the body of Rani. According to Hindu custom, mourners are invited to drop a piece of rice into the open mouth of the deceased. Finally, the procession of men gets underway, “only men being allowed to accompany the body to the cremation grounds.” Somewhere along the way to the cremation field, Krishan is reminded of a documentary film he once watched about the Black Tigers, an elite division of Tamil women who were suicide bombers. “No Black Tiger had ever returned alive from a mission.” The more that Krishan thinks about separating from Anjum and the more he ponders the dedication of the Tamil fighters and Tamil refugees, the more powerfully he feels the prospect of “a sudden, silent shift in the geology of his mind, a fact he responded to not with anxiety now or desperation, as he had in the past, but with the silent conviction that he too had a path ahead of him, that he too had a history and a destiny of his own.” Standing at the edge of a tiny village in the northeast, Krishan has “the strange sense that there was nowhere left for his to go.” Perhaps his destiny is here, where the Sri Lankan government had taken pains to try to erase the memory of those thousands of dead Tamil fighters. For “whenever forgetting was imposed in this way it would always give rise to people who insisted stubbornly on remembering, people who resisted not only the specific erasures of the past by those in power but also the more general erosion that would anyway have been brought on by time.”

Krishan’s final insight is this:

To desire, in a sense, was to know or think one knew what one wanted, to know or think one knew the paths by which it might be reached, even if those paths turned out to be too difficult to follow, even if the things they led to, the things one desired, turned out not to provide the liberation one thought. To yearn on the other hand was to be lost, to lack bearings in the world because one did not know what one was seeking or where it could be found.

A Passage North is a novel rich with ideas, and yet I know there were still bits and pieces of the novel that completely escaped me— topics that had to do with Sri Lankan politics, Tamil poetry, and Hindu religion, for example. It’s a novel that is rich with sensory descriptions. And it is Arudpragasam’s goal to slow the reader down, all the better to appreciate the beauty of the moment and to understand ideas that may take him several paragraphs to develop.

Anuk Arudpragasam. A Passage North. New York: Hogarth/Random House, 2021.

This is book number 7 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.