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The past is another country: Prathyush Parasuraman reviews Anuk Arudpragasam’s ‘A Passage North’

Scars: A Sri Lankan armyman stands guard on the water front.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ IStock

There are several similarities between Anuk Arudpragasam’s sophomore novel, the Booker longlisted A Passage North and his debut fiction, The Story of a Brief Marriage. Both are set in Sri Lanka, centred on the brutal civil war, built around a male protagonist who is unable to sleep at night, anchored by the “depth and pull of... trauma”, without dialogue and intensely meditative, devotional even. But this novel is more distant than the first from the May 2009 massacre by the Sri Lankan Army that pulled the final curtain on the bloodshed.

Six years after the end of the war, we are in Colombo. The same evening Krishan receives an email from Anjum, a former lover he met while studying in Delhi, he gets the news of the death of his grandmother’s caretaker, Rani. She was visiting her village in the North Eastern Province, where she had fallen headfirst into a well, snapping her neck. Through the novel Krishan will wonder if this fall was intentional or accidental, if Rani, who lost both her sons to the war, killed herself.

Teased with possibilities

Then there is Anjum, the activist, “one of those people whose being was so taken up with yearning for another world that no single person, no love, no romantic relationship could ever fill the absence in her soul.” We are not told the contents of her email, just the emotional tailspin that Krishan is in after reading it — which helps us gauge the pungency of their relationship. The email is just a narrative tether to the past.

This is something Arudpragasam often does — teasing us with possibilities but giving us only what he considers important,

The past is another country: Prathyush Parasuraman reviews Anuk Arudpragasam’s ‘A Passage North’

necessary and meaningful. His characters begin to feel like thought experiments, realised only at the edges of his observant, moving prose. This isn’t a fault as much as a characteristic, for his literary scalpel is digging elsewhere — he is exploring a “sustained engagement with a single consciousness at a kind of intense level.” Arudpragasam’s control of the story can be seen in the page-long paragraphs and the absence of dialogues through the novel — a stylistic choice he has rationalised as not wanting to “engage in ventriloquism”. Odd, given that the very act of writing is a form of literary ventriloquism.

Harking back

At the heart of the book is a train journey — from Colombo, where Krishan lives with his mother and grandmother, to Rani’s village in the North Eastern Province, to attend her funeral. Arudpragasam weaves in another train journey as a memory — from Delhi to Mumbai, with Anjum, four years ago. The transition between the past and present, between war footage, memory and the living moment is sometimes obvious and visible almost like the wounds in Krishan’s mind and in the war-trammelled land.

Arudpragasam has noted in interviews that he wanted the emotional core of this novel to be the relationship between Krishan and his grandmother, Appamma — where one is retreating from the world while the other is intensely participating in it. However, Krishan’s fixation with the psychological aftermath of the war and his deep guilt for having survived it mean that the grandmother-grandson story remains contextual rather than fulcral. Krishan compares the long, steady decline of Appamma with the suddenness of Rani’s death. Some of the most moving passages consist of interactions between Rani and Appamma, or Appamma’s reactions to Rani’s absence.

Arudpragasam’s narrator — third person, yet loyally, closely and internally aligned with the male protagonist — places the present moment between the hammer and anvil of deep meditation and memory, sometimes injecting insights where none exists. So understandably the only scenes where the writing loses this punctilious quality is in the descriptions of sex — when the pleasure of the moment, its “vigorous exertion and peaceful exhaustion”, short-circuits any demand for insight.

The writing often lingers in that hazy, tensile, contested space between philosophy — of which Arudpragasam has a PhD from Columbia — and cliché (“soul”, “transcendence”). His writing possesses neither the pedantic rigour of the former nor the slobbering languor of the latter. His insights are not for gaining a deeper understanding of life, but of character and mood.

Arudpragasam’s literary brilliance lies in the fact that he transcends the cliché, plumping platitudes with such finely wrought feelings and intense attention, that the cliché is not just forgiven, but also, for a second, believed.

A Passage North; Anuk Arudpragasam, Penguin Hamish Hamilton, ₹599

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Printable version | Oct 28, 2021 8:27:27 AM |

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