Excerpt Books

The train to Kilinochchi: An extract from Anuk Arudpragasam’s latest novel, ‘A Passage North’

Homecoming: A railway track running parallel to the highway in Sri Lanka.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ Istock

This brooding novel begins with a telephone call out of the blue informing Krishan that his grandmother’s caretaker, Rani, has been found dead at the bottom of a well in her village in the north of Sri Lanka. Suddenly, the world Krishan has left behind seems to be calling, stirring memories and desires.

Krishan makes the long journey by train from Colombo into the war-torn Northern Province for Rani’s funeral, revisiting a land scarred by the 30-year civil war. It’s a personal journey as well as the journey of a nation trying to find its identity while negotiating the chasm between expectation and reality. In this excerpt from Chapter 7, Krishan is on the train to Kilinochchi, watching the half-forgotten landscape unfold before his eyes, pondering the distance Sri Lanka has travelled in the years since he left the North behind.

It always made Krishan a little uncomfortable that he’d chosen to return while so many Tamils were willing to risk everything to leave, a choice that had only been possible, he knew, because of the fortune and privilege of his circumstances, the safe distance of his own life from the violence and poverty of the northeast. It was true that his father had been a casualty of one of the Tiger bombings in Colombo, that he had in this sense been deeply affected by the war, but the fact was that he’d grown up in comfort, in a house of his own far away from the actual fighting, that he’d never had to experience violence directly, neither gunshots, shelling, nor displacement, nothing more than casual racism here and there, threatening interrogations by police and soldiers on the street. The idea of doing social work in the northeast would have never even occurred to him, probably, had he not been so insulated from the traumas of the war, and in a way his departure after two years had only underscored how different his life was from those who’d spent their lives in the northeast, those for whom coming and going wasn’t simply a matter of choice. Krishan looked at the scenes passing outside as they left the town, the outlines of the trees in the distance distorted by the intensity of the heat, and feeling a little restless he took out his phone and looked at the time.

They were less than an hour from Kilinochchi and he wasn’t sure what to do with himself, whether to try reading or listening to music, neither of which he felt like doing. He didn’t want to remain seated, had been sitting for several hours and felt an urge to stand up, then realized that he hadn’t yet smoked that day, that it would be nice to leave the carriage and have a cigarette now that he was finally in the north. He reached down and took out his lighter and pack from his bag, glanced around quickly to make sure no one happened to be walking through the carriage, then stood up and began making his way along the aisle, holding the seat backs for support till he passed out into the small corridor between the carriages. He waited a few seconds to make sure he was alone, then lighting a cigarette discreetly against the wall he pulled open the train door, latched it to the wall, and leaned outside, his face immediately assailed by a blast of hot, dry wind, his eyes by the penetrating, preternatural brightness of the day.

Just a stone’s throw from the train he could see the A9 running in parallel with the tracks, veering sometimes closer and sometimes farther away, the air above its smooth black surface trembling from the heat of the tarmac. The highway was hardly a highway,

consisting of only a single lane for each direction of traffic, but because it was the main road linking north and south it had assumed a kind of epic proportion in the minds of everyone who’d lived through the war. The southern section had been controlled by the government for most of the fighting, the northern section by the Tigers, each side manning their portion of the border with heavy fortifications and multiple checkpoints, so that for the better part of twenty-five years it had, like the train line, been completely inoperative. It had been reopened finally in 2009, just a few months after the defeat of the Tigers, the military quickly filling up the craters, demining the adjacent land, and repaving the road so it was ready for civilian use, though for a long time soldiers continued checking every single vehicle that crossed the border, going methodically through every single compartment and every single piece of luggage if the passengers were Tamil. The train line had taken much longer to be put back into operation, not only because all the stations on the northern section of the line had been bombed out, but also because every inch of track and every nut and bolt had been stripped away by the Tigers, who’d made use of the iron for weapons, bunkers, and anything else they required in their typically meticulous way. It had taken several years for the government to relay the track, and when the line was officially reopened the previous year it had been celebrated with great fanfare, the government using the occasion to symbolize how the entire island was now back under its control, a marker of their achievement as liberators of the country. That had been in 2014, toward the end of his time in the northeast, when he’d become so used to traveling by bus that he didn’t even think to use the train, and looking at the highway from his slightly different vantage point now, Krishan found himself thinking of all the journeys he’d made between Colombo and Jaffna since returning to the island, the intense longing he’d felt, during those first months especially, as he gazed out from his bus window at these same unending landscapes of brush and palmyra, landscapes so flat and dry and unforgiveable that it seemed sometimes almost miraculous that so many generations had worked life and sustenance out of the earth.

It was hard to say what it was about the northeast that had drawn him there after so many years abroad, what it was that had taken root so deeply inside him that he abandoned the life he’d built for himself in Delhi in search of another one here. It was true that guilt had played some part, guilt for the relative ease of his life growing up, guilt for the fact that he’d spent so much of his twenties lost in academic texts, but there was also something in the sparse, desolate beauty of the region that had brought him here, he thought as he gazed out of the train, something much stronger and more substantial than guilt. He’d spent so many hours looking at images of the northeastern countryside during his time in Delhi, not during his initial obsession with the war’s final massacres but afterward, sensing in those images of sprawling fields and thick jungle something ancient and almost mythical, something that made him dream of a possible fulfillment without knowing how or from what source. Compelled by some need to dwell more on the origins of the war, to understand the nature of the longings that had led to such a devastating conclusion, he’d begun reading about the earlier, more idealistic days of the separatist movement, and it was the story of Kuttimani more than anything else, he remembered now, that had captivated him at the time, that had crystallized the longing to live in the northeast that was just beginning to take hold of him.

Extracted from A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam, published by Penguin Hamish Hamilton this month.


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