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‘There is philosophy in a dead body’ — Anuk Arudpragasam, winner of the 2017 DSC Prize

He is tall, lanky and looks too ridiculously young to be the writer of poignant ruminations on love and death. But that is exactly what the charming Anuk Arudpragasam does and his first book has gone from winning acclaim to winning awards, having grabbed this year’s $25,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature at the Dhaka Lit Fest. At dinner the night before the award, we laughed as he told us how a woman had offered her daughter in marriage to him, but he is exactly that kind of nice guy. After the award ceremony, I grabbed a few rushed paparazzi minutes with him backstage, where we spent as much time apologising to each other as we did talking. Excerpts:

How does one write about trauma and violence today when one is bombarded by bloody images and words all the time?

One has to be very careful dealing with this violence because it is so easy and so common. I think you have to deal with it with patience, with tenderness. I focussed on a short period of time, on a character who is traumatised. By traumatised I mean their minds are separated from their bodies, they are not in touch with themselves, their memories… There are many ways of depicting it [the violence] but I chose to depict a person going through very ordinary human processes — walking, sleeping, eating, shitting. Because in such a situation a person wants to retain their humanity. So these are the basic processes I focussed on as a way to try to get close to the character.

You speak of people trying to retain their humanity, but have we as readers already in some ways become desensitised?

I don’t know, I can’t speak for everybody, but yes, there are a lot of images. In Sri Lanka, especially, any image is published in the newspaper, dead bodies, somebody knocked over by a car…

I guess I’m asking why you think readers will react differently if it comes to them from a novel than from a newspaper.

My attempt as a writer is to come closer to a situation that I only saw in photographs. And when I saw them in photographs, the people in them seemed very far away. So that’s what the novel is about; it’s an attempt to move closer to people in very different situations. But a newspaper is very alienating; you look at the picture and then you look away. So the people you see are not really human.

You grew up in the south, quite far from the war. So first, how did the war affect you and second, what resources did you draw upon to write about the war?

The war didn’t affect us that much, in Colombo. We were mainly afraid of check points, security checks,

‘There is philosophy in a dead body’ — Anuk Arudpragasam, winner of the 2017 DSC Prize

the police, that sort of thing. I mean, there were bombs and things but you can’t think of that on a day-to-day basis, be afraid of that... But I spent a lot of time in the [north] after the war. I was friends with a psychiatrist, the only psychiatrist who worked in the war-torn region, so I would go and stay with him, observe him as he worked. I talked to a lot of people, saw the areas where things had happened. I watched video footage, photographs. Tamil television in South India interviewed a lot of survivors. I read testimonies of survivors…

And is the novel itself based on a real-life story?

It is completely fictional. It is based on a real conceit, on arranged marriages that people did. I read about this, an incident in ‘95-96, so I used the story in my book.

You now live in New York…

Well, I move between Sri Lanka and New York

Do you intend to come back?

Yes, I do

When writers leave their countries to write about them, do you think they write from a position of privilege of sorts?

Whether I write in Sri Lanka or New York, I will be writing from a privileged position, that’s the fact of the matter. But I can’t get politically engaged in America, it’s not an interesting place to me. Culturally I don’t feel… I am at home there, I have many friends there, I like New York a lot, but I cannot live there forever. I am coming back next year…

You study philosophy there. And you mentioned once that you chose philosophy to distance yourself from stuff… how do you juxtapose that with your writing? There’s nothing distant or philosophical about a dead body!

Well, no, there is a lot of philosophy about a dead body… but the distance, well… it’s a funny thing because this novel is about something that was already very distant from me and I was trying to get close to it. But when I chose philosophy, I was trying to move away from my present situation — my school, in Colombo. I didn’t like my environment. It was very privileged, had a lot of rich children, a lot of arrogance and blindness. It was an environment I didn’t like in many ways, so philosophy was a way to remove myself.

You mentioned the anonymity of Tamil writers in your acceptance speech. Emotionally, how do you feel about writing in English?

I write in Tamil also. But I didn’t do my schooling in Tamil so I don’t feel confident enough to publish in Tamil. But that’s my goal. It will happen in about 10 years or so; I will feel confident.

You have written about love in the time of war. Do you think that in today’s situation worldwide, it is the personal that perhaps holds the solutions or the salvation for the political?

I don’t really know. I am just a writer. I don’t really know much about how the world works. I have hope, but I don’t know. Whether reconciliation can happen or how it can. I shouldn’t pretend to have an answer I don’t have. I just watch the world, you know, and I am surprised when things happen…

But you feel hopeful…

Sometimes, I feel hopeful.

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Printable version | Aug 7, 2020 4:13:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/there-is-philosophy-in-a-dead-body-anuk-arudpragasam-winner-of-the-2017-dsc-prize/article20772887.ece

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