ANUK ARUDPRAGASAM’S A Passage North (Hamish Hamilton; 304 pages; Rs599) is a novel where nothing much happens yet everything happens. It begins with Krishan receiving a phone call from Rani’s daughter (Rani was his grandmother’s nurse) informing him that she has died after falling into a well. Krishan, a young middle-class man, decides to take a train from Colombo to the Northern Province to attend the funeral to pay his respects and also in the hope of finding out more about Rani’s death, which he feels might not be just an accident. The novel is essentially his rumination as he travels on the train, and later attends the cremation rituals. During the train journey we will come to know Anjum, an activist he had a relationship with while he lived in Delhi, and the backstories of Rani and his grandmother.
But an account of the novel’s plot does the novel little justice. A Passage North is a work of uncommon beauty and sensitivity. Arudpragasam infiltrates the psyche of his characters with a Colm Toibinesque flair. He observes every movement, he interrogates every action, and gives us a novel that is not plot driven, and is both deeply philosophical and political. A Passage North tells of both a physical and psychological journey, as Arudpragasam writes, “…standing there leaning out through the door of the train, knowing that soon he would be arriving in Kilinochchi and that soon he would be in Rani’s village, attending the funeral of a person he still could not quite accept was dead, 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 distant northern reaches.”
Arudpragasam’s debut novel The Story of a Brief Marriage (2016) was also set in Sri Lanka and told of its troubles. A Passage North, moves away from the immediacy of the Tamil “genocide” in Sri Lanka that happened between 2008-2009 and is set in its aftermath. It maps the continuing devastation caused by a 30-year civil war on the people and the land. It paints a portrait of trauma and grief, loss and memory, love and intimacy, aging and resilience. It is that rare novel where you want to rush through the pages—wanting to know how it will end—and where you wish to savour every line. Once one has turned the last page, one is beset by a desolation that it has ended. Only the best novels can leave one bereft.
The Sri Lankan Tamil novelist received his doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University, New York, in 2019. The Story of a Brief Marriage, won the 2017 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the 2017 Dylan Thomas Prize. He is presently a fellow at the Institute for Ideas and Imagination, Columbia Global Centers in Paris, where he is working on ‘a book-length work of non-fiction that moves across the genres of philosophy, literary essay, anthropology, and memoir.’ At the age of 33, and with two novels and a doctorate to his name, Arudpragasam’s career has only just launched, and as a reader I’m grateful for that.
When we speak over a Zoom call, it is afternoon in Paris, and evening in India. Arudpragasam is running five minutes behind schedule, and he sends an email to apologise. In conversation, his words are measured, his pauses long, and he is unfailingly polite. His silences are especially drawn out when he inhales from his hand-rolled cigarette. ‘I don’t know’, ‘I guess’, speckle his sentences, before he utters perfectly crafted quotable quotes. I hold up the edition that I’ve at hand. He says this is the first time that he is seeing this copy, and reveals that the train tickets to Jaffna on the cover had been bought by his mother back in Sri Lanka. He appreciates this cover for its simplicity and “dignity”.
The last section of the novel is a study of ritualised mourning. I spend so much time on that partly because many people who lost loved ones during the war were unable to grieve, says Anuk Arudpragasam, author
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The Story of a Brief Marriage never used the word ‘Sri Lanka’ or ‘LTTE’ or ‘Tigers’. ‘Jaffna’ was used only once. Arudpragasam chose instead to use words like ‘movement’ and ‘cadres’ to tell of the horrors the war wrought on its two protagonists, Dinesh and Ganga. A Passage North, on the other hand, stands on specific geographies, such as Delhi, Colombo and Kilinochchi. It details how Krishan read about the “idealistic days of the separatist movement” and how the story of Kuttimani (a Tamil leader) convinced him to work in the northeast. Pages are devoted to Kuttimani’s struggle, trial, incarceration and subsequent murder. Arudpragasam’s decision to move from the abstractness of his first novel to the recreation of actual moments in the Tamil struggle was deliberate and carefully considered. He says, “This novel is a lot more about spectatorship of violence rather than participation in violence. And it’s about what it means to see violence from the outside or from a distance.” Krishan (Arudpragasam pronounces the name as ‘Krishaaan’) is looking in from the outside at the violence, and “therefore can’t help but see the violence from a political, social, historical context.” He adds, “For my first novel, giving context would be a way of making the violence more digestible. Of explaining it in some way and therefore making it, if not acceptable, then at least intelligible, understandable, and I didn’t want to do that. So I refused to give context. And in this novel there’s much less violence, so I didn’t have this motivation of removing context.”
When Arudpragasam speaks it often sounds like Krishan’s stream of consciousness. The sentences come in an uninterrupted flow. In the hands of a less skilled writer, these reams of thought could easily become loosey-goosey blobs on a page. But Arudpragasam writes and speaks with the care of a lapidary, spurning vagueness for precision. While reading A Passage North a reader will notice the absence of dialogues and full stops; sentences can run for half a page, and paragraphs for an entire page. This literary choice reflects the contents of the novel. He says, “It has to do with the fact that conscious life, consciousness, very seldom involves sharp breaks. It’s very rarely the case that a mood or a train of thought or a set of associations comes to some definite stop and then starts at some other point. The only times that I can think this happens are at moments of very strong desire or moments of violence.”
The novel is divided into three sections, ‘Message’, ‘Journey’ and ‘Burning’. The last section is literally a blow-by-blow account of Rani’s cremation. We see the people gathered in Rani’s house, we see Rani’s “strangely pale, almost white hands patiently folded over her waist”, we see friends and family gently place a few grains of rice over her mouth, we hear the drums of the band and the women reciting verses. The detailed funeral rituals are for Rani, but for the author they are also for all the Tamils who died, who were murdered, and were never afforded the ceremonies or a dignified funeral. Rani herself had often lamented that she wished she’d been able to cremate her youngest son properly rather than leaving him “by the side of the road for the flies”. Interned at an army camp, she could conduct no ceremony or function for her son. Arudpragasam explains, “The whole last section of the novel is a study of ritualised mourning. Ritualised grief. Part of the reason I wanted to spend so much time on that is because many people who lost loved ones during the war were unable to grieve, because of the circumstances, because oftentimes they didn’t have access to the body of the loved one, it had to be left behind.” Wishing to give the mourning, which was not allowed in reality, its due, he painstakingly recreates it in the novel.
While the novel might largely occur in the mind of Krishan, the authenticity of its female characters and his relationships with them is remarkable. Anjum, Rani, his mother, and his grandmother Appamma slowly emerge before our eyes with greater and greater clarity. Arudpragasam succeeds in making flesh and blood Anjum’s rebellion, his mother’s responsibilities and his grandmother’s struggles with infirmity and dependence. He writes, “…Krishan couldn’t help feeling that his grandmother had chosen to abandon her lucidity on purpose…that she’d sensed in that moment that remaining conscious would mean accepting the powerlessness of her situation and decided, in some interior part of herself, it was preferable from then on to be absent.”
Given Appamma’s authenticity, I ask if she is inspired by someone close to him. Arudpragasam smiles and says, “My experience with this kind of late-stage aging has very much to do with my grandmother and living close to her.” He refuses to go further saying that these are fictional characters and must be treated so.
Early in the novel, Arudpragasam spends many pages recounting the story of Poosal from an old Tamil poem in the Periya Puranam. Poosal was a poor man “possessed of unusually intense religiosity”. Over the last few years, Arudpragasam has been devoting more time to the study of Tamil. A third of his reading is now in Tamil and he is engaged in “apprentice translations”. Another reason for the lack of dialogue in the book is because many conversations would have happened in Tamil, and he chose to report them indirectly rather than present them directly.
He says that his reading in English and Tamil vary. In English books that deal with “conscious life and interiority” interest him. In English, if he wishes to find out about other worlds, or other ways of life, he turns to film or photography or travel, and not literature. In places like Colombo or Delhi or Paris, he moves in the English-speaking circles. He has never lived in a “Tamil majority place”, other than Chennai, where he spent a year. So his access to Tamil social worlds has to come from literature. He says, “The Tamil social world is the one that I’m most politically invested in and that I care most about. Literature is the best place to do this, if you are not from these worlds.” In Tamil, he chooses to read books from different communities and experiences because of his political interest in the people and culture.
Given that Arudpragasam has lived in Asia, the US and Europe in the last few years, I ask, where is home? He replies, “It’s difficult for me to say. I guess, I always say that home is where most of my books are. At the moment most of my books are in Colombo.” His books have not yet made it to Paris, and the bookshelf that stands behind him on the video call does not contain his collection. A book that has been travelling with him and which he recently re-read in Paris too is a 1986 novel A Book of Memories by the Hungarian writer Péter Nádas. He finds himself turning to it time and again. He adds, “I don’t really have a stable home because I don’t have a place with my books. I do hope to have a place for them soon.”