Of History, Grief, and Yearning

For almost three decades, the island nation of Sri Lanka was wrapped in a civil war as its two major ethnic groups – the Sinhalese and the Tamils – find themselves wrapped in an strife. It all begun with a series of palpably aggressive actions instituted by the Sinhalese majority against the Indian Tamil minority. One of the earliest manifestations of this discord was the Ceylon Citizenship Act, a legislation passed by the Parliament shortly following the declaration of Sri Lanka’s independence from the British Empire in 1948. The law deliberately discriminated against the Tamils, leaving roughly over 700,000 of them stateless. A series of pogroms in the coming years further made violence percolate. And in 1983, these series of aggressions towards the Tamils turned into a full blown civil war as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, started fighting to gain their own independence.

It would take nearly three decades before the Sri Lankan army fully annihilated the Tamil Tigers, bringing the war to an end in May 2009. But as the rest of the nation rejoiced, the true damage of the war only started to surface. In Sri Lankan writer Anuk Arudpragasam’s second novel, A Passage North, the readers were regaled with a reflection on how the impact of the war continues to resonate in the contemporary. A Passage North commenced with an unexpected call received by Krishan. Krishan was raised by his mother and grandmother before moving to the Sri Lankan capital to work. The news he received informed him of the death of Rami, his grandmother’s caretaker. She had fallen into a well, breaking her neck and causing her instant death.

The unfortunate news came in the throes of another unexpected communication, from Anjum, a political activist. Krishan met and fell in love with Anjum while he working and living in Delhi, India. Her unexpected email unsettles Krishan and threatens to destabilize the harmony that he has painstakingly established years following their separation. While he endeavors to confront this reality, he found himself on a train bound for the Northern Province. He was on his way to the village where he was raised to attend the burial of Rami and pay his respects. But at the back of his mind was a question that was in want of a conclusive answer.

“The present, we realize, eludes as 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.”

~Anuk Arudpragasam, A Passage North

Message. A Passage North was divided into three distinct parts. In the first part, the readers were regaled with the details of Krishan’s experiences living and working in Colombo. Then it slowly digresses into details of his younger life. As the narrative weaves in and out of the present and the past, the readers were transported to the Sri Lankan countryside. Looming large in this part is Appamma, Krishan’s grandmother. We get to witness the crux of Krishan’s childhood: witnessing his aging grandmother’s gargantuan efforts to come into terms with the inevitable realities of senility and the deterioration of the body. At a young age, Krishan was exposed to one of the inevitable realities of life: “Krishan’s notion of the elderly had always been of people who accepted this condition – some of them only begrudgingly, doing what they could to make the process easier, irritable about their situation but on the whole resigned to its inevitability, others almost gracefully, even of laughing at their age-related limitations.”

It is easy to understand the difficulties Appamma experienced in accepting the limitations of her body. Accepting these limitations is tantamount to accepting the reality that we are becoming increasingly dependent on those around us. As we get to see her disdain for the walker, a simple implement which was supposed to help her, we also see a woman whose fire was slowly dying out. Resigned to her fate, she was on the brink. It was in the midst of this struggle that Rami entered the family’s life. She proved a critical presence as she managed to nurse Appamma back into health.

Journey. As the train slithers across the Sri Lankan countryside, more details about Rami started to surface. She had three children but she lost her two sons to the war – the eldest was killed fighting for the Tigers and the younger one killed in front of her by a shrapnel while they were fleeing from the Sinhalese during the penultimate days of the civil war. Their demise left a large and gaping hole Rami’s heart, which inevitably led to post-traumatic stress disorder and coupled with severe depression. Their ghosts never seem to have left and they continue to haunt every corner of Rami’s house. In order to escape these ghosts, Rami occasionally visits and stays at the psychiatric ward of the nearest hospital: “At home she was forced to spend too many long stretches of time by herself, trapped in her own mind, and there were too many associations with her two sons for her to be able to move on, not that moving on would ever be fully possible for cases such as hers.”

The novel was also riddled with the details of the war and how it has adversely affected the Tamil population, more so as its impact still resonate in the contemporary. The war has led to the diaspora of the Tamils. They are resolute in settling in foreign lands in order to find the proverbial greener pastures. This was despite the discrimination and even hostility that refugees and immigrants face. This diaspora was reminiscent of Rami’s attempts to escape the ghosts that live inside her house. Death – whether it be natural or accidental – was a leitmotif, a pervasive presence that thrum in every corner. At a young age, Krishan has grown accustomed to the presence of death. The death of his father in the Central Bank bombing of 1996 was seminal in the ponderous nature of the narrative.

“It was only when looking at a horizon that one’s eyes could move past all the obstacles that limited one’s vision to the present situation, that one’s eyes could range without limit to other times and other places, and perhaps this was all that freedom was, nothing more than the ability of the ciliary muscles in each eye—the finely calibrated muscles that contracted when focusing on objects close by and relaxed when focusing on objects far away—nothing more than the ability of these muscles to loosen and relax at will, allowing the things that existed in the distance, far beyond the place one actually was, to seem somehow within reach.”

~Anuk Arudpragasam, A Passage North

Burning. Shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, A Passage North provided an intimate peek into the interiors of Krishan. A seminal part of what makes him tick was his relationship with Anjum. The undercurrents of romance provided a different lens through which to study Krishan. His unexpected encounter with Anjum awakened his desires. Arudpragasam vividly captured his fears, anxieties and vulnerabilities, at the prospect of a budding relationship. Despite her sexuality and the passage of time, Anjum’s unexpected message sparked in Krishan the idea of reunion. The study of their relationship also brought to the fore the subject of sexism and personal spaces.

The novel was largely ruminative, a stream-of-consciousness that tends to meander, a reflection of Krishan’s long journey home. Not much happens in the main temporal storyline but the narrative was riddled with philosophical intersections and introspections, some bigger and deeper than the others. The long paragraphs and sentences were invitations to study Krishan’s mind. There were grand reflections on death, love, and war were topnotch. However, reflections on more innocuous subjects such as cigarettes and smoking keep Krishan grounded, relatable. Nevertheless, all of these introspections converged to provide an intimate peek into into the complexities of Krishan’s interiors.

With the focus on Krishan’s mind, the readers get to witness his musings that cover a vast ground, from stories, to films, to Tamil epic tales, and even history. History was, after all, a seminal part of the narrative. In the past, we are regaled with the details of how Poosal, a poor Shiva devotee, constructed a grand temple for his god all in his mind; and the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama. The story of Tamil nationalist leader Kuttimani and a documentary on the suicide bombers Puhal and Dharshika provide more contemporary details. These digressions nevertheless provided both historical and cultural touchstones that are essential to Krishan’s reflections on a plethora of subjects such as death, desire, solitude, memory, and trauma.

These ruminations were capably woven together into a vivid tapestry by the quality of Arudpragasam’s prose. The philosophical, and at times, lyrical prose made the narrative flourish, rendering it a meditative and contemplative quality that captivates the reader. The level of philosophy never waned and was carefully observed. From the onset, it was Arudpragasam’s prose that set the tone for the story, immediately capturing the reader’s attention with a subtle but insightful line: The present, we assume, is eternally before us, one of the few things in life from which we cannot be parted. It was deliberate and sinuous despite the absence of dialogues; it was all in Krishan’s mind. Once it has started, the quality of prose never digressed.

“It was as though there was some other, more obscure logic at work than mere chance, as though death was in someway following these people, who’d managed to survive, as though they were in someway marked, the various statistically high probability‘s on which ordinary life was based beginning, for them, to alter, to change more and more in favor of their unforeseen demise—as though they themselves walked with open arms in the direction of these seemingly accidental deaths, as though they themselves welcomed them or even willed them to take place”.

~Anuk Arudpragasam, A Passage North

In a manner of speaking, the author, a Sri Lankan Tamil, grew up in privilege, in the relative safety of the capital Colombo. He was raised far from the direct line of fire of the Civil War. But despite this, he was enamored by how the Civil War has altered the landscape of his home country. It was no surprise that the war forms a seminal part of his narrative. And A Passage North was at its brilliant best in its examination of the Sri Lankan Civil War. There were digressions, long, winding paragraphs and palpable absence of direct violence, but Arudpragasam managed to memorialize the inhumanities of war.

A Passage North blankets you with its meditative and philosophical prose. With astute observations, and deep ruminations, Arudpragasam delivered a captivating and powerful narrative that, for the most part, examines the scars left behind by war. It also tacked a myriad of subjects which resonates in the contemporary, such as the follies of war, the essence of history, the impact of trauma, the diaspora and discrimination on refugees, the fragility of mental health, and the inevitability aging whilst simultaneously grappling with the more personal, such as desire, longing, and personal spaces. The narrative resonate with dark and heavy themes but it also echoed with hope: we see Krishan give up his job in India to return home and help his country by working with an NGO. Whilst A Passage North inhabits the past, it is also about living in the present.

“He watched as the scarlet glow of the fire grew brighter in the darkening evening, as the air around it warped with strange clarity in the intensity of the heat, watched as the substantiality of a human life was transmuted, like a mirage or hallucination or vision, into thick clouds of smoke billowing up into the sky, thinning as they rose and then disappearing into the evening, a message from this world to another that would never be received.”

~Anuk Arudpragasam, A Passage North
Ratings

82%

Characters (30%) – 23%
Plot (30%) – 25%
Writing (25%) – 22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

Admittedly, I would have not dreamt of reading Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North had it not been longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. Apart from Kazuo Ishiguro, the longlist was comprised of names I am unfamiliar with and whose works I have not read previously. On a positive note, it presented an opportunity to experience new literary journeys. There were difficulties in obtaining copies of the longlisted books for not all titles are available here in the Philippines. I was lucky enough to find a copy of A Passage North, which I immediately immersed upon my receipt of it. The first thing that stood out was the language. It was poignant and lyrical that I immediately recognized why it was longlisted; it has the Booker-label written all over it. It did remind me of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea. I was stoke when, a couple of days after starting the book, I learned that it was one of shortlisted works. However, the long paragraphs and sentences can be cumbersome. The lack of dialogue was also glaring. Nevertheless, there was a subtle power about the story that captivated me.

Book Specs

Author: Anuk Arudpragasam
Publisher: Hogarth
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 287
Genre: Literary Fiction, War Story

Synopsis

A Passage North begins with a message from out of the blue: a telephone call informing Krishan that his grandmother’s caretaker, Rani, has died under unexpected circumstances – found at the bottom of a well in her village in the north, her neck broken by the fall. The news arrives on the heels of an email form Anjum, an impassioned yet aloof activist Krishan fell in love with years before while living in Delhi, stirring old memories and desires from a world he left behind.

As Krishan makes the long journey by train from Colombo into the war-torn Northern Province for Rani’s funeral, so begins an astonishing passage into the inner-most reaches of a country. At once a powerful meditation on absence and longing, as well as an unsparing account of the legacy of Sri Lanka’s thirty-year civil war, this procession to a pyre “at the end of the earth” lays bare the imprints of an island’s past, the unattainable distances between who we are and what we seek.

Written with precision and grace, Anuk Arudpragasam’s masterful new novel is an attempt to come to terms with life in the wake of devastation and a poignant memorial for those lost and those still living.

About the Author

Anuk Arudpragasam was born in 1988 in Colombo, Sri Lanka to Tamil parents. Born into a non-book-reading household, his entry into the world of writing was through philosophy books such as Plato’s Republic, Rene Descartes’s Meditations and Wittgenstein’s The Blue Book he found in a bookshop close to their house. When he was 18-years old, Arudpragasam to attend Standford University. He graduated in 2010 with a degree of Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. Following his graduation, he lived in Tamil Nadu, India for a year. He eventually returned to the United States to pursue his doctorate in Philosophy at Columbia University. He completed and received his PhD in 2019.

He finally made his literary debut in 2016 with the publication of The Story of a Brief Marriage. Written between 2011 and 2014, the novel took place during the twilight of the Sri Lankan War. It was critically-acclaimed, winning the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. It was also was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the German Internationaler Literaturpreis. In 2021, he published his second novel, A Passage North. It was shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize.

Arudpragasam is currently on a yearlong fellowship with the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination and is working on his third novel.