A PASSAGE NORTH.
The novel opens with our protagonist, Krishan, excited by an email from his ex-girlfriend Anjum, who he still loves. It is the first communication she has made to him since their breakup. She wants to know all about what his life is like now that he has returned to Sri Lanka, he had been studying in India. His excitement and anticipation to read the email are broken though by a phone call from the daughter of his grandmother’s carer, Rani, informing him that Rani had fallen down a well in the night and broken her neck.
Rani was Krishan’s grandmother’s nurse and carer for two years and yet she was so much more.
Krishan’s grandmother lives in a room upstairs, too feeble now to make trips downstairs. Arudpragasam describes beautifully what it must feel like to age slowly, and equally slowly lose many abilities along the way. As the body becomes weaker, and afflictions such as arthritis sets in, we lose the ability to do the things we love. With Krishan’s grandmother one day she realizes that it is too tiring and painful to pursue her passion of gardening. Then the steps to her room upstairs become an obstacle too difficult to traverse. This is where Rani came in.
Over two years Rani had taken care of Krishan’s grandmother. Over these two years Rani had become much more than a nurse and carer. A strong bond had developed between the women, a genuine friendship flowering into existence. Rani had lost two sons to the war, traumatic flashbacks and nightmares of her youngest son’s death a nightly ritual. Appamma helped her with her grief. A grief that could never truly be assuaged. Both women needed each other, helping make the days bearable.
Rani was receiving electric-shock treatment for her depression and grief, and over time the treatments were increased. As the treatments increased Rani became befuddled easily and had trouble with memory loss. Was this the cause of her tragic fall into the well? Or possibly, with her grief and sorrow deepening, did Rani take her own life?
Rani’s funeral is in the north-east. Krishan must make passage north to attend.
While travelling north Krishan does not just cross physical distance, but psychic distance, as he finds himself conflicted, close to obsessing about the atrocities that were committed by the government troops, civilians killed, hospitals attacked in the civil war. Endlessly pondering on how different his life was, studying, while an entire culture was being displaced. He pores over news sites on the internet, discovering everything he can about the war and the crimes committed. The countless anonymous lives lost, and how different his life could have been.
He also ruminates about Anjum, his ex-girlfriend, and what it is like to be so deeply in love with somebody. To love somebody with your soul, and to constantly fear and agonize that that love is not reciprocated. Anjum is a political activist and Krishan comes to realize that this role consumes every fibre of her being. This novel is beautifully, sensually written. The feelings of desire, love, anxiety conveyed with a masterful deft touch.
There is also history, and the documentary film that Krishan and Anjum watch about the “Black Tigers” is most interesting. The Black tigers were an elite unit in the Tamil army and each of them knew that they were going to die in whatever attack they had planned. Two women are the focus of the documentary and there is a calmness, almost a feeling of liberation knowing that they are going to die, if not from enemy fire, then from the cyanide capsules they all carry.
So, to sum up, the book is predominantly about Krishan and his thoughts, about Anjum, about Rani, about the war, and his life. Pondering and reminiscing about what his life may have been like under different circumstances. He also feels guilt, being a Tamil himself. Guilt about all of those who died and were tortured in such a vicious war, guilt about the displacement of so many. The horror to survive a war and then die in a leaky fishing boat crossing a vast ocean. Even those who did survive, now living in horrible conditions, their home wiped from existence.
Beautifully written and an enjoyable read.
Anuk Arudpragasam is a Sri Lankan Tamil novelist. He studied philosophy in the United States, receiving a doctorate at Columbia University. His first novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage, was translated into seven languages, won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize.
I have included a video of Arudpragasam reading from his first novel,