On the day Dinesh saves a one-legged six-year-old boy by carrying him to a makeshift clinic in time for an amputation, he receives a marriage proposal. Without preamble, Anuk Arudpragasam’s astonishing debut novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage, plunges into the last gasp of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009, when trapped in a camp between the government army, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighters and the sea on the northeast coast, a young Tamil man must decide if he is to bind himself to another person for whatever little time there is left before near-certain death or capture.
Two years ago, Arudpragasam, a PhD student of philosophy at Columbia University, wrote an article in The Caravan magazine about his travels with Dr S Sivathas, the only psychiatrist working full-time with survivors of the Sri Lankan civil war in the Vanni peninsula in northeast Sri Lanka. The war had lasted over 25 years, and Arudpragasam met several men and women whose lives it had destroyed. “I had a few conversations with people but I didn’t ask them, ‘Tell me XYZ about the war’,” says Arudpragasam, over Skype from New York.
It is noon there and Arudpragasam, 28, is sitting up in bed in his apartment in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, talking about the days spent thinking about habit, the subject of his dissertation, and the novel that has catapulted him onto the international literary stage. His youth is somewhat unsettling, given how sophic and filled with pathos his novel is; but it is foolish to assume that such knowledge is only the dominion of the elderly. “I watched lots of interviews with survivors on TV and the internet. I don’t read books by foreigners or non-Tamils on this subject. I don’t like to use the word research because it suggests a utilitarian approach. When I was writing the book, I went to the Vanni mainly just to see the land for the first time, walking on it and seeing places where people were killed. It had a lot to do with what the horizon looked like. Was the earth really red, like I had seen in all the pictures?” he says.
How is consciousness shaped when confronted with one’s mortality? In the novel, Arudpragasam writes sparsely, yet eloquently, about the utter breakdown of routine and habit that takes place at the camp — whether it is the cyclical patterns of conversation, or the way one’s fingers come together to scoop rice from a plate, the rhythms and motions of bowels, or the catharsis experienced while bathing, when we reacquaint ourselves with all the parts that make us whole. Who are we when all that we know about ourselves is taken away from us?
“Part of the book is about a situation where normalcy breaks down and one cannot rely on one’s habits. We can’t control our spontaneous reactions to things, and we can’t control how the world changes. But we can, to some degree, form new habits and change old ones. When I think about habits, I think about the possibility of radically changing my life,” says Arudpragasam, whose dissertation is about the idealisation of the individual in the work of American philosophers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, and John Dewey. “As a person who hasn’t experienced the war, the only thing I had in common with Dinesh [the protagonist] was that we both have a body. His mind would have been so different from mine, so I couldn’t take a lot of things for granted,” he says. “As a writer interested in the life of the mind, the body is very important to me. You cannot write about an individual’s inner life without writing about where their body is at a certain time”.
By the time the war ended in 2009, Arudpragasam was as far away from the conflict as he could possibly be — at Stanford University in California, studying philosophy, a subject he felt an affinity to very early in his life. “When I was younger, I used to climb up to the roof of my house, where nobody could see me and I would read the philosophy books that I’d bought. I felt a strong and pleasant distance from my surroundings, the people in my school and my family. Philosophy is the most austere form of art. The promise it gives you is of transcending ordinary life in some way. At the end of reading a book, I thought it would liberate me from my problems. It is foolish to expect such a thing from a book or a sentence, though,” says Arudpragasam.
Even so, it would be a novel, The Man Without Qualities by Austrian philosopher and writer Robert Musil, that would spur the Sri Lankan to write his own book. “I don’t read much fiction actually, but when I read some novels, especially Musil’s, I realised that those writers were also in search of some transformation. But because they pay so much more attention to the details and facts of ordinary life than philosophers, they seem more aware that life only offers partial liberation, and within those conditions, some kind of solace or consolation is possible,” says Arudpragasam.
During the interview, Arudpragasam often remarks how he dislikes the elite, English-speaking class he comes from in Colombo, and struggles to belong to. “If you ask me why I was not killed, it’s because my mother moved from that part of the country in the early ’80s when she got married, right after the riots began. My father’s father moved from Jaffna earlier than that. So, it has to do with luck and privilege. But I’m a part of the Sri Lankan-Tamil diaspora, whether I’m in Colombo or New York,” he says.
Living in a country where the government has waged a war on Tamil identity and language, Arudpragasam has begun writing non-fiction in Tamil. “This is a process I’ve been undergoing for the past six-seven years. I write in Tamil for myself and nobody else, because I feel incompetent,” says Arudpragasam.
This personal project is also a political one. “When we were children, we used to go to Chennai every Christmas. Because of the war, my parents didn’t want us to speak in Tamil outside; outside the house, if people spoke in Tamil, it was in a soft voice. In Madras, people would shout in Tamil and it was such a joy to listen to them, to be in a different country where people can shout in Tamil. I love Chennai because I associate it with freedom,” he says.
“When you have the consciousness to understand that you belong to a culture and a history that is being destroyed, you realise it is your duty to be an embodiment of that history and culture. I feel that I should write in Tamil because, already, there are so few Tamil writers. I don’t think that my voice is necessarily important but if Tamil is coming out of another mouth, then good. Enough hands and tongues have been cut off.”