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Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Last Stand

An extraordinary debut novel about the Sri Lankan war offers redemption by its attention to the ordinary and the mundane.

Written by Amrita Dutta |
November 19, 2016 12:29:02 am
book-2 War is the complete breakdown of habit and time.

Book Name- The Story of a  Brief Marriage
Author- Anuk Arudpragasam
Publisher- Fourth Estate
Pages- 193 pages
Price- 499

Anuk Arudpragasam’s extraordinary debut novel plunges you into the bloody mess of war on the first page: a six-year-old, already without a leg, has his arm shredded by shrapnel. But this is not a work about savagery alone, even if it is about the 26-year-long pitiless war in Sri Lanka. It does not dwell on the historical context of the animosity between Tamils and Sinhalas; the LTTE is not referred to except as the “movement”. By freeing itself from dates, battles and causes, it clears a space and tells us to look closely: here is the war as it unspools and devastates one man. But it also claims: here is life, in all its broken beauty.

Dinesh is a young man in a refugee camp, pushed to the edge of the land like thousands of others by advancing forces. By day, he helps out at a makeshift clinic and buries the dead. By night, he fights sleep. He has escaped conscription, but knows that death is imminent. He had left his village with his mother by his side. She died on the way. He drifts in a fug of the present, cut off from his memories. His past seems to him like “a childhood home one returns to years later and finds emptied of all its contents, only nails remaining where pictures once hung”. When an old man in the camp proposes that he marry his daughter, Ganga, Dinesh is jolted out of a limbo. The father hopes that the cadres or the armed forces would spare a married woman. Dinesh agrees to the proposal. It is the last hopeful stand against death.

Through long, looping sentences, the novel carries us on the tide of Dinesh’s thoughts. It is through his eyes that we see a camp of refugees, enveloped by a muted animal despair. The women seem to him like severed tails of geckos, thrashing about in futility. The men remind him of frogs in a science lab, mutilated and silent, though not dead yet. All conversation has ceased. “The diaphanous threads which in ordinary life had been so easily spun had been dissolved, leaving … each and every person silently alone.” His own mortality is a recurring thought. Like Isaac Rosenberg, the soldier -poet of the First World War, Dinesh mulls the impending “disintegration of his body”.

In Break of Day in the Trenches, Rosenberg wondered at the “Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes/Less chanced than you for life”. Dinesh considers “spending his remaining time committing to memory the shape of his hands and feet, the texture of his hair, fingernails and teeth, appreciating for a last time the sound of his own breathing, the sensation of his own chest expanding and contracting”. He watches his wife and “feels the frail tremor of blood pulsing under the surface of her skin”. Even love is imagined as a physical bond: “Being close to someone meant the entire rhythm of that person’s life was synchronised with yours, it meant that each body had learned how to respond to the other instinctually.”

Time slows down and expands in the novel as we watch Dinesh obsessively watch people sleep, their bodies twitch, the blood course through their veins. He finds himself filled with the “sacredness of being awake in a place in which everybody was asleep”. The prose attunes itself to the rhythms of the human body, as it consumes and expels, inhales and exhales. It pushes you into an awareness of mortality that is not abstract but tactile. The pith of the novel is a long passage in which Dinesh leaves his sleeping wife to have a bath. It has been months since he has had one. As he scours his clothes and his body of blood, grime and shit, his memories come back to him. “He had returned to himself finally, consisted now of nothing but himself, no dead or extraneous material, only living, breathing substance, porous and naked…His raw skin is ready for new memory and new life.”

War is the complete breakdown of habit and time. It is the wreckage of human bodies. This short novel that asks all the big questions seems to suggest that when all is destroyed, the artist can only offer a shred of redemption by a reverential attention to the ordinary. Limbs and life will perish, for sure. So will love, unspoken and unfulfilled. What else remains but the secret ministry of life working its way through the human body?

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