Chatting with the Sri Lankan novelist about civil war, art, and memory.
By Jeffrey Zuckerman
The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka. (Photo: McKay Savage/Flickr)
Sri Lanka is easy to pinpoint on a map — it hangs like a teardrop off the subcontinent of India — but its recent history is far more difficult to describe. The Sri Lankan Civil War stretched from 1983 to 2009, splitting the island between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. By the war’s end, approximately 100,000 civilians had died, and even now the northern part of the island has many areas where mine removal is underway and buildings are still in ruins.
Even the most horrific destruction, however, can give rise to unexpected beauty. The young author Anuk Arudpragasam was raised in Colombo, near the southern end of the island and far from the war’s heaviest shelling. These days he lives in New York City, where he is completing a dissertation in philosophy, and has published a debut novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage, which reveals a focused, passionate, and artful narrative of how a man and a woman are altered by their abrupt marriage of last resort. It’s set in a refugee camp, and, from the first line — “Most children have two whole legs and two whole arms” —it’s clear that the small space Arudpragasam describes is one without walls or windows or institutions to shield the refugees from the bombs falling all around them. There are few books that reveal the emotional complexities of unending warfare so thoroughly, and The Story of a Brief Marriage seems destined to be remembered as a window into a horrific historical moment.
The Story of a Brief Marriage feels compact and firmly grounded. Arudpragasam focuses solely on the two characters, Dinesh and Ganga, as they enter a hurried marriage, and the book’s 193 pages span just a few hours in the war. Pacific Standard got in touch with Arudpragasam to talk about growing up in Sri Lanka, the reasons that drove him to write The Story of a Brief Marriage, and his relationship to the Tamil language.
So, you’re in Sri Lanka at the moment. How long ago did you move away?
I first left the country when I was 18, to go to university in the United States. I’m not sure I really ever moved away from Sri Lanka or this part of the world, though, partly because I’ve always planned to return (which I will do two or three years from now), and partly because I spend several months in Sri Lanka and India every year. In any case, I sometimes feel that moving back and forth for me isn’t so much moving back and forth between two countries as it is moving back and forth between two rooms, and that the only real difference between the rooms is the scenery visible through the windows.
(Photo: Anuk Arudpragasam)
Did you always see the same view outside your window growing up?
Obviously, one can’t help but be affected by the world beyond one’s windows, if one has the fortune of being protected by windows and walls. Colombo is in the south of Sri Lanka, but I’m Tamil-speaking, and both my parents are from the Jaffna peninsula in the largely Tamil northeast of Sri Lanka. As Tamils, our lives in the non-Tamil part of the country were very much affected by the Tamil separatist struggle. Socio-economically speaking, my family is, in many senses, highly privileged — we are well-off, of high caste, etc. — and because of this we were insulated from many of the difficulties that most Tamils faced and continue to face in our country. But there was still the omnipresent fear of retributional violence of some kind, of being stopped and detained for no reason at any one of the numerous army checkpoints across the city. We would avoid the Tamil language in public places and, often, various Tamil identifiers.
The civil war lasted almost 26 years, but you left for the U.S. before it ended. I’m wondering to what degree you drew on actual experience while writing the story — if you had seen nearly everything you describe with your own eyes, or if you had to undertake research in the aftermath.
In everything I write, I think of the elements of the external world — people, places, histories, situations, events — as a kind of anchor that allows me to get close to the elements of inner life that most interest me. The external world, at least when I am writing, is like an anchored boat from which a diver enters the water, confident that however far or deep she dives there will be a reference point on the surface to which she can safely return.
Obviously, I chose the constraints of the Sri Lankan civil war, in large part due to my history and my position vis-à-vis my community. And, both before and while writing this novel, I did spend much time thinking about those last months of the war, traveling to the places in which it took place, listening to interviews on South Indian television with survivors, reading testimonies of survivors collected by psychiatrists and independent researchers, and, above all. dwelling silently on all the pictures and footage from this time.
I prefer not to call this “research,” though, because the term “research” suggests that this kind of inquiry or learning is merely a means to a separate and pre-formed aim, the writing of a novel. In fact, the same impetus that impelled me to write this novel also impelled me, simultaneously, to engage in this inquiry or learning or dwelling. It was not separate, and was not conceived of as a separate process, or as a means to some other end. It came from the same impetus, which has to do, as I said, with who I am.
When you mention focusing on “the parts of the inner life” that you’re most interested in, that reminds me you’re a graduate student in philosophy. It’s so common for fiction writers these days to have an MFA that I’m curious what pulled you toward philosophy as an academic field.
I was drawn to philosophy long before I was drawn to literature. From a young age I’ve felt an urge to distance myself from my surroundings — particularly from the ugly, elitist Colombo that was my primary social environment — and when I was in school, reading philosophy books that I found in a bookshop close to my house helped, though I wouldn’t have been able to explain it this way at the time.
Philosophy gave me a language to separate myself from the world around me, and also gave me a sense that this world could somehow be transcended. I engaged in it libidinously, hoping, like many fools before and after me, that by reading philosophy I could reach some kind of truth that would rid me of my dissatisfactions and satisfy my yearnings. I studied it in university assiduously, and it was only once I finished that I realized the obvious truth that philosophy, or what is called philosophy in American and English universities, can’t provide such things. The most it can do is help you articulate and understand certain aspects of life better, which isn’t anything to scoff at, though in this respect I feel it is a discipline of diminishing returns. It is enriching to study for a few years, I feel, but the more time passes the less you get out of it, and you begin to tire of its colorlessness and its austerity, and to start seek something more solid.
About this time I read a novel, the first novel I’d read in two or three years at that point, The Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil, and I realized that what I wanted to understand about life could be better pursued through the novel, which, unlike most philosophy, is a form of writing that begins with the conditions of actual life, and which hopes, at the most, for solace within those conditions, rather than transcendence from them. Whereas I always thought of philosophy as a means to an end it could never provide, the activity of writing has been for me an end in itself, a solace within the world, not the only solace, but an important one.
I’m reminded of a particular way in which you’ve described yourself: “He writes in English, but his true love is the Tamil language.” Do you see each language as performing a distinct function in your daily life?
This is very difficult for me to answer. Tamil is my mother tongue — it is the language we speak at home, and the language that holds the most emotive resonance for me. English, on the other hand, is my first language — one I had almost my entire education in, from primary school through my doctoral studies. It is the language I most often socialize in, both inside Sri Lanka and outside, and the language I’m far more adept at handling.
About six or seven years ago, as I was beginning this novel, I started to feel it was a moral failing to write solely in English. I was coming into contact with images and videos of the war in Sri Lanka, and understanding how my community was being disenfranchised and killed. I became politicized. I came to feel suspicious of how various currents of history had shaped me and my language. English is the language of aspiration and opportunity in Sri Lanka, as in many other former British colonies, and it is taught to those of us in Sri Lanka who have the privilege, even if our parents were educated in Tamil or Sinhalese. Very few people in South Asia are capable of writing and speaking in sophisticated English, but almost all South Asian writing disseminated internationally has been originally written in English, because it is financially and institutionally supported globally.
A language like Tamil, on the other hand, is not only not institutionally patronized outside Sri Lanka and India; it is not patronized even within Sri Lanka. It is a colonized language, colonized first by the British, and then by the Sri Lankan state; the mechanisms that helped it flourish historically were destroyed by these colonial powers. I began to feel it was my duty, as a privileged member of a community that for many centuries has been in various states of subjugation, to change my writing practice. (Not that I have any illusions about the political significance of this action.) Since then I’ve been writing in Tamil as well as English, although for the time being I am still too embarrassed by what I write in Tamil to share it with others.
One of the most remarkable techniques in the novel is when you slow time down to practically a standstill, where each minute stretches for pages and we can’t help but hold our breath in fear that a bomb might fall and annihilate everything you’re carefully describing. How did handling time in this way allow you to tell the story you needed to tell?
The two main characters were highly traumatized, estranged from their own minds as a result of what they’d been through, so they didn’t really have access to their thoughts and feelings. As someone engaged in trying to understand, from a very different context, what being in such a situation is like, this posed a challenge: How can you try to glean the inner life of a person cut off from their inner life? So the novel begins where it does, with an old man suggesting that Dinesh marry his daughter. This proposal forces Dinesh to come to terms with all that has happened to him, to try to become intimate again with his thoughts and feelings. The novel takes place during a small window of consciousness within a much larger period of alienation from oneself.
I’ve been thinking about the question of time a lot recently, actually, since the novel I’m writing now takes place over an even shorter period of time, over an afternoon. In most of our ordinary life we are often without consciousness. Not necessarily cut off from our thoughts and feelings, but blind to them because our activity is so governed by routine and habit. So it is only in certain periods where we come to understand our situation in the world, I feel. Such moments or periods are bounded on both sides by more conventional time, but within these moments or periods one forgets time, and ceases to exist within it, so that such moments and periods can be thought of as being within time only retrospectively. These moments or periods aren’t uniform, obviously, but I feel they are all characterized by a certain lucidity or clarity, a quietness, a sense that that the past and the future, all of life, are perfectly contained within them.
You asked earlier about how I thought philosophy and literature were related. I’ve long since ceased to think of truth or understanding as coming in the form of a sentence, as I did when I was a seriously interested in philosophy; more and more I’ve come to see truth or understanding as consisting in a unified and concentrated mood or orientation or state in which everything is held together. These unified and concentrated moods or orientations or states don’t usually last very long — they are usually absorbed back into the partiality, blindness, and habituality that constitutes most of life — and that is why most of my writing also is set over a short periods of time, because that is where I think of truth or understanding as being located. With The Story of a Brief Marriage, though, it is not lifeless routine and habit that blinds one to oneself but trauma.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.