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How can you pick up a book whose title gives away the ending yet keep reading till you finish it? That’s the beauty of Anuk Arudpragasam’s prose in his novel, The Story Of A Brief Marriage.
The book is the life in a day and night of Dinesh who is fleeing the Sri Lankan Civil war as fighting intensifies between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). As a child in India in the 80’s, I would hear on news the LTTE’s militant activities and the many human rights violations it was committing on the civilians who belonged to the ethnic minority of the Tamils. But Anuk’s lessons are not in politics and history but a dwelling on the painfully mundane nature of humanity’s existence in spite of horror. I have had the great opportunity of meeting refugees of the war who had been pushed out of the country almost 3 decades ago who now have beautiful lives in the US and Canada. Through this book, I now know what they had escaped.
Anuk’s Sri Lanka is unapologetically third world. People fleeing war pack themselves and their belongings and travel for days in tractors with no roof over their head along dusty old roads. They don’t know where they are going, but they camp themselves on the side of roads either in exhaustion or after being abandoned by their transportation, only to pick up and leave as the approaching sounds of shelling inch closer. The tarpaulin sheet roofs for their shabby makeshift homes, where bags under their heads are pillows and people who have a few legal documents (of property or land they own, but might never go back to) as their only possessions are images of the unfathomable nature of their rickety day to day existence.
The opening passages tell us some of the most shocking stories of war, of how surgical saws are used to amputate bleeding children to relieve them of limbs that won’t survive after being hit by mortal shells. No anesthetics are involved in these “surgeries”. There are many other descriptions of how the war does or doesn’t affect men and women.
There is a street fight involving two brothers of a woman whose husband is found half conscious with a canister of pesticide half empty beside his body. The men are still beating him because he has abandoned their sister and nephew and run away in order to escape his responsibilities.
“If the women learned somehow that someone they knew was killed in the bombing outside the bunkers, they would begin to beat their heads against the dugout walls and pulled wildly at their hair till it tore from the roots, so that at the end of each spell of shelling many of the dugouts were full of clumps of long, dirty hair.”
Dinesh’s mother collapses one day as they run from a nearby shelling. One time he thinks of the old woman who had pulled him down by the elbow to sit on the floor and eat her family’s daily ration of food because he looked so emaciated and how he had eaten with guilt and hunger. Yet, even in his desperation he doesn’t resort to eating sand, like the woman who he passes by in camp one day who is “eating sand compulsively from the ground – handful after handful, mixing the sand with saliva and then simply swallowing”.
The turning point comes early on in the form of a marriage proposal from an older gentleman who wants to marry off his daughter, Ganga to Dinesh. Dinesh’s urge to train his thoughts on the meaning of the proposal, on his own need for company, and the meaning of a marriage in the face of chaos creates a perfect combination for longing in the reader’s hearts. After their first meeting, I rooted for him as he ran behind Ganga trying hard to keep up with her as “she skillfully skirted the people, tents, and things in her path” looking for her father.
I stayed for a very long time on the page where Dinesh and Ganga get married.
Because this is no simple story, Dinesh is preoccupied with his feelings towards Ganga and how he wants to ready himself to be accepted by her, and also with thoughts of the cities he has seen being gutted by war. These cities in Anuk’s writing can be any place in the world affected by war.
“The remains of a desk at which a child had once sat and studied, the rusted shell of a pot or kettle in a lost family’s kitchen, or the tarnished brass bell and broken plaster sculpture of a roadside temple.”
The consistency of the prose tells you that the book has been dealt with the same care at first page and at the last one. But, I found my patience tested as I read about how he plays with his own shit after having an urge to empty his bowels, or with the touch me not plant for it to uncurl after he has accidentally touched it, or when he talks about his nail clippings, his hair. One time he is washing his shirt in a tedious and overtly descriptive prose that even when I skipped three pages, I realize that the shirt hasn’t been pulled out the bucket in which he has just dropped it to soak.
If Dinesh is guilty of anything, its of thinking too much. Most times his thoughts sound as if he has transcended the throes of war and is wise beyond his years. Since the book is written in third-person limited, its very difficult to imagine that Dinesh, a relatively young person possibly in his early 20’s can have such profound observations on life. Here is where Anuk could have benefited with a narration in the third-person omniscient point of view.
“As you got older the suffering of others became more difficult to ignore, as you saw more of life and became more a part of the world it became harder to imagine that the pain you faced was unique and in need of special attention, and as a result crying for yourself felt indulgent unless you could pretend that nobody else existed, or that your own pain was different and more exceptional, and to do this perhaps it was easier if you found somewhere to be completely alone.”
On the first night of the their wedding and the only night I know of Dinesh’s life, I wanted Ganga to pay attention to his lovingly cultivated sleeping space hidden in some dense bush away from the main camp but she simply doesn’t say anything “as though there was in the little rectangle nothing special, no quality worthy of remark.” I read along holding my breath, as he scans her while she is sleeping next to him. I run along with him the next morning in fear and anticipation, “until he runs round to the front of the tent where he finds Ganga was lying on her stomach a few feet from the entrance, her arms stretched out in front her.”
Read the book to be awed by Anuk’s prose. Read it to understand how the lives of refugees go on in spite of the terror of war.