The quarter-century long civil war in Sri Lanka ended with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009. The brutality of the final push by the Sri Lankan army created a humanitarian crisis, the echoes of which are felt long after the last shot was fired. More than a decade after the end of the war, there are debates still raging whether there was a genocide perpetrated on Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan military. In his second novel, Sri Lankan author Anuk Arudpragasam explores the endless suffering of a whole generation of Tamils in the country’s northeast torn apart by the violence.
A Passage North, which is included in the Booker Prize shortlist for this year, deals with a young Sri Lankan Tamil’s attempt to understand the inner violence of the war. The novel is set five years after the cessation of hostilities in Colombo, where Krishnan works with an international NGO. Living with his widowed mother and an ailing grandmother, he receives a call one evening from the northeast. The daughter of Rani, his grandmother’s former caregiver, informs him that her mother had fallen into a well and died.
Five years after the publication of his debut novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage, Arudpragasam persists with theatre of war in the island nation. If his first novel was about a young couple’s life on Ground Zero towards the end of the war, the author chooses a young man far removed from the violence to talk of the trauma in its aftermath. Born into privilege, Krishnan had been cocooned in his own secure world and had studied as an undergraduate in Delhi. Though initially reluctant to believe the death of Rani, he decides to travel to Killinochi to attend her funeral.
Set up as a family drama in which the failing health of its eldest member—Krishnan’s grandmother—is the centre of attention, along with his troubled relationship with an activist in Delhi, the novel slowly moves its focus on to the less privileged and the severely impacted in the civil war.
Narrated as a journey into the erstwhile centre of conflict, the novel reaches into the inner depths of its consequences through a series of symbols and analogies borrowed from folklore and mythology, TV documentaries and even Kalidasa’s Meghaduta. The narrative pits Krishnan’s elderly grandmother, who is unable to walk, against her caregiver Rani, who is receiving treatment for mental illness after the violent deaths of two young sons in the war.
Arudpragasam, who won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for The Story of a Brief Marriage, relies heavily on metaphors and analogies to aid a narrative lined with political and social layers. Unlike other Sri Lankan authors who have handled the sensitive subject of the civil war, he skillfully extends the geography to include India, which had been drawn into the war against the Tigers after a disastrous accord in 1987 that resulted in allegations of rape and torture against the Indian Peace Keeping Force. The novel sets the stage for a journey into the northeast and thus the scarred world of the civil war survivors with many motifs. One that stands out is the story of Poosal, a poor farmer in the Tamil epic, Periya Puranam, who builds a grand temple in his mind for Siva told early in the novel as Krishnan wrestles with the memories of the war by finding maps of war zones, no-fire zones, hospitals and sites of massacres.
The author’s efficient construction of time and his attention to detail succeed in taking the reader step by step to the true nature of violence. At times, he stretches the details. During Krishnan’s rail journey to Killinochi, he comes across “diasporic children (of a Tamil family), immediately recognisable by the clothes they wore”. For the same journey, he carries a book about Indian militarism and the occupation of Kashmir. A college graduate and an employee of an international NGO, he is surprised to learn his grandmother, who receives family pension, had maintained a bank account. A billboard outside the first railway station in the northeast during Krishnan’s journey is, however, apt. “There is no way: You will never be able to set foot in Australia,” it says warning against traffickers trying to profit by cheating people who want to seek asylum as refugees.
A Passage North joins only a handful of works from Sri Lanka that address the consequences of the civil war. Melbourne-based Rajith Savanadasa dealt with the question of how post-war societies cope with their violent past in his first novel, Ruins, five years ago, about the tensions in a Colombo family of a Sinhalese man and his Tamil wife in the last days of the war. A year later, Jude Ratnam, a former Tamil human rights activist, delivered a rare criticism of the Tamil rebels in his much-acclaimed documentary Demons in Paradise premiered at the Cannes festival. A theatre group from Sri Lanka staged a play, Payanihal (Passengers), at the famous Under the Sal Tree festival at Goalpara, Assam in 2016 in an artistic intervention for reconciliation between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities. Arudpragasam’s sophomore novel is a symphony of time that rises to a gradual and deafening crescendo. As societies continue to grapple with the crisis of refugees from strife-torn countries, particularly in South Asia, A Passage North delivers a powerful image of the horrors of state-sponsored violence and the human necessity to help its victims.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer
A Passage North
Penguin Random House
Pp 287, Rs 599