Anuk Arudpragasam’s debut novel set during Sri Lanka’s Civil War is nothing short of a literary masterpiece. It took me longer to get through it for two reasons; firstly a slow paced story delving into Dinesh’s (the main protagonist living in a makeshift settlement camp) inflections on life, people and the futility of it all considering the context of destruction; secondly, Arudpragasam constructs these incredibly long sentences that pack so much of meat and meaning in them that I had to go back and read them a few times to take them all in. Here is an example:
“Perhaps, though every single moment of being alive consisted of breathing, in and out, and in and out, never once ceasing since breathing of course occurred independently of choice or habit, was a pact between the chest and the atmosphere about which the mind could say nothing, perhaps, though life itself was nothing but an oscillation between these states, between drawing in the atmosphere and having it drawn back out, between attempting unconsciously to encompass the world and then being forced to give it all up, perhaps it was only in these rare moments of more complete inhalation or exhalation that the relationship between oneself and the world one had always been breathing became explicit, in which one really saw the limits of encompassment and dissolution between which one had always been oscillating, from one’s painful first breath at birth, which was the greatest attempt at incorporating what was outside, to one’s weary last breath at death, when one was swept completely out of one’s body, and lost at last in the atmosphere.”
Each time I read this sentence, it adds new respect to the value of life and breath and our existence. This man is truly a genius.
Nothing much really happens in the book. Dinesh marries Ganga and they spend one night together before one of them dies. I like the fact that he gives us the ending straight away in the novel and you go through it wondering which one of them it will be.
Fifteen or more pages of this novel is a description of Dinesh having a bath for the first time by a well. The vividness of other similar acts like this- shitting by the beach, digging through his new wife’s bag, watching a dying crow, watching his wife sleep, his inability to elicit an erection from his body- really put me in that camp. I heard the shelling, I felt Dinesh’s numb acceptance of his bleak future (if it could be called that) and yet the contradicting aspiration to find happiness in companionship, I tasted the tears he wept in Ganga’s embrace.
It is most definitely not an easy book to read. Just the opening account of a doctor amputating a boy’s arm without anesthesia will have you cringing within. There is no glimmering hope or peeking tunnel light. It is grey and black, reflecting the meaningless of the suffering endured.
The bit that I loved the most was when Dinesh asks Ganga if she is happy with their marriage and she replies curtly, “Things just happen and we have to accept them. Happiness and sadness are for people who can control what happens to them.” For me this is the real tragedy, when people despite all their capabilities, ambitions and efforts in building a life themselves, at the end of it all, have no ownership of their fate.