Anuk Arudpragasam: A Passage North
by Jennifer Bryce
Short-listed for the 2021 Booker prize, this book has been described as ‘a meticulous but frustrating meditation on violence and memory’ https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/jul/15/a-passage-north-by-anuk-arudpragasam-review-a-journey-into-the-trauma-of-war .
For most of it we are on a train journey from Colombo to the very north of Sri Lanka – plenty of time for the main character, Krishan, to ruminate – as well as listening to the clanking wheels and staring out onto the Sri Lankan countryside. In his reminiscences, he describes times when he smokes and meditates. Krishan is Tamil, and the story (or scenes) take place just after the almost 30 years of civil war. Much of this book took me back to poetry of Tagore that I had read at university and, a little inappropriately because Hindu, to the Vedic hymns. If you are old enough to have seen Satyajit Ray’s films, and if you found them tedious, you may soon lose patience with Arudpragasam’s lengthy sentences and paragraphs. I studied Indian philosophy at university and this has provided me with some kind of entree into this ruminant writing.
Krishan’s grandmother’s carer, Rani has died by falling into a well and he is suspicious it may have been suicide, or other foul means. For a moment I thought that this book might be a ‘whodunnit’ – but it is far from this, and in the end the question of the means of Rani’s death is immaterial. Rani’s two children died as a consequence of the civil war.
As he sits on the clanking train, Krishan ponders his relationship with Anjum, whom he still loves although they have parted — one gathers that her activist responsibilities are more important to her than her love for him.
Krishan is travelling to Rani’s funeral — he feels an obligation to attend it — it seemed to me that this was because he was ‘the man’ of the family. He ultimately reaches her village, a place that is foreign to him. After meeting at the crowded funeral home — professional mourners and all, but no-one he knows, he walks with the men to the funeral pyre, some distance away. The place of cremation is near a lake, which reminds Krishan of a documentary film where two young women are excited that they will be sacrificing their lives for the Tamil cause — rather like suicide bombers. This is compared to young women ‘sacrificing’ their lives by going into a Buddhist nunnery.
For Krishan, the funeral pyre is located ‘at the end of the earth’ and I found this part of the book the most illuminating (there may be a pun here with Buddhist thinking, but it is not intended). Once the fire is blazing and before the body starts to burn, it is customary for the observers to move away. Krishan is the last to leave. He gets to the entrance and looks back ‘as the substantiality of a human life was transmuted, like a mirage or hallucination or vision, into thick clouds of smoke billowing up into the sky, thinning as they rose and then disappearing into the evening, a message from this world to another that would never be received’.
There would be Tamil texts, I am sure, but for me the Rigvedic Creation hymn came to mind:
Then even nothingness was not, nor existence.
There was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it. …
The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.
There was that One then, and there was no other. …
But, after all, who knows, and who can say
whence it all came, and how creation happened?
The gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen? …
(excerpts translated from Sanskrit by A.L. Basham)