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The persistence of the body

Tanuj Solanki | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 09, 2016
Bullet points: A security personnel in Colombo stands next to an anti-LTTE poster, circa 2004. The final leg of the Sri Lankan civil war provides the setting for The Story of a Brief Marriage. Photo: Sriyantha Walpola

Bullet points: A security personnel in Colombo stands next to an anti-LTTE poster, circa 2004. The final leg of the Sri Lankan civil war provides the setting for The Story of a Brief Marriage. Photo: Sriyantha Walpola

The Story of a Brief Marriage; Anuk Arudpragasam; Fiction; HarperCollins India; ₹499

The Story of a Brief Marriage; Anuk Arudpragasam; Fiction; HarperCollins India; ₹499

In Anuk Arudpragasam’s outstanding debut novel, a recently married man struggles to establish his dignity in the face of unimaginable violence

The final leg of the Sri Lankan civil war provides the setting for Anuk Arudpragasam’s debut novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage. The protagonist, a Tamil youth named Dinesh, is trapped, like thousands of other Tamil evacuees, between the battlelines and the sea. A stoic narrator accesses Dinesh’s inner life. In the terminal world presented to us, it is understandably difficult to find the whys and hows. Not surprising, therefore, that more than a dozen times in the novel our view into Dinesh’s thought processes is marked by a recurring sentence template: why or how so and so happened, it was difficult to say. Towards the end of the novel, after severe shelling from the Lankan army has annihilated the titular marriage between Dinesh and a young girl named Ganga, this difficulty becomes too much, so much that the narrator — and we suspect Arudpragasam himself — reneges its access into Dinesh’s inner life. The narrator’s single sentence confession is supremely affecting, acquiring an incredible power as a limit is approached —the limit where literature can all but shake its head in the face of the intensity of human suffering:

“(…) one has no choice but to watch blindly from the outside (…) not so much because one lives in different circumstances, in a situation of privilege (…) nor because one is attempting (…) in another language entirely (…) but because, when such things happen to a person, [their] life … becomes lost inside their body and ceases to find expression.”

The novel begins, too, in the aftermath of a shelling. Dinesh brings an unconscious child, shattered arm needing amputation, to the camp clinic. Later he wonders how the child will balance his body given that he has already lost a leg on the same side. In the camp, severed limbs abound; a woman is gulping down sand and there is general madness. Dinesh’s mind, perhaps like some others’, has found ways of shutting out the hell. Each time, he achieves a perverse calm after the first shell lands, the deafening noise having muted everything thereafter.

The mind, Arudpragasam seems to suggest, builds its own tiny reconciliation. To cope, the mind may also choose momentary blankness, allowing the body a certain amount of discretion. “Dinesh noticed that the ground was no longer passing beneath him.” Such sentences occur more than once.

But Arudpragasam seems to know that such dissociation with the body is untenable. After all, one can lose one’s mind, but one can’t lose one’s body. For the body there are no lapses possible, no reconciliation on offer, nothing but physical reality waiting. The body can’t lie to itself. This object that belongs to us, that is very nearly the totality of us, never stops inhaling-exhaling, never ceases its need for ingestion and excretion, never ceases to want hygienic upkeep. Even in times of great distress, when death is imminent, the body’s involuntary functions are never inhibited.

It is Arudpragasam’s focus in looking at the body and bodily functions, and his patience at extracting meanings from these, that make this novel a standout one. In the first chapter, Dinesh takes a long, peaceful shit on the beach; he also smells his own ‘production’; in the third, he eats hungrily just after his marriage (the marriage is not much more than a symbolic way of responsibility-fulfilment for Ganga’s father, Somasundaram, who goes missing immediately after the tiny ceremony); in the fifth, he cuts his hair and nails, washes his clothes, and bathes (he smells his bodily surplus, again); in the sixth, he comes close to having sex with Ganga; in the seventh, he finds sleep after a long time; and in the eighth and final chapter, when all is lost and the irreversible happens, he breathes. Barring the end, it is difficult not to see Dinesh’s situation as steadily progressive, and perhaps that was Arudpragasam’s intention. The feeling of disembodiment, the estrangement between a mind reconciled with death and a body that wants nothing more than the performance of its functions, is one that Dinesh is shown to suffer from at the beginning. This feeling dissolves itself as the novel progresses. The mind begins to hope, and Dinesh grants the possibility, even if minuscule, of him and Ganga surviving the war and getting to be a married couple in “ordinary life”. The body begins to relax, too (he sleeps). But then the outer world returns with its war and senselessness, leaving him shell-shocked again.

Arudpragasam seems to suggest that in extreme circumstances, healing, if possible at all, begins with the body. But the revelation here is that even in extremis a body may communicate with that surplus that makes humans human, that concentration of subjectivity called the moral self. It is a great tactic by him, mostly due to the perverse discomfort it causes to the reader, to have Dinesh persist with common decencies even in living hell.

With this superlative debut, Arudpragasam achieves heights that many literary fiction writers fail to approach in their entire lives. It joins a hallowed literary tradition, with a long line that runs from the works of Dostoyevsky to Camus to Coetzee, with many detours such as Shalamov and Kertesz. For young South Asian writers, Arudpragasam has done the service of setting the bar very high. This reader will be shocked if the awards don’t follow.

Tanuj Solanki is the author of the novel Neon Noon

Published on December 09, 2016
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