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'A Passage North' Is A Quiet Elegy For Lives Lost To Civil War


We live in a perpetual present with perpetual change. Describing this in his 1991 book, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson wrote about how a continuous onslaught of news pushes important events and critical experiences to the past so rapidly that it erodes our sense of history. Anuk Arudpragasam's first novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage, was an endeavor against just this kind of erosion with respect to the Sri Lankan civil war, which killed more than 100,000 civilians and over 50,000 soldiers from both sides. With his second novel, A Passage North, Arudpragasam zooms in on that war again, this time to focus on its aftermath.

There are other similarities between these two novels. Both stories have slim plotlines occurring over a brief period of time. A Passage North gives us a weekend in the life of Krishan, a young man working at an NGO in Colombo. In 2016, Arudpragasam discussed how, with his first novel, he had been driven to explore the war by studying in-depth reportage and traveling to the northeastern part of the country, which is also Krishan's experience here. While the first book examines how people live and die with war and violence all around them, this one looks at how we live and die in the aftermath.

For Krishan, who lost his father in a bank bombing during the war and has returned to his home city after several years, the aftereffects are the kind that never leave, but linger on like subterranean forces or processes still happening deep inside, driving his trajectory in the present and the future. Both novels load minute thoughts, gestures, and details with richly personal significance and implications — and Arudpragasam's conscious decision to not include details or contextualize the history or the politics of the war in his first book is carried through in this novel too.

Although the storytelling is entirely from Krishan's point of view, the other main characters are all women. Appamma, his grandmother, lost a son in the war and is furiously trying to defeat death at every turn. Meanwhile Rani, Appamma's caretaker, lost both her sons to the war and goes to odd lengths to invite death. And Anjum, Krishan's former girlfriend, seeks to transcend both life and death through activist causes greater than herself. Krishan's relationships and interactions with these three women reveal his search for and ambivalence toward his own sense of meaning and purpose. And when he hears of Rani's sudden death, it jolts him to think "paradoxically, not about Rani but himself, to look at himself from the outside and to see from a distance the life in which he'd been immersed."

Arudpragasam unpacks exactly how our inner circuitry is forever rewired during instances, war-driven or otherwise, that enable closeness or disconnection, that lead to absences or ruptures.

Krishan also muses on other stories and histories to understand his past and present. Arudpragasam embeds these Proustian digressions — the mythical story of a poor Shiva devotee, Poosal, who builds the most grand temple for his god all in his own mind, the account of the Buddha's enlightenment, a retelling of Kalidasa's epic poem "The Cloud Messenger," and more — quite frequently and reveals them unhurriedly. Mostly, they're part of Krishan's poetic and philosophical ruminations on various aspects of life and death: desire, grief, loss, yearning, absence, solitude, memory, trauma, suffering, recovery.

This quiet, inward manner of processing the end of the war isn't simply a character trait. The words "quiet," "calm," "silent" or their various synonyms repeat on almost every page. Along with the lack of any direct dialogue, this creates an incantatory and meditative rhythm. It compels us to slow down and immerse ourselves with deep attention in the wordless moments between the characters. The prose is at its most moving here.

Whether it is Krishan getting intimate with Anjum on a night train to Mumbai, testing a male stranger's friendliness on the Delhi metro, or watching Rani staring at a soundless movie screen, Arudpragasam unpacks exactly how our inner circuitry is forever rewired during instances, war-driven or otherwise, that enable closeness or disconnection, that lead to absences or ruptures. As Krishan posits, "a single moment could be not a bead on an abacus of finite length but an ocean that can be entered into, whose distant shores can never be reached."

In the end, Krishan observes that death is the only closure. Conflicted about how he and the people in his life are coping with the residue of the war, he sees no other cure for those absences, memories, dreams, and desires. This is, of course, a western philosophical mindset rather than an eastern one, where death is seen not as a calamity but a necessary phase of life. If the novel strikes a false note, it is with this closing, which may be driven more by the author's Columbia doctorate in philosophy than his Sri Lankan protagonist's upbringing. While this may not have been the author's intention, it seems to diminish those who've survived horrific wars and losses and soldiered on afterwards.

Nevertheless, the novel is a tender elegy. Early in the story, when describing why he was compelled to research the war obsessively, Krishan says he had been "trying to construct, through this act of imagination, a kind of private shrine to the memory of all those anonymous lives." A Passage North is a similar wholehearted and necessary act of preservation by its author.

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, book critic, and host of the Desi Books podcast. https://jennybhattwriter.com.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jenny Bhatt
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