For better or worse? No, the philosopher Anuk Arudpragasam was not writing a book about marriage. The writer, born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1988, talks about maintaining one’s humanity against the backdrop of war – in this case, the Sri Lankan civil war which ended in 2009. He describes helpless attempts to coax emotion out of an orphaned baby as well as the bright idea one father comes up with in order to reinforce hopes for a brighter future: Through the ritual of marriage.
The impact of war and violence, the way these wound both body and soul, are clear in every sentence of these short stories. The Sri Lankan civil war, fought by Singhalese government troops and Tamil rebels, the Tamil Tigers, lasted 25 years and ended with victory for the state and an estimated 100,000 dead civilians. To this day, there are still landmines buried around the island nation and tens of thousands of missing locals.
The tale begins with a deep cut, literally: Dinesh, a young displaced man of Tamil origin brings a six-year-old to the doctor. An operation is needed and carried out, but without surgical instruments or anaesthetic. Arudpragasam describes the movement of the saw on the body part that was formerly an arm and the look on the doctor’s face so well that the reader has to pause to collect themselves, before going on.
Just this one scene should be enough to prevent any further violent conflict. And it would normally also be enough to put you off the book – except for Dinesh’s clever acknowledgments and thinking about fundamentals, like eating, sleeping, crying and shame, and a quiet, elegant tone that pushes the reader onwards.
The story, which is told in the tradition of the philosopher Robert Musil, doesn’t take up more than a few hours of one afternoon in Dinesh’s life. Narrated time and the time needed for the narration blend together. And it all starts with a request from a father. In the middle of all of the chaos the man, who has lost people just as everyone else in the camp has, asks Dinesh if he would like to marry his daughter, Ganga. A Brahman priest can conduct a ceremony. Dinesh agrees and meets Ganga, with her lust for intimacy and security.
For a few short hours the couple brighten up each other’s trauma-filled lives even as they approach one another timidly. Beforehand Dinesh ventures to a place in the displaced persons’ camp where he recalls what has happened to him and his family. He cuts his hair with a pair of rusty scissors, washes himself with a piece of soap he found in Ganga’s bag and returns to his sleeping wife. One of the loveliest scenes in the book follows, a tender love story between newlyweds.
What seems like a renewed hopeful vision soon turns to despair – and unfortunately this happens just as one might expect it to. The conclusion is perhaps the only weak part of the book.
The author’s observational abilities are particularly noticeable. Flies that settle on naked skin are likened to temple goers performing their rituals. People cry like ambulance sirens. Ganga’s father’s need to reflect upon his failure as a man is silent.
The author, who studies philosophy at Colombia University in New York and writes in English, shows the best of what literature can do. Unlike some factual book about the politics of the Sri Lankan civil war, The Story of a Brief Marriage has an intensity and urgency in its telling that no newspaper report could ever compete with, leaving the reader with a deep sense of melancholy and an awareness of the human suffering war brings.
The Story of a Brief Marriage. By Anuk Arudpragasam. Flatiron Books, New York, 2016.