Anuk Arudpragasam’s debut novel The Story of a Brief Marriage, is set in that tiny strip of beach where the Sri Lankan civil war came to a brutal end in 2009. Thousands of civilians, we are reminded, kept moving east as the army advanced; having run out of land to escape to, they finally came to this particular beach.
The camp, as it is called, consists mostly of women, children and old people. Younger men have mostly been killed or recruited by the LTTE. There is an abandoned school building where a lone doctor amputates people who keep getting shelled; his surgical tool is a kitchen knife. Blood and body parts are strewn everywhere and generally people are waiting to be killed; there’s nothing else to do and nowhere to go. They do not talk to each other either.
In the midst of this, is Dinesh, a boy in his late teens who escaped death at the hands of the army and, recruitment by the LTTE. He helps the doctor in that clinic perform amputations; which is to say he holds down small children so that the doctor can cut off their maimed limbs without the benefit of anaesthetics. Dinesh has lost his entire family in the war. The ordeals he faced left him so wretched that he forgot his mother’s face. He has eaten little in days and has not slept at all in months.
We meet Dinesh on the day Somasundaram, an old man, approaches him. Somasundaram lost his wife and son to a shelling only a couple of weeks earlier and wants Dinesh to marry his daughter Ganga. The father is worried that soldiers will rape his daughter when they eventually come. Married women are spared is what he wants to believe, although he knows that is not true. Dinesh, originally too numb to consider the idea, slowly starts imagining life again.
The imagery that Arudpragasam evokes is so powerful that it moves the reader to tears repeatedly. The prose style reminds one of Paul Harding’s Pulitzer winning novel Tinkers. The digressions that go into detailing bodily functions in a war zone are as absurd, as they are beautiful. For instance Dinesh goes to the open beach, risking capture by LTTE or being shot at by the Army, just to have a “peaceful shit” although he has not eaten in days and has no urge to clean his bowels.
There was also the fact of its being too wide and exposed an area, too open a place for the privacy needed for a long and peaceful shit. He wanted to take it slow, to be alone somewhere he could listen in comfort to the sound of his bowels for a last time, listen for clues as to his origin and destination.
And at another time, he risks quite a bit to wash himself for the first time in months.
He moved up to his calves and knees, rubbing the hairs on his legs so the dirt that encrusted them dissolved away, all the way up to the area between his testicles and the insides of his thighs. Layer after layer of dirt collected into little pleats and fell off his wet skin as he kept scrubbing, layer after layer from his sides, armpits, and neck, from the insides of his elbows and wrists. He rubbed away the sleep that had collected in the inner corners of his eyes and eyelashes and rubbed the fuzz on his chin and jaw that had been stiffened by dry sweat and dirt. With his index finger he pared away at the skin behind his ears, then probing all their ridges he tried to score out the wax that had accumulated inside them. Digging into his belly button he scooped out the material that had developed there, then wetting his backside he picked at all the little pieces of shit that had hardened along the hairs between his buttocks. He drew back his foreskin with his left hand and with his right thumb and forefinger rubbed gently at the head, kneading the cream-colored surface layer so it softened and fell away exposing the pinkness beneath. Refilling the bucket Dinesh poured the warm water out again over his body, slowly, so that all the dirt and grime that he’d loosened but not removed fell away, from his toes, ankles, neck and arms, so that his skin felt newly clean and raw, as if in contact with the air for the first time.
Arudpragasam’s narrative overdoes this at times. It is in those pages that we realise this is a debut novelist, not yet at the peak of his writing prowess. Some sentences read like wonderful ideas for a great sentence; except they are in a finished book, frozen in their flowering. The overuse of the word ‘perhaps’ is jarring, too. But this book is under 200 pages and those flaws are small enough to overlook for the ultimately important and truly human story that it tells. Dinesh’s day in that isolated strip of wretched sand is the fundamental question we all have, albeit in the extreme: is life worth the misery of living?
For a Tamil, this is a particularly hard book to read. It captures a snapshot of lives that are very recognisably Tamil, but have been stripped of all dignity. There is a family where the brothers of the wife beat her husband almost to death for attempting suicide because they do not want to be responsible for their sister anymore. There is Somasundaram who takes care of Iyer, who has had shrapnel tear into him, for selfish reasons. There is a father who abandons his family because he could not provide safety. These are codes Tamil society lives by and Arudpragasam has put his training as a philosopher to good use to test them in the extreme.
The conflict in Sri Lanka continues to throw up savage, moving prose, much of it very close to the bone. If Shobha Shakti’s Gorilla was a litany of horrors from a life in which he experienced the killing middle ground between the LTTE and the brutal state, Arudpragasam shows that one can write a similar, deeply felt story coming from a place of imagination – showing the humanity of the brutalised civilian in a situation where nobody is granted the freedom to be innocent.
Nilakantan R.S. works as a data scientist for a tech start-up and looks at politics through that vantage point.