When I was younger, someone told me we are separated from everyone by only three degrees. I felt oddly excited about this. Every time there was a person in the public sphere I was taken by, I would hope I knew them in the third degree at least. Writers, often. One day, A told me her brother’s friend had a book coming out, which allowed me to remember that pleasure again for a little while. It isn’t often you can say you know a writer, in some roundabout way even.
Set in the final days of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Anuk Arudpragasam’s debut novel The Story of a Brief Marriage opens to us a world of suffering so unbearable it will leave us gasping for breath. The novel follows a young man named Dinesh, who exists in a camp – because live wouldn’t be the verb to describe what he was doing, the involuntary way in which his body performed its functions. He is one of the few young men around, the others either dead or missing. One day, an old man approaches him with a proposal that might come across as incongruous. But trauma alters perspectives. Marry my daughter, he says. Married women may be safer, he reasons, from those who think sexual exploits and war are bedmates; a married man might be able to spend his time without having to fight for the movement. These are the hopes of a people who don’t have much else to lose, and so a ceremony is performed in front of an image of the goddess of wealth. Dinesh and Ganga are now married.
The story takes place in a day, though it occasionally allows for reminiscing, when Dinesh realizes he too has memories, and a life he left behind, that was so different he doesn’t understand it anymore. People, he thinks, were always busy coming and going, waiting, carrying things in their hands, talking. What did they speak about, where were they going or coming from, what did they buy? In the camp though, everyone is mostly silent, except for the wails and cries.
Every character seems to have accepted the inevitability of their situation, in the process they lose something that marks them as human. Feelings, the novel appears to say, are for those who exert some semblance of control over their lives. For the rest, life could be a number of days until they are no longer alive.
There might be numerous accounts of the tragedy that visited innocent people over the years, but I will remember this book for the language that somehow sounded beautiful, even when describing grotesque events, as though the author was trying to transpose the song-like quality of Srilankan Tamil on to his English novel.
Time freezes within these pages. In taking a small moment in history and examining it delicately, we are forever trapped in that moment. It is the silent scream that has no beginning or end. You can look away, you can stop reading, but you can’t escape the shrapnel, shit and blood that follow you in your dreams. For a novel that revels in its details, like the cleaving of grains of rice in one’s mouth or the dirt accumulated in the hair from months of not washing, the end arrives abruptly. Maybe we needed more time to accept the end, in spite of the title telling us this was going to be a brief marriage. Or maybe it bothers us more because as strangers who have just been married, Dinesh and Ganga experience much of the same emotions that similar couples elsewhere experience under different circumstances, and we want the odds to be in their favour.