Anuk Arudpragasam came of age in southern Sri Lanka while civil war waged in the north. Near the end of the 26-year military campaign, in May 2009, additional tens of thousands of Tamils were killed in conflict-zone camps. Southerners, living their everyday lives, didn’t know.
“The Sri Lankan government didn’t allow independent observers or journalists into the war zone, so nobody really knew,” says Arudpragasam, author of The Story of a Brief Marriage. The news sources were either the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant organization, or the government’s media agency. “We had no idea about all of these people being killed until months afterwards,” he says.
It was four to five months later that cellphone videos and firsthand accounts began to surface on the internet. Arudpragasam pored over the footage, experiencing the identification and estrangement that ultimately inspired his haunting debut novel, set over the course of 24 hours in a besieged camp on Sri Lanka’s northeastern coast.
“[The Story of a Brief Marriage] was a response to coming into contact with all this material and a strong sense of being so distant in space and time from those who are depicted in this media,” he says. “We speak the same language, we share a history. But how far now I am from them! And how far what they have gone through has taken them away from me. It was written in response to this distance between myself and the people who I saw in these images and videos, who I felt that I could have been one of, if I had been less privileged or less lucky.”
Arudpragasam was born and raised in Colombo, the capital and largest city of Sri Lanka. He currently lives in New York, where he is a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, studying 19th- and early-20th-century American ethics. His dissertation focuses on concepts of the self in the writings of William James, John Dewey, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“I was envisioning [The Story of a Brief Marriage] as a novel of a person’s consciousness,” Arudpragasam says, “—of a person reflecting on their situation and on what’s happened to them. So I did want much of the novel to be in this person’s mind, with a certain kind of quietness, but I wanted to be clear that this quiet reflectiveness was happening in the context of great violence. The novel is like a small window in a longer moment of extreme violence.”
The self at the novel’s center is Dinesh, a young man whose character has been stripped to its barest essentials—to survival mode—in a world of overwhelming violence and carnage. Yet he accesses the reserves of his humanity to assist the sole physician in the camp’s gruesome clinic.
“Most children have two whole legs and two whole arms but this little six-year-old that Dinesh was carrying had already lost one leg, the right one from the lower thigh down, and was now about to lose his right arm,” Arudpragasam writes in the novel’s opening sentence.
“Dinesh is a character but also not, in the sense that his identity has been completely destroyed at the beginning of the novel,” Arudpragasam says. “There's a sense of him having a certain temperament, a kind of tenderness, but not the realization of a complete, independent entity. He is a body in a situation—a person who's no longer a person.”
Despite his compromised character, Dinesh is identified by an older man, Somasundaram, as a potential husband for his daughter, Ganga, whom he is anxious to marry off before he dies. After careful consideration of the proposal, Dinesh accepts. The Iyer, or priest, dies, so they marry in an improvised ceremony.
“The world outside the lines of their gaze seemed to melt away,” Arudpragasam writes, “and as two humans crossing paths in a lifeless and empty land will stop and with words and gestures attempt to build a narrow bridge between their worlds, they locked their eyes together and tried, if only for a brief and trembling second, to break through the dead skin and dusty air that lay between them. A light breeze brushed past their ears. They were married.”
For Dinesh, marriage provides a tremendous reawakening of the senses. Together, as the young couple eat, sleep, and touch, he contemplates what such a marriage might mean—who they are to one another—what future they might build together. In one particularly profound scene, he steals away while Ganga sleeps, to bathe for her.
“All the dirt and dead skin that had coated him, all the rubble and debris of his body had at least been shorn off, leaving him tender and bare, like a warm, living seed,” he writes. “He had returned to himself finally, consisted now of nothing but himself, no dead or extraneous material, only living, breathing substance, porous and naked. It was though, with the washing away of all the matter than had encrusted his body in the last months, he had freed himself of the hold the recent past had taken of him, as though with the memory inhering in his hair and nails and skin now gone, everything that had happened could be let go of, the present made free finally to take on a different significance, his raw new skin ready, at least, for new memory and for new life.”
It is but one divine moment amid cataclysm, leading to an inevitable death. But the scope and sublimity of this unforgettable story makes the heartbreak worthwhile.
“It’s important that you know what’s going to happen, because this all has to play out with a sense of inevitability,” Arudpragasam says, “because that was the way I came into contact with [these events]. When I came into contact with this, it was already over. I knew how it was ending. I just saw all of these images, all of these videos of people in bunkers and people with dismembered bodies shouting and screaming, and it was clear that they would all die. So that sense of inevitability, that’s part of why everything is given already. You know that this will end in this way. And you know if they survive, they won’t really have survived.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.