Anuk Arudpragasam’s bold debut novel The Story of a Brief Marriage condenses the twenty-six years of the Sri Lankan civil war into an intimate human story, told over the course of a day and a night. Dinesh is a young Tamil man who, like tens of thousands of other civilians, has fled his home and is now trapped between the advancing government forces, the Tamil Tiger resistance fighters, and the sea. He has lost everything and moves in a daze between erratic episodes of shelling and their bloody aftermath. But on this day, he is approached with an offer of marriage. What follows is a visceral meditation on suffering that is devastating, sometimes beautiful, and illuminating.
Arudpragasam writes in both Tamil and English and is completing a dissertation in philosophy at Columbia University. The Rumpus spoke with him via video chat at his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Despite the time difference—it was late evening there—he spoke with animation and intensity. He is every bit the scholar and philosopher, sometimes pinching the bridge of his nose as he works to formulate an idea. But he also has a ready smile and a quick sense of humor that’s both sardonic and generous.
The Rumpus: One of the things that struck me most about the novel is how little historical context is given. Instead, the reader is utterly immersed in the present moment of the main character Dinesh. So often, we read a book set in war which also gives the reader a history lesson. I’m thinking particularly of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the Nigerian civil war. Why did you decide to leave out this kind of context?
Anuk Arudpragasam: It is something I thought about, and there are a couple of reasons behind it. Because the subject matter of the novel is very graphic and it is so hard to be in the presence of, I think there is a natural tendency to find ways to divert one’s attention from these kinds of things.
To use a simple example, if you see somebody in pain or you see somebody suffering in some way, there are usually, if the pain is ordinary—of a conventional kind where somebody’s fallen say or somebody has been bereaved—there are established ways of providing some kind of therapy for the person who is suffering. If somebody is hurt you ask them if they’re okay. You give them a bandage, you rub them on the back. There are all these ways of helping them out. And then, there are situations in which there’s obviously nothing you can do in response to somebody’s suffering or somebody’s pain, and we tend to find other ways to deal with the person. You can’t actually help the person out, so you say, “I know how it feels” or “I’ve been there before” or you try to be with them in other ways.
There is an instinctive urge to act when confronted by the pain of another person, and I think this urge involves, in a way, a discomfort or anxiety about actually seeing that the other person is in pain. In trying to find a way to make their situation better, you’re doing something, and in doing something and in responding actively to someone’s pain, you are, in a way, free from having to contemplate the pain or reflect on the condition of the person. That’s not a bad thing at all.
I feel, though, when it comes to the suffering or the pain of people who are far away or in situations that are very different from your own, that the analog to giving somebody a Band-Aid or rubbing them on the back or talking to them is what you could call a political response. It is to say, “Who did that?” or “What was responsible?” or “When did this happen? How did this happen? Why didn’t anybody do anything?” And then to say, “It was these people. These people need to go to jail” or “These people need to be tried or taken to the international criminal court.” By making these kinds of political diagnoses—and I am not against them at all, they are natural and very necessary—by responding to the suffering of people far away in time and space in this very instinctive way, with some kind of plan for action, I feel that something often gets lost. And I feel that, at least in my case, what gets lost in my instinctive reaction to suffering is an understanding or a contemplation of the condition of the people who are suffering. So, in this situation, I wanted to give very little historical context and social and political context, so that this condition is forced on the attention of the writer or reader.
It has to do with me personally. It has to do with my background. I am also a Tamil person, but I grew up in very privileged circumstances in the south of the country far away from where war occurred. And so I was watching all of this. I was hearing about it happening at a distance. For me, the thing that I was most interested in was to come to some kind of understanding of the situation. To basically try to understand what it was like to be there. To understand the state or the condition of these people in whose situation I could have been had history been unkind to me. So, I wanted to remove all of these—I didn’t want to have history there because I didn’t want to give the reader or myself a chance to escape from the immediacy of that situation.
Rumpus: I wasn’t consciously aware of how that technique was operating on me as I was reading, but I can see now how, exactly because Dinesh is not fully labeled as this thing or that thing or in this particular context, I couldn’t other myself from him. Instead, I was so deeply inside of his head that I simply moved with him through the moments of his day, contemplating with him the experiences he had. It works very beautifully in the book and keeps me from letting myself off the hook with a rote response to another’s grief. “Oh, now I know something about your country and I know your history, and you know I care, and now we’re all comfortable again.” One of the most fascinating things about this book is how you force—force may not be the right word—but you force us into the point of view of this man.
Arudpragasam: I realize that there is something, not just in the subject matter but about the text, that is violent. There is something violent—something imposed—on the reader in the course of reading the text. Obviously I wrote it, and obviously in some way I intended it to be this way, but it had to do with myself and my own desire to—I mean I wrote this as a novella that was not intended for publication. It was written in response to a lot of photographs and video recordings—grainy photographs and grainy cell phone video that were taken by people who were in the situation, by survivors, civilians—that started surfacing on the Internet months after this all happened. So, yeah, it was written out of guilt. Out of a desire to be violent with myself in a way. To force myself to be in the presence of it for as long as I could.
Rumpus: When did you start writing it?
Arudpragasam: I started it in September 2011. The novel happens in March 2009. Dinesh’s evacuation from the part of Sri Lanka he is from begins sometime in early-mid 2008, so he’s been on the move for just a little bit under a year. The war ends on May 18, 2009. Before this fourth phase of the war, the Tamil Tigers controlled most of northeast Sri Lanka except for the northeastern most part of the country, the Jaffna peninsula. Basically, what happened is the Sri Lankan government attacked from the north, from the north and from the southwest and the southeast. Over the course of the year or a year-and-a-half, the Tigers’ territory decreases, and they move with them all of these civilians. Until finally everybody is trapped in an area—about the size of Central Park, I guess—on the northeast coast of Sri Lanka, by the sea. It’s about 300,000 people, and they are trapped in a very small area. And they are being subjected to shelling. And 40,000 people died.
Rumpus: Why was it called an evacuation when there was nowhere left for them to go?
Arudpragasam: It’s complicated. The government was killing them. The government was bombing indiscriminately, and calling it a humanitarian operation. The Sri Lankan state was announcing certain areas as no-fire zones and civilians would go there and those places would be bombed. Or the UN would tell the state, “There’s a hospital over here at this location. Don’t bomb it,” and the next moment shells would start falling on the hospital. So it was part of an intentional policy. See the thing was, the LTTE—the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—also did not let civilians leave. They kept civilians with them because they felt that, first of all, they wanted people. Secondly, they felt that if they had people with them and if they were among the people, then that would slow down the progress of the army because the army wouldn’t be able to just bomb them from the sky, which of course the army did. So the killing was something that the state did, but the LTTE was also complicit in.
Rumpus: Were you living in Sri Lanka during this period in 2009 or were you in the States?
Arudpragasam: I went to university on the West Coast in 2006, so I was in university in California at that time.
Rumpus: It feels like you were both on the inside and the outside of the conflict, and this novel is a very personal response to that. What are you working on now?
Arudpragasam: I decided after I finished this novel—you know, because I spent three years on it—I decided that I would try to write something lighter. So I’m writing a novel about masturbation—also set over the course of an afternoon, actually. But it’s not crude or masculinist. It’s not like a Philip Roth novel. It’s a novel about a young person who is somewhat sad and who lives in Colombo, where I grew up and where I am now, who decides one afternoon that he wants to masturbate, which he hasn’t done for a while. It’s basically about this young man and his relationship to his grandmother. I think it’s about yearning. It’s about this person who is disappointed with his life and he doesn’t have much to look forward to and wants to be elsewhere than where he is, and he decides he’s going to go home and masturbate and in the process of masturbating, create a kind of world in his mind, a world that won’t collapse once he ejaculates. And it’s about him basically being interrupted over the course of the afternoon constantly by his grandmother—who is increasingly immobile and whose eyesight and hearing are deteriorating and whose only access to the world is her grandson. Who she bothers constantly, like, “How much did the onions cost?” or “Who called?” or “Who rang the bell?” or “Why were you late from work?” She is becoming more removed from the world as she gets older but is trying to hold on to the world, and he is very much in the world, the so-called real world, and is trying his best to create some alternative to it in his mind. And it’s about the tension between these two different movements in and out of the world over the course of the afternoon as she keeps interrupting him.
Rumpus: In A Brief Marriage, we only see a day and a night in the lives of Dinesh and Ganga, his wife. What do you think it is about this—I’m not sure whether to call it compressed or expanded time—this focus on a very small period of time that you find so intriguing as a writer?
Arudpragasam: One very simple reason for my writing this way is that I’m not really very interested in creating narratives or in creating stories or in creating characters, and I think that I can avoid that by not having time or by having things happen in a very compressed period of time. It’s no accident that both of these characters are highly traumatized, and therefore I don’t really need to go into their histories because it’s a situation in which their characters have been destroyed.
It is something I’ve been thinking about because I realize, okay, the second novel is just like the first one—or it’s even more compressed—and I have an idea for a third novel that’ll take place in a shorter period of time. It’ll be simply one person looking at somebody else in the eye, then looking away, and then looking back again. But the thing is that—how to say—I think that time—there are moments when it stops. There are moments in which you exist in a different kind of time. It’s not that I’m not interested in longer periods of time at all, but I feel that I’m interested in shorter periods of time because—okay, so, one of my favorite writers, Robert Musil, there’s a book he wrote called The Man without Qualities. Have you read it?
Arudpragasam: He describes a main character who is talking to a lover who he wants to leave, or whom he has just left, but then a frenzy of passion erupts in him and they have sex. And then the character sits down, and he is tying his shoelace or smoking a cigarette as his lover sits on the bed and looks at him, and he suddenly feels very removed and very distant from the situation, from what just happened. And then there is a line—or a paragraph—where he talks about these states of heightened feeling or intense feeling that are always then absorbed back into the ordinary routine of life. There are moments in which the established way of doing things, or the thread that one follows along during the course of the day suddenly seems to be cut, or the world around you that you’ve taken for granted for so long suddenly falls away, and there are these certain moments in which suddenly things are seen more clearly.
I think that it is difficult to maintain states of clarity for more than short periods of time. At least for me. Most of my time, you know, it’s routine, it’s habitual. I don’t really see what’s happening, and days pass one after the other, and then a month’s gone like that, or a year’s gone like that. But then there are these moments when I seem to be pulled out of that. As if I’ve suddenly come up for breath, as if all this time I’ve been underwater, and I suddenly come up for breath, and I can see the expanse of the body of water I’ve been immersed in all that time. I think that’s why I’m interested in these moments. Not that in each of these moments you feel the same thing—or they say the same thing or need to be consistent with each other or anything—but I think I prefer to see life through the lens of those moments.
Rumpus: Speaking of water, it reminds me of when Dinesh goes to the beach early on in the book. It’s one of my favorite parts because it’s when I get fully immersed into the immediacy of his point of view and he enters a heightened awareness of himself that’s created by pushing out everything else—and that pushing has basically been from the shell shock. He’s so fully there inside this moment on the shore meditating on his own existence, and it’s around that point when another book started coming up for me as I was reading. Have you read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann?
Arudpragasam: No, but I’ve been told that I should—that I would like it.
Rumpus: I’m not sure that I liked it necessarily, but it’s held up as one of the touchstone philosophical novels. It takes place in a European sanatorium and spans seven years. But what that novel does over seven years and some thousand pages, I think yours does in the course of a day. Your novel is asking questions about what is it to be alive, what is it to have no hope, what is it to suddenly have hope, what is it to confront your own death, and what is it to confront the choices life requires of you—all these minute little choices you have to make all the time. And there’s something really beautiful that you achieve in this compressed time because there’s so much intimacy in witnessing each small action Dinesh takes or that he sees Ganga taking. But I’m still very curious about her. Tell me more about Ganga.
Arudpragasam: You know, I don’t think I can tell you much more about Ganga than is presented of her in the novel, or much more about Dinesh than is presented about him. Are you pointing to the fact that very little is said about her?
Rumpus: Yes, but while little is said, I think important things are revealed about her. You said earlier that you are not very interested in character and narrative, but this book is full of character and narrative. Though the way that you get to them is very different from what we’re used to reading nowadays—stories where the little moments are elided over in the rush of plot and action. In this book, there’s both this incredible intimacy with these two characters and an unknowability.
Arudpragasam: One of the hardest chapters to write was the chapter that gives some backstory about the beginning of the evacuation. I’m not given to, I guess, to this kind of exposition. Ganga, she doesn’t say much, and neither does Dinesh, but you’re in Dinesh’s mind for most of the novel. It was important for me to make it clear that she has an inner world that you don’t have access to—and maybe she doesn’t have access to either. Dinesh has this reverence for her. He feels that there is a person there behind the coolness, the reservedness—the hardness—of her demeanor. It’s not as if she actually really wanted to marry him. She married him because she was forced to, and he knew this and he said, “Yes, I will marry her,” despite knowing that might not be what she wanted. I didn’t want much to be said about her because I didn’t want her to simply give herself to Dinesh. I wanted her to be like, “Yeah, fuck you, I’m not going to be so nice to you. I’m not going to show myself to you.” She’s going through her own thing. I wanted it to be clear there was something there but at the same time not for it to come out.
Rumpus: There’s a moment when they’re in the jungle, and Dinesh goes to investigate a strange sound nearby that they fear might be a threat. He comes back and tells her how he chose to handle it, and she gives him a look that says she disagrees but that it’s not worth talking about. That look kind of summarizes her character. That said, I did come into the novel with certain expectations. It’s a marriage. There’s going to be the desired female, the female that we’re going to get to know, that somehow at some point is going to become compliant and merge with the main character. You know, that’s the marriage trope. That’s the marriage narrative.
Arudpragasam: Yeah. Yeah.
Rumpus: And she so fully resists it. She’s so much harder than he is, and has accepted—or maybe not accepted but knows—what her fate is likely to be from the beginning. And it’s not worth talking about. It’s beautiful and brutal how you capture this. But I appreciated so much the way that she remains a discreet character outside of what Dinesh might want her to be—or what the audience might want her to be.
Arudpragasam: The title was partly a parody of an endless number of English-language marriage stories that come from South Asia. Because it’s so obviously not a marriage. It’s a farce or a parody of a collapsing institution in a collapsing community. You know, I never spent time in the north because of the war until the war was over. I went up there, and you look at people and you see that the women are much harder, they are much stronger, and they carry on their shoulders whole families. Often it’s the men who are drinking, who are jobless. The women shoulder a lot of the things. I was really impressed, coming from the city, at the Tamil women in the north because they are—they’re really in control. They have a lot of say. They are powerful people. They are strong and they are proud and they don’t back down. It’s part of that society. Not that it’s not a patriarchal society, not that it doesn’t have its conventional forms of gender oppression, but a lot of those women are really impressive. So, Ganga is kind of like that. She’s uncompromising, and she doesn’t give in. There’s something strong about her in a way that Dinesh is not.
Rumpus: And yet, Dinesh is such a curiously compelling character. He’s so sentimental, for example, about objects or a bird.
Arudpragasam: It’s true he is a very sentimental creature, but, you know, it’s a situation where you feel things strongly when you suddenly become aware of all of the stuff that’s happening to you. But there are moments, at the beginning of the novel and the very end, when what we get of Dinesh are only his physical movements. We get his body, we get his shaking, we get the muscles in his legs. There are moments when the third person moves away from Dinesh—in moments of extreme stress. There’s a sense that you can’t go into his mind at these points—it’s inaccessible to us—and we only see what he is doing physically. The reason I chose this particular period for the book is that I was choosing a time when circumstances allowed him to become suddenly vulnerable and suddenly conscious to everything. It’s not that he stops being traumatized during the course of the novel, but he starts to become aware and sensitive to certain things. And, it’s not that Ganga couldn’t come to have feelings—feelings that ordinary people would. It’s just that they are traumatized, you know. They’re numb. They are numb. But it takes place in period in which Dinesh suddenly becomes aware of his numbness.
Rumpus: There’s a passage where you describe what it’s like to be in the shelling. The noise is so loud on the outside, but everything becomes quiet for Dinesh. He doesn’t go running in fear like other people in the camp. Instead, the quiet triggers a heightened sense of awareness. It’s a microcosm of what the book is doing as a whole. It’s quite lovely. So, what happens next for you? What will you do after finishing your dissertation at Columbia?
Arudpragasam: I really love India. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life somewhere between Sri Lanka and India. My plan right now is that I want to live in the north of Sri Lanka for a while and teach at a university there. I also want to live in either Bombay or New Delhi. I don’t know, things are fairly open for me but it’ll be somewhere in India or Sri Lanka.
Author photograph © Halik Azeez.