Love amidst a war

Love amidst a war

A  story within a story — the horrors of a war cradling a story of unimaginable tenderness, at the heart of which is anguish. Arudpragasam takes you gently by the hand and leads you to a war zone. A small camp on the north-west of Sri Lanka. The army has withdrawn, but intermittent bombing continues. The area is strewn with corpses and ownerless limbs, bloody or dried up like sticks. The living, clinging to the edges of existence, wait, emptied of life. This is the setting of Arul Arudpragasam’s bleak yet tenderly poetic novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage.

It is the last stages of the Srilankan war against the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Both sides are guilty of horrendous crimes. A safe zone is declared and then blitzed, in complete disregard of laws. The rebel leaders, for their part, enforce recruitment. Herded from camp to camp like cattle, civilians must contend with the fear of recruitment, if they are fortunate enough to have escaped the relentless shelling.

In such a camp, Dinesh is stopped in his routine tasks of transporting the wounded or digging a grave by Somasundaram who offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to him. A grotesque proposition in a place of dead and dying. And yet valid, as those who are married are left in peace by the recruiters.

Reaching back into the past, we learn of Dinesh’s parting from his mother which follows a series of other partings, and when he bids her lifeless body goodbye, he weighs her sari down with the last of their possessions, taking comfort in the thought that she is not left alone. It is a narrative where “small details are intimately observed”.

Dinesh is stunned by Somasundaram’s offer, but both he and Ganga bow before the superior experience of Somasundaram. They simply accept this marriage as an inevitability in their choiceless lives.  Both Dinesh and Ganga have experienced severe losses and have cast off their emotions in order to survive.

But something about this absurd marriage stirs the emotional aridity in Dinesh with warm, life-giving rain. After the ritual tying of thali which transforms them into man and wife, Ganga easily slips into her familiar role of nurturer and hurries away to cook food. Dinesh has no such familiar role to fall into. All he can do is agonise, interpreting Ganga’s glances and gestures.

Their honeymoon is a walk into the jungle where Dinesh has cunningly fashioned a bed out of earth. He spends the first part of the night watching her sleep, committing to mind her bumps and valleys. While an aggressive war is tearing their world apart, Dinesh does not dare to disturb the “delicate balance” of Ganga’s sleep.
Not finding the courage to explore Ganga’s body, he explores her possessions in the vague hope of finding a cue to understanding her. Coming across a comb and a soap, he is filled with a desire to please his new bride and though a trip to the well at night is fraught with danger, he risks it. In the dark, by the well, clipping his overgrown nails, an old memory rises to the surface of his brain of how it is forbidden to clip nails after dark. Washing his clothes, he cannot remember where these came from, he cannot remember the faces of his family.

All that remains is “a small sensitive core that belonged to the present”. This cleansing under a silver sky nudges the door open to his feelings. In a body fresh and clean, he is “ tender and bare like a warm living seed” — a whole world of possibilities now fill his mind where there was only a blank before. Amazed and then intimidated by his own temerity, he sobers down his emotions and contracts them again to encompass a “small and habitual world”. His return to Ganga, his inching close to her that their shoulders are just lightly touching, his bravely venturing to caress the tip of her thumb is excruciatingly beautiful. Their breathing is synchronised, joined as they are by this contact.

This book is a rite of passage of young Dinesh, thrust into the adult world of war and carnage, through no fault of his, and dispossessed of every single thing he knows and loves. Graphic in detail, stark in expression, Arudpragasam has found a style completely his own in his very first book. Neither diagolues nor action dominate. There is a simple, unpretentious quality to it like in Dinesh himself. Nerves are touched, feelings probed and the throbbing heart itself is held by the strong narrative. It is no book for a hasty reader. But, if you are willing to meander through byways, stop and explore thoughts and feelings, it could be a richly rewarding experience.