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Belonging to nowhere

The story follows a young boy, Nishant, who is forced to leave his home in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, under the pretext of a safe future.
Last Updated : 14 April 2024, 00:39 IST
Last Updated : 14 April 2024, 00:39 IST

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Where God Began, the latest novel by Sri Lankan Tamil author and essayist Appadurai Muttulingam, reads like a travelogue, although a disguised one, mapping the illicit adventures of a boy taking up lovers and witnessing profound difficulties, murders and the worst of crimes.

The story follows a young boy, Nishant, who is forced to leave his home in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, under the pretext of a safe future. Suspicious of his involvement in the resistance movement, his parents sell their land and arrange for him to depart for Canada. Nishant’s journey is fraught with obstacles as he traverses the landscapes of Ukraine, Belgium, and Germany. Along the way, he is trafficked and given various aliases by different agents. The journey itself holds more significance than his destination. It brings out important aspects of how resettling can take months, and often years. As a refugee, Nishant must adhere to the host country’s policies to maintain a favourable status and continue receiving aid and financial support.

Where God Began is narrated by Nishant while including myriad other refugee voices. Refugees who either left their country because of a personal crisis or a political upheaval, all form a part of the narrative. They range from ordinary citizens like Nishant to teachers and even criminals.

Nishant’s moral compass is constantly put to the test. Once he is labelled a refugee, it becomes very easy for him to live a dishonest life, fall astray and steal from others. Although he is aware of his shortcomings and constantly sceptical of the company he keeps, he is also not without his failings. He facilitates, corrects and often bears the brunt of many relationships. Even when he catches himself earning a living fraudulently, he holds within him a deep undercurrent of values and is reminded of Ambikapathi’s words from Buddhist philosophy: “We don’t travel to the world of the dead, we travel from one country to another.”

For Muttulingam, storytelling as a narrative form becomes an essential point of origin for Nishant’s empathy, even for the morally depraved as he again reflects on Ambikapathi’s words: “Everyone around you is good. One could be poor; the other might be uneducated; the third person might not be famous. They might be without friends or relatives. But it is entirely different and torturous to be without a country. It is the worst form of punishment. They were not born that way. They were not that way when they left Sri Lanka. Circumstances transformed them. Don’t stop helping them. A candle that lights another loses nothing.”

The 80s and 90s saw the eruption of the Tamil Liberation movement which resulted in forced and sometimes willing expulsion of Sri Lankan Tamils. When people flee their country and become refugees, they become symbols of political issues because just by being there, they embody a sharp criticism of the government they left behind. Refugees aren’t the same as immigrants because they didn’t choose to move to another country for a better life. These stories often involve a lot of waiting and sorrow. Muttulingam ultimately talks about how the refugee experience is full of sadness and tragedy. People keep meeting and then getting separated, and they struggle to create a community to help them survive.

How does one make sense of an inherently divided world, where it is easy to cross some borders while others remain impenetrable? Nishant finally reflects on this paradox: “How many times had I tried to cross the Ukraine-Slovakia border and failed? And now, without any hurdle, I had crossed the German border and stepped into Belgium. With sufficient money and the right contacts, one could travel across the border between any two countries in the world.” It prompts us to ask: How can the refugee experience be adequately articulated? Can it ever be put into words? Literature on refugee experience often leaves out huge gaps regarding the hardships faced during the process of resettlement. Where God Began thus offers a fresh perspective on the chasm between one’s amputation from home and an eventual relocation.

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Published 14 April 2024, 00:39 IST

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