The Sri Lankan Civil War fought between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government over a 26-year period finally ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Tigers and with that the dream of an independent Tamil Eelam. Human rights violations by the government and the killing of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians is today acknowledged as genocide by international organizations, even as Tamils both in Sri Lanka and in other parts of the world continue to recover from the war. If they or their families have been fortunate enough to have not suffered violence or loss first hand, for many, the events weighed heavily on them both during and after the war. It is this privileged experience of war, removed from violence on the ground and consumed second-hand through news and videos uploaded online, that writer Anuk Arudpragasam is concerned with in his 2021 novel A Passage North, and which propels his protagonist Krishan to return from India to Sri Lanka after the war to contribute to rebuilding and recovery efforts in the north-east.
Shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, A Passage North presents Krishan’s reflections on the war, on a past romance, on texts he read, on the passage of time, on human behaviour and longing and whatever else catches his attention, while in the present he deals with the news of his grandmother’s caregiver Rani dying and having to attend the funeral in the north-east.
The novel is devoid of plot and dialogue, as these are things the writer admits in interviews to treating as afterthoughts, his main preoccupation being a situation rather than a story, which can give him the opportunity to intersperse his character’s philosophical and other musings, as events and time trudge along slowly. The novel according to Arudpragasam allows him to place “philosophical questioning and response in a kind of living, bodily situation,” with philosophy being his central concern. His notion of what should constitute a book is surprisingly harsh: “if somebody’s an author, they cannot be lighthearted or flippant people…I’m very impatient about any book I read or any book I write getting to the question of what life is like and not tarrying on more frivolous matters.”
What is frivolous and what isn’t is of course up in the air. The protagonist is given to deliberating endlessly on things mundane, and the tiniest of events spark memories of a past experience or invite deeper contemplation. This in itself is not problematic, but his philosophical gleanings from the everyday are often tedious, clichéd, and uninteresting.
“The present, we realize, eludes us more and more as the years go by, showing itself for fleeting moments before losing us in the world’s incessant movement, fleeing the second we look away and leaving scarcely a trace of its passing, or this at least is how it usually seems in retrospect, when in the next brief moment of consciousness, the next occasion we are able to hold things still, we realize how much time has passed since we were last aware of ourselves, when we realize how many days, weeks, and months have slipped by without our consent.”
I felt a distinct sense of relief when a casual mention of Krishan picking up his cigarettes to go out for a smoke was not followed up with an explanation. But a few pages later the explanation did come. His initial quitting is explained as an “attempt…to distance himself from her (Anjum) after they parted ways” and his not smoking later to do with “not wanting to deal with hiding the habit from his mother.” When he finally starts smoking again, this happens unremarkably, but the reader is still told when, where and how. Arudpragasam’s writing is extremely indulgent, which would be forgivable if it were at least entertaining or novel in its endeavours. For all the writer’s talk of philosophy, the character’s meandering thoughts lack any serious philosophical thrust or direction. There are also several digressions in the book in which Krishan recalls texts he read or documentaries he watched in full-blown summaries, and connects them to his life or state of mind. While the character makes the effort to spell out these connections, the fact that these texts are summarized at length over several pages makes it hard to shake the feeling that some kid’s high-school literature assignment got mistakenly pasted into the novel’s draft. For example, Krishan summarizes in great detail a poem from the Periya Purānam, in which a poor Siva devotee Poosal without the resources to achieve his dream of building a grand temple for Siva, decides instead to build the temple in his mind. Poosal’s exploits are recounted ultimately to compare his imaginary temple to Krishan’s attempt “to construct, through this act of imagination, a kind of private shrine to the memory of all those anonymous lives” of Tamils who died in the civil war.
Perhaps the novelty of the subject material (Sanskrit and Tamil texts rather than Shakespeare or Chaucer) is supposed to endear these passages to western audiences, to lend Krishan’s aspirations some admirable quality, but for this South Asian reader this ploy failed.
The book does however aptly capture the general tendency of people with an education in the liberal arts to construct stories of themselves in light of the political events of their time, desperate to make themselves part of a larger narrative, and in doing so to make themselves more significant somehow. In this regard, Krishan is open about his sense of inadequacy and lack of strong purpose. But he nevertheless makes for an annoying character.
His initial decision to become a social worker in Sri Lanka seems forced, perhaps in part by survivor’s guilt, but more than that by wanting to outdo or match up to his love interest in having a political and social purpose. The couple of years he does spend in war-torn parts of the country before fatigue and a sense of his own limitations to fix things outside his control kick in are not dwelt on. However, as Krishan’s “initial urgency and unity of purpose wore away,” the city of Colombo’s attractions drew him to an easier better-paid job, and he moved back home.
Krishan’s dependence on others for meaning is not limited to wanting his girlfriend’s approval. While his concern for his grandmother and her caregiver Rani and his genuine interest in their lives (beyond the big things like how the war affected Rani) is touching, it is also bewildering and hard to relate to until one realizes how small his world is and how he draws as much from them who have so little to give as they do from him. What exactly he gets though is still hard to say. But every once in a while he reveals an impulse that is odd for a young man. Why when he receives the news of Rani’s death, he feels shaken and lost about what to do is hard to understand. Other than having experienced loss in the war (a subject Krishan is obsessed with), Rani cannot have been an important person to Krishan. Yet, he agonizes about what to do after the phone call giving him the news. He decides to phone his mother almost immediately, thinking that “in communicating the news to her he himself might better understand its meaning.” What hidden meaning could he possibly seek to penetrate in the death of an old woman he wasn’t related to? When his mother doesn’t answer the phone, he remembers his grandmother is home and “relieved there was someone he could talk to,” his next instinct is to give her the news. He decides against this, not knowing how his grandmother would respond, but not before first kneeling in front of her closed door and peeping through the keyhole to see what she was doing. Later, trying to rationalize the death of Rani who fell down a well, he concludes suicide was a possibility given Rani’s mental health issues, this despite Rani’s daughter giving no indication of this when speaking to him and the fact that every once in a while someone really does fall down a well in South Asia.
For an overtly political novel in which the main character’s empathy with other characters who have suffered in the war is what defines his life choices as an adult, it struck me as odd that Krishan did not engage with the subject of the violence committed by the Tigers other than to almost revere the separatists for having an ideal. While on the one hand what seems to move Krishan (and Arudpragasam) is the humanitarian crisis that ensued from the war, he appears to hold the Tigers to different standards than the government. The failure to acknowledge that the Tigers weren’t above violence against civilians (including other Tamils) any more than the Sri Lankan government is of course the writer’s prerogative, this being a novel. But for an introspective, at times heavy-handed work that takes great offense at carnage involving civilians, this omission is stunningly parochial. Krishan isn’t a revolutionary after all: he’s a social worker living with his mother and grandmother in relative comfort.
Some of the best parts of the novel are revealed in accounts of social interactions from Krishan’s point of view. A bizarre staring contest of sorts with a North-Indian man on a Delhi metro stands out. Also, Krishan’s dissection of a conversation in which Anjum tries to “appropriate” the story of Puhal and Dharshika portrayed in a documentary he showed her in an attempt to reveal something of himself is amusing, as here Krishan’s particular vulnerabilities come to the fore more dramatically: “There was something in the authority with which Anjum spoke though that seemed to suggest more, as though she perceived herself to be more closely connected to Puhal and Dharshika than he was.”
In the end though, the few exchanges of interest are too few to make A Passage North a great or even a good novel. That its subject matter features prominently a war the world was largely oblivious to cannot of course in itself lend a novel merit. Not much else however explains the book’s reception and its shortlisting for the Booker.