War is a constant wellspring of literature, and the best of it looks not for the obvious and sensationally violent, but instead searches for the subtle ways that life unfolds regardless. WhileSri Lankans writing in Sinhala and Tamil have long borne nuanced witness to the country’s three decades of civil war, writing in English has been much slower to respond. And too much of it hastaken the easy route, giving a foreign readership what it desires: a voyeuristic, and ultimatelyunengaged, affirmation of what it believes is true of savage peoples in other countries.
Anuk Arudpragasam’s brave debut takes the higher road. In language that is often poetic, he describes a single day and night in the life of a refugee fleeing both the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelem and government forces. Dinesh is a young man who finds himself transporting the wounded and helping to bury the dead at a camp in the northern province during the final months of the war.
In the middle of this carnage, a girl is proposed to him in marriage by a father facing his own incapacity to care for the remaining member of his family. Over a brief few hours, Dinesh experiences the sudden intimacy of marriage — the desire to improve oneself, to be more deserving, to be both vulnerable and courageous, to parse both silence and speech. And hefeels the loss that might still be sustained even after resigning oneself to having nothing left to lose.
Arudpragasam captures the vernacular while sustaining a startling lyricism. A “settlement of tents gathers around the beleaguered hospital “like a massive temple that was being erected around a small, golden shrine.” Insects — probably last immortalized by Donne — in this case flies, are exquisitely described as worshipers who “rub their little hands together silently as if in fervent prayer” before feasting. A dying priest takes the shortest of breaths in order to avoid the pain of breathing out. And both held and heard breath are brought together in a scene where the author imagines that those experiencing trauma of irreparable magnitude allow their life to escape “in an otherwise unremarkable exhalation.”
Even silence in the midst of war is rendered with bracing clarity.
The reverence that is paid to the minutiae of refugee life, a brilliant choice, is sometimes undermined by too much fixation on detail — the protagonist repeatedly turns his head to observe too closely his own feces; his wife; the clippings of his filthy hair; the smooth stump of an amputee; a dying bird; a dying gecko, etc. Young Dinesh also has a tendency to ponder all with the flair of an educated philosopher rather than a high school student battered by war. Still, these are forgivable missteps. This is a war that dislocated a nation, irrespective of ethnicity, but the most helpless were the poorest Tamils, caught behind battle lines, prevented by the rebels from leaving, whose choice was “either be killed in the shelling, or conscripted and then killed in the fighting.”
Arudpragasam gives those innocents a place in history as ordinary citizens, with dreams and belief in salvation, who hold on to privacy, dignity, pride and ritual. He makes it impossible not to stand skin-to-skin with them as they huddle in fragile dugouts, their refuge found beneath overturned boats and their scant belongings like paperweights that hold them on earth.
This is a book that makes one kneel before the elegance of the human spirit and the yearning that is at the essence of every life.
SOME REAL TIME SCENES of Tamil personnel who reached safety in May 2009 … PIX by Reuters