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Love in the time of war

  • Published at 06:25 pm July 14th, 2018
  • Last updated at 05:24 pm July 16th, 2018

Review of ‘The Story of a Brief Marriage’

Talking has got us everywhere. This is why Dinesh, the young man in Anuk Arudpragasam’s debut novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage, tries to keep his new wife engaged in conversation. She has a habit of furrowing her eyebrows in annoyance; her words come detached. Yet Dinesh wages on, for they are stuck in this play of never-ending war, of deafening shelling, of livable space shrinking right to the back like a balding man’s hairline, of a father who, having lost most his family, marries off his lone daughter to a stranger in the camp, before fleeing the stage himself. 

“Conversation was like an unspooling of invisible fiber,” Dinesh thinks, “that was shot into the air as a stream of sound, that entered the bodies of other people through their ears, that went from humans to others, and from them to yet more. Thoughts, feelings, and conjecture, stories, jokes, and slander were nothing but thinly spun threads that tied the insides of people together long after speaking had ended … ”

We don’t notice that when enmeshed in the banality of everyday life, but once shredded from the mixture, in a setting as sparse as it is violent, we come to realize the necessity, the difficulty of that connection.

Out for a walk minutes after their sudden marriage, Dinesh too feels the struggle. He anxiously listens for his wife’s footsteps behind him, “as if only a very slender thread held the two of them together and there was a chance, if he walked too fast, that the thread might snap.” Anything is better than the severing of their link, for it isn’t easy to have that in times such as these. In their camp, hardly anyone talks more than is needed, sometimes perhaps their silence is only to punctuate the ritual violence of the shelling, which comes whooshing and whistling, dotting the area with “dozens of scorched black earth.”

The urgency of a human relationship never seems so crucial, so indispensable that Arudpragasam films his characters, calmly and meticulously, like a nature documentary, showing, in detail, how Dinesh helps with the amputation of a child, how he treats a full meal after days of starving, how he takes a bath, how he shits with a stark shamelessness that only the brave are capable of. 

Set in the gut-wrenching final months of the Sri Lankan civil war, just before the ending blow that would bring the “movement” finally to an end, Arudpragasam, more than anyone, succeeds in letting us feel the pulse of these ordinary men and women caught at the forefront of the war.

That the novel is an aggression there is little doubt, but only because it comes from a place of sensitivity and vulnerability. You see it when the sister of the amputated kid wraps her brother’s detached arm in plastic, “veiling it reverently in several soft layers as though it was a piece of supple gold jewelry,” you hear it from the dying priest who, having been injured, can “exhale only in fits and starts.” His suffering, the very need to breathe and being unable to do so, is one of Arudpragasam’s most unsettling yet visually pleasing set pieces in the novel. Nothing short of leaving the reader embarrassed for being hooked up on the misery of others, the priest, who has no problem inhaling, does so slowly in his desperate attempts “to prolong as far as possible the painless half of the breathing cycle,” but once it is time to pay back this pitiful loan of oxygen, he pauses, jerks, tries to get rid of it slow, fast, any way if just to minimize this cycle of pain. We may feel a sense of detachment, but the priest’s pathetic situation is merely a reflection of ours, only accelerated to extremity. 

It is destructive and abrasive, his treatment of the book, but also delicate and devoted in how sincere its take on love is in the time of war, tender and naked in how the story is left to unfold, how we’re left to come to terms with Dinesh and his newlywed wife Ganga long after the pages run out (which do so soon one only wonders if it mirrors the enemy’s swift takeover of remaining space), when accounts of their condition still haunt us, still hang around inside our brain matter and refuse to disappear.

Very few writers write so brutally without copping out and resorting to the tiring infestations of the flashback. Arudpragasam does not insult his readers with such frivolous respites; his novel is one of close-shots and furious dedication to the ruthlessness around us. He conducts this war in sincere hopes that these threads that bind us, that make us feel like we are more than we really are, persist with the pain, that they suffer, tolerate, stomach every bit of the strain, but ultimately stay untorn amidst all the shrapnel. 

Rafee Shaams is an essayist and author of Who Even Cares Who Cares? (Bengal Publications, 2016)

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