Difficult Empathies

From Public Books:

Krishan is a shy, sensitive social worker in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. One day, he receives an unexpected telephone call about Rani, his grandmother’s former caretaker. The night before, Krishan learns, Rani fell into a well, broke her neck, and died. Caught completely off guard and not sure what to say, Krishan finds his mind meandering, casting ponderous light on the accident:

He felt … [the] need … to hear all the circumstantial details that connected the unlikely death to the so-called real world before [he] could accept that its occurrence was not in opposition to the laws of nature. It was the fact, above all, that sudden or violent deaths could occur not merely in a war zone or during race riots but during the slow, unremarkable course of everyday life that made them so disturbing and so difficult to accept, as though the possibility of death was contained in even the most routine of actions, in even the ordinary, unnoticed moments of life.

This is only the beginning of Krishan’s story in Anuk Arudpragasam’s novel A Passage North. Reminiscent of W. G. Sebald, the novel meditates on the physical destruction and psychological damage that the Sri Lankan state inflicted on the Tamil minority during 26 years of war.

Arudpragasam belongs to that group of writers, who, when confronted with traumatic memory, transform their psychic anxiety into a kind of creative pressure, just the sort that is necessary for the writer’s survival in an excessively violent narrative. In A Passage North, that pressure is employed in how Arudpragasam frequently camouflages the spectacular with a teeming forest of trivial details, or, as the above passage indicates, circumvents the horrifying to broach the philosophical. It is through these long philosophical detours about the nature of love, beauty, time, desire, disease, and war that Arudpragasam exposes his readers to deeper and more disturbing truths.

What would a successful war novel look like? This question, asked of a teacher years ago, concealed a deeper question I had: What would a truthful Kashmir novel look like? I have grappled for years with such questions, since I grew up amid the violent rebellion that Kashmiri Muslims waged against the Indian state in 1988. At first, I wondered whether the job of the novelist was to replicate the traumatic event that one had intimately witnessed.

But ultimately, I found that the work of a novelist demands something more. Thanks to reading my teacher Robert Olen Butler’s book From Where You Dream, I understood that novelists need to transmute history, metabolizing it into the human details that constitute the selfhood of the character. My first book, The Night of Broken Glass, features multiple fictional narrators who contemplate the killings and custodial torture and myriad massacres that happened in the recent history of Kashmir. In the process of writing these interweaving short stories, I realized it was only possible because I’d witnessed the events of excessive military violence as they were inflicted on my people. But perhaps even more significant than witnessing these terrifying events was the act of measuring their psychological impact, in determining how they continued to manifest in the lives of characters whose fates they’d permanently altered.

In recent years, a number of South Asian novels that fictionalize war or extreme violence have appeared. It is true that rarely have any novels succeeded in transmuting the history of a people in the way A Passage North doesStill, it is worth examining Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field and Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs along with Arudpragasam’s book. While Vijay’s novel is about a young Indian woman from Bangalore who watches the struggles of a Kashmiri family during the war, Mahajan measures the destructive effects of a bombing carried out by Kashmiri rebels in the Indian capital, New Delhi. Both the Indian-origin American writers, falling afoul of Indian nationalist stereotypes, fail to empathize with their Kashmiri characters.

Link to the rest at Public Books