Comfortably Numb

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Book review: The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam

The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam, Fourth Estate/HarperCollins Books. 2017 release.

So, this is a story you read at one sitting, with something small and hard lodged at the back of your throat, and be warned, that something never dissolves; not while you are reading the book, not for a while after you have finished reading the book.

I`ve long been tracking this book, and the wait was worth it. Arudpragasam`s prize-winning (DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize, both in 2017) story tells us of young Dinesh at one of the makeshift camps the Lankan Tamils have been driven to by both the `movement ` and the army, a camp uncomfortably close to the sea, meaning there was no further to flee but into the sea.

Overnight, these people have become the wretched of the earth, having fled their homes with a sizeable amount of their goods but now keeping all their earthly belongings in a few bags, living in sub-human conditions, trying to hold on to their fast fraying sanity, to their sad self-pride,  learning to tell different detonating devices from the sounds and clicks, learning to live with a limb, an eye, some fingers missing, showing each other their shrapnel scars, surviving, just surviving.

The story really lies in the peripheral details here: of fathers desperately trying to hand over the responsibilities of their daughters to the first young man they find in the camp, of some men thrashing their brother-in-law because he had made an attempt to abandon their sister…only, he wasn’t fleeing the camp, he was only trying to kill himself nearby.

How Dinesh gets into the strangest marriage with Ganga, how he bizarrely worries that, having fallen out of the habit of chatting, he would have nothing to say to his bride; how he carved out a sleeping space in a small clearing inside the jungle a little away from the camp, a  spiritual and psychological fortification of sorts, prettified with a decorative border made of pebbles, sticks and stones;  how he finds himself discussing the O and A levels of education both his new wife and he have attained in another life; how he tries to remember the art of eating after a long period of starvation; his desire to wash and clean himself on his wedding night; the way he tries to glean something anything about Ganga from the conctentnts of her bag; how imperative it was for him not to lose control, cry or sleep for that matter.

How we are told the characters need to go to `the bathroom` when we know fully well there is no such room in the jungle, no such bathroom  anywhere here, of the kind they used in another life.

On a personal note, you`d feel better when you think that the 25-year-old civil war in Sri Lanka finally drew to an end. You`d feel better, except you know that the plight of many Sri Lankan Tamils is not an improved one, eleven years after the end of the war.


Anuk Arudpragasambook reviewcivil war storyfictionFourth Estate BooksHarperCollins BooksSri LankaSri Lanka TamilsThe Story of a Brief Marriage

Sheila Kumar • November 11, 2020

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