The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
‘The Story of a Brief Marriage’ is a tightly woven, lean novel which does a remarkable job of compressing the horrors of war into the most intimate and personal details of those multitudes of common people caught in its midst despite not having much of a say in matters of combat and its planning. It is these localized horrors that this story by Anuk Arudpragasam, a young first time novelist and winner of the DSC Prize in 2017, focuses on and the impact is heightened all the more because of it. Because, well, this could be us if the stars align differently.
For the uninitiated, the title may point to some kind of domestic or romantic drama but this would be misleading. Yes, there is domestic drama involved, and there is a (very) brief marriage on the cards but the circumstance under which these incidents happen is anything but your typical domestic setting. Civil war has been raging in Sri Lanka for a long while between the militant Tamil Tigers and the majority Sinhalese government forces. The story is set during the final, massive push that the government forces employ to finally flush out the rebels and put an end to the offensive. Dinesh is a young man from the hinterlands and a denizen of one of the many villages which have been caught in the crossfires of the battle; at risk of being captured and tortured by pro-government forces as allies to the rebel movement while also in danger of being forcibly recruited to the militant cause. Dinesh had a mother once but, as with a lot of people caught in the forced migration from their homes, is now alone. In the camp he sets himself up in, he moves unfeelingly, helping out where he can but by now mostly numb to the atrocities around him. The story in fact takes place over a day and a night at this camp. Dinesh meets a father and daughter. The father wants some sort of slight assurance that his daughter, Ganga, will be cared for in the event of capture or his own disappearance. As couples are supposed to have a slightly better chance of escaping torture from the government or rebel forces, he proposes to Dinesh a quick marriage between him and Ganga. Dinesh has been for so long numbed by the horrors around him that this development takes a little time for him to grasp entirely the implications. Ganga, another study in the losses war inflicts on one, is noncommittal for the most part about the arrangement, but this story is mostly from the point of view of Dinesh. Dinesh wonders what this marriage entails for him. A live body for him to warm up to every night? Is there even a point of making any plans considering their lives may get snuffed out at any moment?
This is a slim volume, coming in under two hundred pages, but it is most definitely not a page turner in the conventional sense and is not for everyone. This is a book which spends entire chapters on the most mundane of everyday life tasks, such as Dinesh taking a bath at a well or cutting his nails. There is even a detailed section on him taking a dump. There is a method to Arudpragasam’s style though and it will appeal to the keenly discerning reader. War may cause a major reshuffle of life’s circumstances, but the bare necessities remain the same. But how much do the bare necessities mean in the scheme of things. Dinesh, who hasn’t really had a proper bath in ages, gets inspired to partake in this simple act with tender loving care because it has become life itself for him now. The intensity with which the prose describes such basic acts of living is the major draw of the book.
The rebel groups and government forces are not mentioned by name, but its obvious the story is set around the crushing of the LTTE resistance by the Sri Lankan government forces. The author doesn’t appear to take sides here, for that would take away from the essence of the tale; that of an unwary innocent caught in the crossfires of this conflict. It’s a harrowing take on mortality and the ultimate meaning (or meaninglessness) of it and a book which, if you brave it, will not leave your mind anytime soon.
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