To tell the story of war, is often to dwell on the extreme: the devastation, the unaccountable horrors humans are capable of, and the inexplicable strength. The Story of a Brief Marriage, however, seems to take pause. Its protagonist Dinesh listens to the fading calls of an injured bird, feels the cold water wash his exhausted back in the middle of the night, and watches a body rise and fall as it breathes softly in sleep. Anuk Arudpragasam’s debut novel is a rumination on the precious ordinary things of life — sleep, conversation, the connection with another human being. These everyday, predictable things are what huge ideas of life, death, war and love are made of, and it is what war snatches away. And when he writes about them with focussed intensity, Arudpragasam’s language is akin to a clock ticking; even as great losses are imminent, thoughts unfold calmly, and every moment acquires meaning.
Dinesh is alone in north Sri Lanka in early 2009, during the height of the final war between the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The breathless sentences in the initial pages, where Dinesh is in a makeshift clinic, signal the relentless pain of daily, immediate violence that needs organised, ordinary responses in order to cope, to stay sane. But in its midst, the flights of imagination — like Dinesh’s wonderings about what combination of leg and arm amputation would be luckiest, or whether it was dying or living that was a lonely pursuit — betray an anguish that’s very old, born of decades of conflict. When Arudpragasam writes about shelling, it’s the before and after he writes about, the “faraway whispering” and “tremulous vibration” that turned the world mute after the explosion, so that “not even the sound of thinking could be heard”. In a way, he brings us the sensory experience of war; the image not of a stone chucked, but of the ripples that last longer.
Dinesh enters into an arranged marriage with Ganga, a displaced young woman in the same camp. Her father’s attempt to get her married is an insight into male responsibility in exigencies, of the pressure to protect family, even as he is not in control of the situation either. It is ostensibly to escape recruitment by the LTTE, which they hope will not drag away a married couple. But soon after the awkward ceremony, the book becomes about the human desire for companionship, a struggle no war seems to be able to extinguish. Ganga is stoic, Dinesh nervous. Between them, they have a bag, a sleeping place in the forest, and the unpredictable days, weeks, years ahead.
Dinesh tries to connect, struggles, and reaches for his marks in biology and mathematics. Ganga frowns. “But if they couldn’t talk about their pasts, what could they say to each other at all, given that there was no future for them to speak of either?” Even in the thick of war, Dinesh’s mind is obsessed with life, on how to turn the obvious ambivalence of the woman sitting next to him to trust. He dreams of the future when they will sit in the comfortable silence of partners, of men and women alive to each other.
Arudpragasam shifts easily from the deep state of thought, complex and flowing like a stream of consciousness, to the utterly raw, simple corporal functions. Dinesh realises the importance of sleep to survival, takes in the inhalation and exhalation of resting bodies, and then walks by ruptured bodies that are still, unbreathing.
Arudpragasam is awake to, more than anything else, the sacredness of life, of its fragility. As his protagonist lies next to an injured crow in the jungle to give it company, or when the newly-weds have their first long conversation, one feels the full measure of limited time upon one’s senses. He doesn’t mourn, he doesn’t hope, he certainly does not rage, and yet, with patient, graceful detail, Arudpragasam conveys the reality of conflict. “Happiness and sadness are for people who can control what happens to them.”
The Story of a Brief Marriage is a meditative walk through the landscape of a man’s mind in the midst of brutal violence. So little of the book is about fear, just like Arudpragasam does not look directly at the exploding shell, or the dying refugee. He shows us the relief that is possible, the love that is sought, ever so briefly, and the book is more sublime for that.