A PASSAGE NORTH
By Anuk Arudpragasam
“A Passage North,” Anuk Arudpragasam’s second novel, begins with Krishan learning of the death of Rani, his ailing grandmother’s former caretaker, and ends, two days later, with him watching Rani’s body burn on her funeral pyre. The intensely introspective pages in between recount Krishan’s thoughts and memories as he journeys from his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to Rani’s village in the northeast part of the country, once controlled by the Tamil Tigers and still reeling from a decades-long civil war.
Rani, who died suddenly and possibly by suicide, was “irretrievably traumatized” by the loss of both of her sons — the first lost his life fighting for the Tigers, and the second, only 12 years old, was killed by shrapnel on the penultimate day of the war. Krishan, like Arudpragasam, sees it as his duty to fathom her unfathomable anguish. In this novel, to listen and to notice are moral acts.
Arudpragasam’s mesmerizing debut, “The Story of a Brief Marriage,” narrated a single day in the life of Dinesh, a displaced Tamil man living in a refugee camp. “A Passage North” takes a longer and more distant view of the conflict, which raged from 1983 to 2009. Middle-class and highly educated, Krishan is “possessed by guilt for having been spared” the fate of people like Dinesh. The self-loathing that attends this guilt is both cause and result of Krishan’s enduring obsession with the war. Arudpragasam captures Krishan’s sensitive, roving intelligence as he meditates on the conflict, from its idealistic beginnings, when insurgents dreamed of an independent Tamil state, to its “unimaginable violence” and irreparable psychological damage. The bombs may have stopped, the capital may be thriving, but for those in the country’s ethnic minority, recovery can only be “partial and ambiguous.”
“A Passage North” is a political novel, unequivocal in its condemnation of the many atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan government on its Tamil civilians, but it is also a searching work of philosophy. Arudpragasam, who has a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia, poses essential, existential questions about how we should live in a world with so much suffering. What are our obligations to others, especially those, like Rani, who have been marginalized and oppressed? The novel offers one answer: We owe them our full attention.