Review: A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam

A Passage North does what it says, following Krishan, a Tamil man in his late twenties, as he travels from Colombo to the north east of Sri Lanka. He is taking this journey to attend the funeral of Rani, the Tamil woman who was live-in carer for Krishan’s grandmother since she fell ill two years ago. And that’s about it. The present action of the novel is simple and concentrated. Over three sections Krishan walks north to south along Colombo’s Marine Drive after learning of Rani’s death on a Friday evening, travels north on the train from Colombo to the north east Tamil heartlands the following Sunday, and again travels south with the funeral procession carrying Rani’s cask to the grounds where she will be burnt on a pyre.

On their own these are highly detailed, evocative sketches of place and movement. The writing is meticulous and measured, never rising above a gentle monotone even at its most sensual and violent. Perhaps its most high-temperature moment comes on contemplating the looks traded between men and women, and particularly between men and men:

looking at a person in such a way was an act of great intimacy, which was also why it could give rise so easily to violence between me who didn’t know each other, each man interpreting the other as attempting to penetrate him.

Looking is one of the most powerful forces in Arudpragasam’s novel. It is while looking and watching the world go by that Krishan contemplates the past, from his grandmother’s slowly progressing withdrawal from life, his passionate relationship with his Indian ex-girlfriend Anjum, to Krishan’s own yearning for something he can’t quite articulate, something that brought him back to Sri Lanka after studying in Delhi to work in the scarred lands of the north east for an NGO with an idea of rebuilding a better world.

The war, Sri Lanka’s civil war fought between the national government and Tamil separatists between 1983 and 2009, lurks everywhere in Krishan’s thoughts, beginning with an obsession with Tamil archives and becoming a broader fascination with the hopes and dreams of the separatists. Everyone in this novel is touched by the conflict, particularly Rani who suffers from PTSD after both her sons were killed (one while fighting, the other while fleeing). Krishan’s father himself was killed in the 1996 Tamil Tiger bombing of the Sri Lankan central bank, a small detail that is mentioned only briefly yet pierces the novel like a needle. It is here that Arudpragasam’s understated prose pays dividends, with the shock of wartime violence emerging without fanfare into the narrative. At one point Krishan sees an Australian poster warning Tamil refugees not to board smugglers’ boats (likely the “no way” campaign released under then-immigration minister/current Prime Minister Scott Morrison), a small but potent reminder of my people’s role in another’s sufferings.

Even so, the politics of the novel – and there are a plenty of politics, from the the idealism of the separatists to the recent expressions of Hindu nationalism, from queer identities to Anjum’s work with women – form a background to Krishan’s personal. At one point he reflects that his journey north is not so much a journey through space and time but into his own consciousness. Some may find this overly solipsistic; I was entranced by Arudpragasam’s depiction of a particular kind of late-20s yearning. It’s a time when you learn that ideas are perhaps not so black-and-white as you once thought, when feelings and desires that seem all-consuming lose some of their sharp edges, when you begin to wonder what your use in the world is going to be. Throughout Krishan cites others who grappled with similar at similar ages: Tamil freedom fighters, the Buddha, the Sanskrit cloud poet who attempts to send a message to his lover via a monsoon cloud. If Anjum is sometimes a bit of a manic pixie dream girl (“her strange ease and ethereality, as though she subsisted not in the ordinary atmosphere but in some other medium”) it only feels true to a particular kind of youthful male desire.

It would be a lot if Krishan was not contrasted with others, such as a wonderful portrait of ageing in his grandmother, a woman who arranges time by TV shows, weekly baths and yearly visits to her brother in London, for whom her now rare visits to the kitchen downstairs are:

like an immigrant who returns from exile to visit her native land and is consumed with understanding how things are.

There is a precision to the writing, in character, space and time.

Gay rating: 3/5 for queer characters and some queer themes.

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