Tugging at Your Gut: Anuk Arudpragasam's The Story of a Brief Marriage

The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam is a novel spanning one day in the life of Dinesh and Ganga, two people brought together in marital union by the urgency of war. Set in the Sri Lankan Civil War, the novel lays bare the realities of conflict, forced migration, and suffering. It tells you how much and how little human life is worth.

This is not a story for the faint hearted. It begins by jolting the reader. Suddenly you are in the middle of blood and gore, amidst naked and mangled body parts. Are you brave enough to read on?

If you are, you shall find no relief. You shall lie awake at night with scenes haunting your imagination, with circular meditations—made rich by extended, almost epic, metaphors—on life tugging at your gut. Therein lies the power of Arudpragasam's debut novel.

An Unordinary Marriage 

Should you be alone or should you be with someone when death is at your doorstep? The novel raises this question in its early pages. The question is the basis of Dinesh's decision to marry Ganga.

The fact was that soon he [Dinesh] would die, and saying yes would mean he could spend his last few days with a person, with not just a person but with a girl, with a woman, a wife.

What necessitates this marital union: the urgency of war, the inevitability of death, the desire for a companion to share the pain and trauma, and the need to feel secure.

Can such a marriage be ordinary? Can it fit into the ambit of 'everydayness' that lies so far away from the world occupied by the pair? Ganga's father wants to believe so, Dinesh does too. 

[I]n the future they would have the chance to create habits that would let them live together in the same world without even having to speak. 

But wanting to believe is not the same as believing.

The Circular Logic

Besides marriage, the novel is a meditation on life and its many facets, including its natural flip side, death.

What dying meant there was no way he [Dinesh] could really know of course... It depended probably on what living meant, and though he had been alive for some time it was difficult to remember whether it had meant being together with other humans, or being alone with himself above all. 

The meditations are circular—life to death, death to life; inhaling to exhaling, exhaling to inhaling—and existential. There is no way of solving the chicken and egg conundrum.

There were moments, in the course of ordinary life, in which one breathed in more fully, when with a strange clarity one felt it was possible to move beyond the limits of daily existence... And perhaps, if such moments existed, it made sense to think there were moments also in which one breathed out more or less fully... and one's self as a consequence dwindled...

No Way of Knowing

In these various meditations, there is one thing that is common: the sense of uncertainty. There is no way of knowing for sure. 

The author reflects on what it means to be an 'outsider'. Can we really understand the trauma and pain experienced by those whose lives are intertwined with conflict and war?

There were events after which... no matter how earnestly... one desires to understand their situation, how meticulously one tries to imagine and infer it from one's own experiences, one has no choice but to watch blindly from the outside.

The novel attempts to make us understand through words, through language. It is a process whereby meaning is created and conveyed. Smilies and extended metaphors in the novel are employed for this purpose.

The drops of salty water secreted by the ducts in his eyes felt like just the smallest part of a vast lake buried somewhere deep inside him, like a massive dam that had sprung a tiny, silent leak...

In the end, however, we must acknowledge that language is slippery and meaning can never be fully conveyed. 

[W]hen such things happen to a person, the life inside them that once expressed itself on their face becomes severed from their skin, becomes lost inside their body and ceases to find expression.

There is no way of fully knowing.

The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam, published by Fourth Estate, 2016.

(Photo Courtesy: iStock)

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