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A startlingly beautiful debut, Half Gods brings together the exiled, the disappeared, the seekers. Following the fractured origins and destines of two brothers named after demigods from the ancient epic the Mahabharata, we meet a family struggling with the reverberations of the past in their lives. These ten interlinked stories redraw the map of our world in surprising ways: following an act of violence, a baby girl is renamed after a Hindu goddess but raised as a Muslim; a lonely butcher from Angola finds solace in a family of refugees in New Jersey; a gentle entomologist, in Sri Lanka, discovers unexpected reserves of courage while searching for his missing son.
By turns heartbreaking and fiercely inventive, Half Gods reveals with sharp clarity the ways that parents, children, and friends act as unknowing mirrors to each other, revealing in their all-too human weaknesses, hopes, and sorrows a connection to the divine.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||5.63(w) x 8.58(h) x 0.93(d)|
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RASHEED, MY OLD FRIEND, is a beauty with gray, sage-tinted fur and a lean, slick body that can fit under the crack beneath the sofa or into the cave of a dress shoe. With nine lives just like his namesake, he's the seer of ghosts, the killer of rodents, the warder of hopelessness. When I think of my friend, I cannot help but picture my brother: his face turned up to the sky, his mouth open, hands grasping the air.
The year before my grandfather died, the civil war in Sri Lanka ended and my brother had started praying. At night Karna sat cross-legged under the maple tree in the backyard, hidden beneath the wilderness of Jersey. In the dark the tree and my brother looked like one tall shadow, and if not for the dim back porch light, they would have both blended perfectly into the evening sky. Summer fireflies flickered around him briefly like eyelids opening and then closing.
After school he sat chanting "Om Nama Sivaya" for hours at a time, waiting to be granted a boon. There was no stopping him. I would drag him from the yard by his armpits, my hands stinking with his sweat, but the moment he was loose, he ran back to the tree, barefoot, not breaking his chant. The afternoon our grandfather retold us the story of Kannagi and the King of Madurai, a tale of injustice, Karna was stung by a hornet on the soft, fleshy sole of his foot, but he swallowed his pain until our grandfather finished, and his foot had swollen into a luminous red ball he could not walk on for days.
We were like a family under house arrest, longing for privacy and fearful of solitude. When my grandfather locked himself in the bathroom for five hours, trying to drown out my mother's voice as she stood at the doorway with enough venom and grief to kill a small elephant, I asked my brother to at least pray for our peace of mind, but he shrugged me off with a reticence that was deeper than adolescence. I would speak to him and he would look right through me. I was eighteen that summer and only knew Sri Lanka through seasons of cease-fires and fighting, and I felt suddenly dumb and selfish then, asking for peace for myself.
At night when I closed my eyes, sleep never came easy. Nothing in dreams is safe. In bed during those vulnerable hours of night I caught stray transmissions from satellites that drifted in the heavens, the only true outside witnesses to the end of the war. As government forces shelled no-fire zones, aiming at hospitals, at Tamil civilians and rebels, naked bodies piled high for satellites that blinked and caught smudges.
On television all we saw of the end was celebration. Parades of men and women marched down the streets of the capital with banners and flags. They smiled and cheered at us as we mourned privately. My mother stood in vigil near the telephone, her eyes red and veiny and her nightgown wrinkled with sleep, while my grandfather watched television all day, trying to catch any news about the war, with the volume so high that I was sure he had lost all his hearing. I still needed to get through the school year and the months before I left for university. By then I was used to my body kicking into dormancy, the long stretch of waiting for life to begin. When my mother kept the gas on after boiling water for tea, no one bothered to turn it off until the stink burned our eyes. Later two of the bulbs went out in the family room and we sat around in darkness, disappearing except for the glare of the television.
We rationed through our days. We didn't wash our clothes or shower longer than three minutes. We ate pizza until we were all sick off the smell of grease and cheese. We shared a good night's rest between us, as if someone needed to be on guard, as if we were the survivors.
In the evenings, I ate my dinner outside alone and smoked whatever Rasheed left me. Those nights were mostly starless, so I would light up and make my own mini plasma ball that burned out in a few minutes. What else can you really do? I could still hear the wash of chatter from the television and recalled the tsunami from years ago, when my brother and I sat in our bathtub and held our breath, my mouth opening too soon as Karna whispered to me, "You're dead."
In the middle of a nightly broadcast, President Rajapaksa appeared on the screen in a white shirt and a noose of red cloth around his neck. His mustache grinned as he announced in Sinhala that there were no casualties from the war and the people of Sri Lanka were finally free from terror. On hearing his voice, my grandfather threw the mahogany-framed table clock against the wall.
The glass dome of the clock broke into shards and revealed the silver ticking. As I leaned over to pick it up, I rotated a finger along the sharp, circular motion, and held the hands tightly to make them stop. My cut was thin as a splinter. I looked up at this version of my grandfather who could no longer walk up the stairs or speak more than a sentence without feeling parched and tired but still managed to bash the house. I knew he had no plans on dying quietly. After one of his coughing fits, I had found him lying still on the sofa, his head turned inward, and just when I got close enough, an eyelash distance, he sprung at me, flexing his arms, calling my name like his favorite enemy.
He had grown up on a tea estate in Sri Lanka but spent years in the capital right when the war broke out. While other young men stayed and joined the rebels, my grandfather left the country. Brimmed with despair, he might have been a capable fighter, but since he chose the less heroic path, he made sure to find extra ways to suffer: worked the winter months outside without gloves or a proper jacket, drove a fifteen-year-old pickup truck with no AC, ruined one lung and didn't care to salvage the other.
He stared at the clock, which he had set nine and a half hours ahead so he would be on schedule with Sri Lanka. From the pantry, he handed me a shovel. "Make something fruitful of our misery," he said and then went to the kitchen to warm two bread slices between his palms.
I stood in the backyard and dug a zigzag of shallow wells into the earth. Handfuls of tulip seeds mixed with onion and bean blossoms. In the end, the garden looked more like a series of mousetraps. I fell asleep outdoors, sore and bruised, and in the early morning darkness woke to the sound of birds. Black feathers sprouted from each ditch. Beaks, the color of golden wheat, rattled with seeds.
All my efforts from the previous night ruined, I washed my hands and face with water from the hose and entered the house, which seemed more desolate. The walls painted a bleached yellow, grainy as pollen, and the hallway adorned with cheap photos of cats walking in gardens and impressive ships sailing on unnamed seas, all bought by my grandfather at yard sales, fishing through the ocean of his neighbors' garbage to find something usable rather than beautiful. Scattered around the rooms were knickknacks my grandfather had collected from places he had never visited — a bobblehead of the Mona Lisa, a Mickey Mouse lantern, a Stonehenge pepper shaker — and then my mother's subscription to National Geographic, the magazines piled high in our living room acting as a weight, a record of our thirteen-year stay. As a child, I dreamt of the house sinking into the wetland, falling and falling to the center of the earth. Other days I pictured tornadoes drifting from the Midwest and twirling in the backyard, undressing the house: first the gray shingles on the roof and then the plank sidings, leaving the house naked with its uncovered piping and fat chunks of insulation foam that would in time become a refuge for all the creatures of the Jersey forest. A beaver would chew the wooden frame of my bed as I slept.
* * *
AT THE END of June, Rasheed came home from university. Across the street in his room he offered me a blunt, and I felt content under that haze of smoke. I hadn't seen Rasheed since Christmas break. In that time he had lost his right molar and three hundred twenty dollars during a drunken New Year's Eve in Atlantic City but won seventy-five dollars the next month. According to my mother, he was a natural loser, but he was my first friend in the neighborhood and even my mother knew that was worth something.
Rasheed had completed his sophomore year but had failed three out of his five classes and accumulated nine hundred dollars' worth of parking tickets, and at the end of the semester, his father had taken his car keys and threatened him, holding out the electricity bill like a knife, saying that he needed to get his act together or else he would send him back to Bihar. As events turned out, it was his parents who returned to Bihar that summer for three weeks after Rasheed's uncle passed away.
While his parents were gone, we had the house to ourselves except for Rasheed's sister, Aisha, who was doing her residency in a hospital in Newark, and came home only to close her eyes for a few hours at night. In the mornings, Aisha spared her energy to say a few words to us or to the house that we were slowly making our own with unwashed dishes, bottles of liquor, and the flowery scent of weed and Febreze, and I would hear her voice roaming through each room and rousing me from the couch where I slept some days: "You bums," "Wretched boys," "Poor, poor Abba." She never told me to go home, but I could tell she wanted to. "Arjun, isn't your mother worried? Shouldn't you be taking care of your grandfather?" she'd say, and I would think of everything I knew and felt but couldn't show. "The two of you," she said, shaking her head, dismissing both of us. Long ago Rasheed had informed her how I never blinked in her presence, like I was afraid of losing her even for a second. Seven years older, she still teased me because I was scrawny, all chicken wire and hot air, but certain mornings I woke sweating beneath a blanket, and later in passing, she touched my forehead as if to check for a fever while I tried to fight the warmth rising in my face.
The house felt like an abandoned castle we had returned to. We were not kings but named if not for royalty then for greatness. I was the mythic prince Arjuna, and Rasheed was named after the wealthiest man in his father's village, who owned a few acres and his own livestock, which Rasheed said showed his father's expectations for him, but I always remembered what Rasheed's father said the evening Rasheed walked out of dinner after an argument about the state of his future. Sitting next to me, his father put down his fork and didn't move. He looked over the room, rested his eyes on the Quran. "I named you to be wise, a thinker, son," he said, though Rasheed couldn't hear him and wouldn't believe me even if I told him. For months, his father had refused to say his name and only referred to him obliquely by his sins. The one who smells of liquor. The one who gambles. The one who breaks his mother's heart. At the table, with Rasheed gone, his father paused on the word son and turned to me, touched my shoulder, and I knew he was speaking to me too.
Alone in the house, Rasheed and I waited for life to reveal itself. We would climb onto the roof after the sky had darkened. We could hear birds but not see them, and we called out to the unseen, the world around us.
* * *
MY GRANDFATHER WAS becoming more quarrelsome and one morning cornered me in the bathroom asking why I had clogged the sink. I said he was losing his mind like my mother, which he didn't like so I avoided him and didn't speak to him the rest of the day. It was only my brother, adrift in his own prayers, who called to me so clearly at night in the room that we shared. "Arjun," he'd say, "soon I will be granted a boon." He wouldn't tell me what he was going to ask for, as if anything he'd want would come true. We spoke in the dark, in brief exchanges. We hid from each other, but in rare glimpses I saw his nature fully — the unrelenting blueness of the sky, the endless dark pit of a sunflower — but always the moment passed before I could raise my voice, utter a simple sound: you.
When Rasheed was around, my brother would tell us a bad joke — What do you call a rooster with no voice? A limp cock — and let me in on his laughter. The beginning of adolescence had made him shy of his body. He'd hunch and compact his long arms and his bristle of legs, trying his best to reverse all that tiresome growing. If he said anything amusing or clever, he wanted both to be seen and to vanish before our eyes.
He looks more like my mother, who supposedly looks like my grandfather's mother, who was known for her beauty in a small fishing village on the coast of Jaffna. That's where the story ends and begins because my grandfather was always unwilling to speak of his own life. We knew about the journalist who was killed on his motorbike by paramilitary forces on a Wednesday afternoon before drinking tea, the white van that kidnapped my mother's classmate on his way back from school, the neighbor who died from fear when shells dropped near his home. My grandfather concealed himself in his stories, which became more vivid the farther he traveled from his own memories. Only myth had any real pleasure left for him. The rubies in a broken anklet were worthless when Kannagi could not save Kovalan.
Besides Rasheed I didn't know a single young person who called my grandfather by his whole name. "Mr. Muthulingham Padmanathan," he'd say, and wait for my grandfather to lift himself from his chair as he held the ridge of the cushion for balance, standing so still as not to reveal his limp. It was Rasheed's formality my grandfather appreciated, perhaps because he still longed for the ability to provoke a spark of fright in us, enough to keep our posture straight, he'd say. His scalp was dry with a ring of dark sunspots and his hands often seized with arthritis.
Some nights as I slept upstairs, my brother stayed with my grandfather in the study room my mother had converted into a bedroom. She had kept a few items, like the globe and the hardcover encyclopedias, fixtures from our school days, to remind us that things were not always this way. I rarely went into that room, especially when my grandfather became really sick, but at night, through my window, I thought I could hear them, their voices searching for me among the bushes and tiger lilies. Of course no one waited and called for me from below, and only that beguiling feeling of longing kept me up listening, so in the morning my sudden waking from a hard punch along my ribs left me restless, not ready for Rasheed's arrival, his desperate need to talk. He would go on about anything he heard or thought, and said things to me that he told no one else, probably because with me he had nothing to lose.
One afternoon he carried an issue of my mother's National Geographic magazines upstairs and started to read out loud an article about cobras. He never said it, but I knew he prided himself on his elocution, how he captivated people simply by opening his mouth. The truth was he didn't even need to open his mouth to persuade anybody. He was handsome and had girls asking him to jump fences to see them in their bedrooms, and in one year, he was seeing three chicks, all living within a quarter-mile radius of his house. He had a sharp memory and remembered things I wished he would forget. Like how I'd wanted to become a biologist to uncover the secret of life, the key to immortality, and Rasheed had showed me a handful of his jizz, curdling and creamy in the sunlight, and said everything I needed to know was right there, just waiting to be released.
After he closed the magazine and described how snakes used their cloaca for excretion and sex, he asked me if my grandfather ever joined the Tigers.
"His parents owned a store by a tea estate in Nuwara Eliya," I said. "Can you picture him fighting in the forest against the Sri Lankan army?"
"If someone killed my family, I would. Bomb an artillery ship, find some venomous snakes to unleash on their asses."
I thought of the army with their trophy shine and then the Tigers in the jungle, either extinct or endangered, using kerosene and sesame oil as fuel. My grandfather and his friends referred to the rebels casually as our boys, though there were girls too, while my mother cursed the Tigers for dying and not protecting the Tamil civilians in the end, leaving with all those early promises unfinished. After one of my mother's nightly phone calls, she reported to us that she now personally knew more of the dead than the living in Sri Lanka. My grandfather reached over to embrace her but she was squirming, her arms kicking like some injured gazelle, but he didn't let her go, and they both looked exhausted from keeping each other going. My grandfather lowered his voice and spoke to us patiently, forcing us to stretch out our necks.
"Tamil Eelam was never meant for people now, but for the future," he said.
He kept quiet and I couldn't hear any hope in what my grandfather said, but I was listening for it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Half Gods"
Copyright © 2018 Akil Kumarasamy.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A STORY OF HAPPINESS,
THE OFFICE OF MISSING PERSONS,
WHEN WE WERE CHILDREN,
AT THE BIRTHPLACE OF SOUND,
LIFETIMES IN FLIGHT,
A NOTE ABOUT THE AUTHOR,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Half Gods is a remarkable book that weaves a collection of stories together containing ancient and modern-day themes. The common thread is Family, survival and moving through the complex arrays of living, healing, preserving the beauty of a culture ravaged by war while healing and moving forward through the traumas of life. I thoroughly enjoyed the rich and unique language through which Kumarasamy brings her characters and their lives into being. Once I started the book I was immersed into a world of colorful characters crafted by Kumarasamy’s rich imagination and poetic language. I highly recommend this book!
Lyrical voice I happened to read Katy Waldman’s review of Half Gods in The New Yorker before reading the book. (https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/akil-kumarasamys-half-gods-a-debut-collection-explores-strife-trauma-and-a-lifetime-loving-strangers ) I agree with Katy Waldman that by the time we get to the dinner party in ‘The Butcher’ we have a good sense of all the characters. Each story shows a different perspective of the characters and I enjoyed reading all the stories. Above all, loved Akil Kumarasamy’s lyrical voice and vivid imagery.
A remarkable collection of inter-linked stories. Kumarasamy's compassionate voice connects us to the characters in a deep and profound way.
Magical Realism There are no talking cats like in Haruki Murakami’s novels, but there is magical realism in Half Gods. Interlacing the telling of war, displacement and loss with magical realism creates a stunning and magical effect. Especially loved ‘The office of the missing persons’ and ‘A story of Happiness’.
Each story is a gem that shines on it's own. But when read in a sequence, a delicate silk thread links them together forming a beautiful necklace. I enjoyed all the stories and especially liked 'The Butcher'. It reminded me of James Joyce's 'The Dead'
The connected stories in Half Gods by Akil Kumarasamy create an intergenerational history of an Indian Tamil family from the first generation who left India to work in the tea estates of Sri Lanka to children born in America. The stories are heart-breaking, some addressing the discrimination and murder of Tamils in Sri Lanka while others explore the immigrant experience. I am haunted by these characters with their complicated back stories. The storytelling is mesmerizing. Sometimes I felt a bit lost, as if a visitor in a foreign land whose culture and reality jolt me outside my comfortable reality. America has its horrors and violence, but for someone like myself who has been comfortably sheltered, it is an awakening to read lines like "They all loved people who were born to disappear," or "Refugees can't be picky," or "the real difference between India and American...there is no rule of law in India. You need to bribe everyone to live a normal life." Imagine an engineer who in America must work as a butcher. A Tamil professor in Sri Lanka who receives death threats and whose son disappears. An old man who returns home to find his entire village missing and replaced by a hole in the ground. A Tamil man memorizes books because he saw the burning of books in his language. The family patriarch in Half Gods is descended from Tamils who came to Ceylon harvest tea. The family experienced the end of colonization when the British left Ceylon, reborn as Sri Lanka. They suffered during the Anti-Tamil riots when their village was destroyed, fled to a refugee camp, and finally immigrated to America. Sri Lanka, once called Ceylon, is an island first inhabited in the stone age. Beginning in the 16th c European countries colonized the island--first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the British. They built rubber, coffee, and coconut plantations. When the coffee plants were decimated by a fungus, tea was grown, and to harvest the tea, Tamils from southern India were brought over as indentured servants. When the country gained its independence, the Sinhalese were the dominant group, making their language the official one. The Tamils were marginalized and tried to gain a political voice. Anti-Tamil riots arose; Tamils were killed and others left the country. Out of this conflict, the Liberation Tamil Tigers were birthed and civil war ensued. Nearly 300,000 displaced persons were housed in government camps and 100,000 people died during the war. Sri Lanka ranks as having the second highest number of disappearances in the world. I mistakenly thought the book was a collection of stories, which I usually read one at a time. After a few stories, I realized the interconnectedness and so suggest reading as you would a novel. Akil Kumarasamy received her MFA from the University of Michigan. This is her first book. I received a complimentary ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
What is decisive for your character: your upbringing? your parents? the place you grow up? your friends? your skin colour? Your ancestors? And can you ever overcome the lives that your fathers and grand-fathers lived, the experiences they have had? Akil Kumarasamy’ debut “Half Gods” is a collection of ten stories some of which are linked since we encounter the same characters at a different stage of their life, one time as the protagonist, next time as a minor character. What links them, too, is the characters pondering about who they are, where they belong, where they go to and who the people are they call family. I really liked some of the stories, others were a bit more difficult for me. The situation of immigrants who want to fit in, make an effort, try to assimilate but never really get the same status as the natives, that’s something I found a lot more interesting than those war scenes in Sri Lanka. It is especially the grandfather, remembering his life in Asia and who had never really arrived in the USA that I could identify with and that I felt pity for. Even though the short stories are wonderfully written, with many beautiful metaphors and many phrases that are perfectly to the point, they only party worked for me. I appreciated that some are connected and that characters reoccur, even if this wasn’t in chronological order, but then there are also stories that stand completely alone which make it all a bit strange for me. Also the fact that there wasn’t a clear red thread recognizable was something I did not especially appreciate.