Shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize
“Brave…Brilliant…This is a book that makes one kneel before the elegance of the human spirit and the yearning that is at the essence of every life.” —The New York Times Book Review
"One of the best books I have read in years." —Colm Toibin
Two and a half decades into a devastating civil war, Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority is pushed inexorably towards the coast by the advancing army. Amongst the evacuees is Dinesh, whose world has contracted to a makeshift camp where time is measured by the shells that fall around him like clockwork. Alienated from family, home, language, and body, he exists in a state of mute acceptance, numb to the violence around him, till he is approached one morning by an old man who makes an unexpected proposal: that Dinesh marry his daughter, Ganga. Marriage, in this world, is an attempt at safety, like the beached fishing boat under which Dinesh huddles during the bombings. As a couple, they would be less likely to be conscripted to fight for the rebels, and less likely to be abused in the case of an army victory. Thrust into this situation of strange intimacy and dependence, Dinesh and Ganga try to come to terms with everything that has happened, hesitantly attempting to awaken to themselves and to one another before the war closes over them once more.
Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage is a feat of extraordinary sensitivity and imagination, a meditation on the fundamental elements of human existence—eating, sleeping, washing, touching, speaking—that give us direction and purpose, even as the world around us collapses. Set over the course of a single day and night, this unflinching debut confronts marriage and war, life and death, bestowing on its subjects the highest dignity, however briefly.
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About the Author
Anuk Arudpragasam is from Colombo, Sri Lanka, and is currently completing a dissertation in philosophy at Columbia University. He writes in Tamil and English. The Story of a Brief Marriage is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
The Story of a Brief Marriage
By Anuk Arudpragasam
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2016 Anuk Arudpragasam
All rights reserved.
Most children have two whole legs and two whole arms but this little six-year-old that Dinesh was carrying had already lost one leg, the right one from the lower thigh down, and was now about to lose his right arm. Shrapnel had dissolved his hand and forearm into a soft, formless mass, spilling to the ground from some parts, congealing in others, and charred everywhere else. Three of the fingers had been fully detached, where they were now it was impossible to tell, and the two remaining still, the index finger and thumb, were dangling from the hand by very slender threads. They swayed uncertainly in the air, tapping each other quietly, till arriving at last in the operating area Dinesh knelt to the ground, and laid the boy out carefully on an empty tarpaulin. His chest, it seemed, was hardly moving. His eyes were closed, and his face was calm, unknowing. That he was not in the best of conditions there could be no doubt, but all that mattered for the time being was that the boy was safe. Soon the doctor would arrive and the operation would be done, and in no time at all the arm would be as nicely healed as the already amputated thigh. Dinesh turned towards this thigh and studied the smooth, strangely well-rounded stump. According to the boy's sister the injury had come from a land mine explosion four months before, the same accident that killed their parents also. The amputation had been done at a nearby hospital, one of the few still functioning at the time, and there was hardly any scarring on the hairless skin, even the stitch marks were difficult to find. Dinesh had seen dozens of amputees with similar stumps in the last months, in different states of recovery depending on how much time had elapsed since each operation, but he was still somehow unable to believe in the reality of all the truncated limbs. They seemed, in some way, fake, or illusory. To dispel this thought of course he only needed to reach out now and touch the one in front of him, to learn once and for all if the skin around the stump was as smooth as it seemed or actually coarse, if the hardness of bone could be felt underneath, or if true to appearance the thing had the softness of spoiled fruit, but whether for fear of waking the child or something else, Dinesh did not move. He simply sat there with his face inches from the stump, completely still.
When the doctor arrived with one of the nurses close behind he knelt down next to the tarpaulin without a word and studied the mangled forearm. There were no surgical instruments in the clinic, no anesthetics, neither general nor local, no painkillers or antibiotics, but from the look on the doctor's face it was clear that there was no choice but to go on. He motioned for the nurse to hold down the boy's left arm and leg, for Dinesh to hold down the head and right shoulder. He raised up the kitchen knife they'd been using for amputations, checked to make sure it was properly clean, and then, nodding at his two assistants, placed its sharp point just below the right elbow. Dinesh readied himself. The doctor pressed down, the point pierced, and the boy, who had remained until then in a state of deep, silent sleep, came to life. His eyes opened, the veins along his neck and temples dilated, and he let out a tender shriek that continued without pause as the doctor, who had started slowly in the hope the boy would remain unconscious during the operation, sawed now firmly through the flesh, without hesitation. Blood trickled onto the tarpaulin and spilled out onto the soil. Dinesh cradled the boy's little head in his lap, softly caressed his scalp. Whether it was a good thing or bad that he was losing his right arm and not his left, it was hard to tell. Having only a left arm and a left leg would not help the boy's balance no doubt, but all things considered he might have been worse off with a right arm and a left leg, or a left arm and a right leg, for surely, if you thought about it, those combinations were less evenly weighted. Of course if his two good limbs had been on opposite sides the boy would have been able to use a crutch for walking, for then the crutch could have been held by his good arm, and could therefore have replaced the bad leg. In the end though it depended on what mode of transport the boy would have access to once healed, wheelchair, crutches, or just his single leg, and so whether or not he'd gotten lucky it was probably, at that point, premature to say.
The doctor continued cutting through the flesh, not with quick efficient strokes but with a jagged, sawlike motion. His face remained impassive, even as the knife began to grate against the bone, as if the eyes that looked on at the scene belonged to a different person from the hands that did the cutting. How the doctor kept going on this way, day after day, Dinesh had no idea. It was well known that as the front lines shifted east he had chosen to stay behind in the territory of his own volition, to help those trapped inside instead of moving to the safety of government-held areas. He'd moved from one hospital to another as they continued to be destroyed by the shelling, and when at last the divisional hospital he'd been working at in the camp had been shelled the previous week he'd decided, together with a small number of medical staff there, to convert the abandoned school building nearby into a makeshift clinic, hoping it would be inconspicuous enough to treat injured civilians in safety. They ran the clinic according to a kind of assembly line method: volunteers would first carry the injured to the operating area, where the nurses would clean their wounds, prepare each one so they were as ready as possible for their operation, then the doctor would come, perform the surgery, and move on immediately to the next person, leaving the nurses to stitch up the wounds and do the bandaging, unless a child was involved in which case the doctor insisted on doing everything himself. The injured person would then be moved to the area in front of the clinic, and accompanied there by relations and checked upon every so often by the nurses they either improved and were soon able to leave of their own accord, or died and had to be taken away by volunteers for burial. From morning to night each day the doctor moved in this way from patient to patient, showing no emotion whatsoever as he performed his operations, never wearying and hardly ever resting except when twice daily he stopped to eat, and then for a few hours each night when he tried to sleep. He was a great man Dinesh knew, deserving of endless praise, though looking at his face now it was impossible to tell what had allowed him to continue like this, and whether he was still in possession of any feelings.
The damp sound of the knife through flesh gave way to the scrape of its teeth against the tarpaulin, and at last the cutting stopped. The child's head was limp on Dinesh's lap, his face again unknowing. The doctor lifted up what remained of the arm, which terminated now just past the elbow, and used a piece of cloth to absorb the blood still dripping. He dabbed the wound with another cloth, this one boiled in water and soaked in iodine, carefully sutured it shut with the thin flaps of excess skin, then dressed it neatly with one of their last bandages. When everything was done the doctor bore the boy up in his arms and went away with the nurse in search of a quiet place for him to rest. Dinesh, on whom the job of disposal fell, sat staring at the bloody little hand and forearm, wondering what he should do. There were plenty of other naked body parts scattered around the camp of course, fingers and toes, elbows and thighs, so many that nobody would say a thing if he just left the arm under a bush or beside a tree. But while those body parts were anonymous this one had an owner, which meant, he felt, that it had to be disposed of properly. He could bury it perhaps, or burn it, but he was apprehensive of touching it. Not because of the blood, for the child's blood had already stained his sarong and his hands, but because he didn't want to feel the softness of freshly amputated flesh between his fingers, the warmth of a limb just recently alive. He would much rather just wait till the blood had drained and the flesh had hardened, when picking the severed arm up would be more like picking up a stick or small branch, not much more perhaps but more so all the same. He was mulling over the issue when a girl with very thin ankles and long, broad feet came walking towards where he sat, her arms wrapped tightly around her chest and her fingers clutching the sides of her dress. She was the boy's older sister, his only living relative, coming from outside the clinic where she had been made to wait during the operation. Without a word to Dinesh or even a glance, no longer crying but her eyes still swollen and wet, she knelt down in front of the bloody tarpaulin and spread out a torn square of sari fabric over where her brother had just been lying. Picking up the remains carefully, so the hand didn't fall away from the forearm and the fingers didn't fall away from the hand, she placed them delicately on one edge of the cloth. She began very gently to roll the flesh up in the fabric, veiling it reverently in several soft layers as though it was a piece of supple gold jewelry, or something perishable that must be preserved for a long journey, and when it was wrapped so fully that nothing could be seen except the sari she stood up slowly, cradling the thing to her breast, and without saying a thing turned and walked away.
* * *
It was late afternoon and the day was overcast, devoid of movement. Shifting his weight onto his legs, Dinesh raised himself up. He stood still for a while till the dizziness from standing up dissipated, then fixing his eyes on the ground before him, began to walk east from the clinic. It had rained only a little the night before but the ochre soil between the tarpaulins had been stained maroon, glazed by a layer of smooth red slime. Wary of slipping in the mush or stepping on any of the splayed hands and feet, Dinesh took long, loping strides over the bodies, making sure with each step to set his front foot down properly before raising his back foot up from the ground. He felt slightly bad for leaving, but the urgent operations had more or less been finished, and for the time being at least there wasn't much work to be done. All day since the shelling he had been helping out around the clinic, the cries of the wounded and grieving flooding every space between his ears, and all he wanted now was a quiet place in which to sit, rest, and think, somewhere he could contemplate in peace the proposal he had received earlier that morning. He had been digging a grave just north of the clinic when a tall, slightly stooped man he recognized from somewhere but was unable to place had grabbed him by the hand, introduced himself as Somasundaram, and pulled him away hurriedly to a corner. The slow and easy rhythm of his shoveling suddenly interrupted, Dinesh had done his best to come out of his daze and make sense of what was happening. He had seen him working in the clinic the day before, the man was saying, and it was obvious he was a good boy, that he'd had some education, that he was responsible, and of the right age. Ganga, his daughter, his only child after her brother had been killed two weeks before, was a good girl too. She was pretty, and smart, and responsible, but most of all, most importantly, she was a good girl. He looked at Dinesh as he said this, his eyes yellow and his hair unkempt, a gray scruff all over his haggard face and neck, then lowered his gaze to the ground. In truth he didn't want to get her married, he only wanted to keep her safe and close beside him, for now that the rest of his family was gone he could hardly bear to lose her too. He hadn't given marriage even a moment's thought till the day before, he said wiping a tear from his cheek with a dirty thumb, but as soon as he'd seen Dinesh in the clinic he'd known it was his responsibility, that it was something he had to do for the sake of his daughter. He was an old man, he was going to die soon, and it was his duty to find someone to take care of her once he'd gone. It didn't matter whether their horoscopes were compatible, or what day or time was most auspicious, for obviously it was impossible to follow all the customs all the time. Dinesh had some education and he was a good, responsible boy, he said looking up again, and that was all that mattered. There was an Iyer in the camp who could perform the rites, and if he said yes then the Iyer would get them married immediately.
At first Dinesh had just looked back at Mr. Somasundaram blankly, not knowing how to respond. He wasn't quite sure he'd followed everything that had been said and didn't really have time to think on it in any case, for the pit he was digging needed to be finished as quickly as possible, in order to free up space in the clinic for all the new arrivals from the morning's shelling. Seeing his hesitation, Mr. Somasundaram added that there was no hurry, that it was important Dinesh spend some time thinking about his decision. The Iyer had been wounded the day before, it was true, but he was doing well so far, and as long as Dinesh said yes by the afternoon there was no reason the Iyer wouldn't be fit enough to get them married. Dinesh was silent a little longer, then indicated that he understood. He remained standing where he was for a while after Mr. Somasundaram had gone, then turned back to the grave in order to resume digging. He thrust his spade into the earth, leaned his meager weight into the handle, and lifted out the soil he had loosened, tried to fall back into the rhythm of the shoveling. In a way he shouldn't really have been surprised by what had happened, of course, for it was obvious why Mr. Somasundaram was trying to marry his daughter, if not to him in particular then to any male of marriageable age he could find. Parents had been trying desperately to get their children married in the past two years, their daughters especially, hoping that once married they'd be less likely conscripted into the movement. By this point the married were just as likely to be recruited for the fighting as the unmarried it was true, but many continued trying to marry their daughters even so, believing that if they ended up in the hands of the government the girls that were married were less likely to be defiled, more likely to be passed over by the soldiers for other spoils. Why the proposal had been made was obvious, therefore, though what exactly it meant for him, and how he should respond to it, Dinesh found much more difficult to say. He should probably have made an effort to think about it sooner, to concentrate his mind on the issue while he was still digging, but perhaps because the work before him was too distracting, or because he didn't yet know how to approach the matter, or because it was pleasing in some way to postpone dealing with it, he'd resigned himself to waiting until the grave was finished. As soon as the digging was over though he'd been told to begin moving bodies to the grave from the clinic, and then to help carry the injured to the clinic from the camp. In the midst of all the chaos and screaming he'd stopped thinking about the proposal completely and now, having finally been released from his duties, he found his initial lack of comprehension replaced by a quiet, sweeping astonishment. It was as though he'd been moving around, all this time, in a heavy fog, doing whatever he needed to do mindlessly, refusing to register the world outside him, and refusing to let it have any effect on him, so that having been caught off guard by the unexpected proposal, forced to wake up suddenly after how many months of being like this he didn't know, he was seeing his situation for the very first time now, keenly aware of the multitudes of people around him, and of himself as he navigated uncertainly through the camp.
Excerpted from The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam. Copyright © 2016 Anuk Arudpragasam. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
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