Interview: Anuk Arudpragasam, author, A Passage North
The Tamil protagonist of your new novel, A Passage North, Krishan, tries to construct in words a kind of “private shrine” to the memory of the anonymous lives lost during the civil war. Do you see yourself doing the same through the novel?
In a way, I think I do. My work is a kind of eulogy for the many thousands of Tamils who lost their lives during the last two years of the war in Sri Lanka. When there is a political prohibition on mourning, mourning must retreat into semi-public and private spaces, and for me literature is one of those spaces.
You begin with a meditation on the idea of the present and the passage of time. Is the idea of time central to the novel?
Yes, I would say so. For me time is one of the great mysteries, the way a moment can expand so that it seems to last much longer, or the way months and even years can sometimes flicker by without our knowledge or consent. A lot of the way I organise and structure my writing comes from trying to capture the different ways in which time passes.
The other two major themes in the novel are ageing, as it unfolds in the case of Krishan’s grandmother, and longing, Krishan’s for Anjum, whom he had met during his stay in Delhi. Did you also wish to explore them?
Yes, of course. Longing is something that belongs to all three characters, not just Krishan. Longing, as the book understands it, is objectless desire. It is desire that doesn’t have an object, and therefore doesn’t know the nature of what it is searching for. In this sense, longing is part of Krishan’s grandmother’s condition as well: the older she gets the further she recedes from the outside world, and the more she recedes from the outside world the more she wants to participate in it, even though she no longer knows what it is.
You tell the story through the protagonist’s memories and philosophical musings in long, loopy sentences, with no dialogues and paragraphs sometimes running into two pages. What marked your narrative choice?
My writing is introspective and essayistic, and in that sense it is philosophical, but academic philosophy as it is practised in American and British universities is neither introspective nor essayistic. In a sense, it was my disappointment with the discipline of philosophy that pushed me toward fiction. I was looking for a way to dwell slowly and patiently on life in a way that is philosophical but also intimately tied to the texture of the everyday, and I discovered that there was room to do this in the novel.
Is Krishan’s distance from the war, his struggle with survivor’s guilt, his coming to terms with the war’s aftermath as well his realistion that there can be no recovery and closure, closer to your own experience?
Dinesh, the protagonist of my first novel, was subject to all the violence that unfolded over the final months of the war, and, therefore, his experience is very far from my own experience as a Tamil who grew up in Colombo. Krishan, in this sense, is much more similar to me, both in terms of class status and experience, though, of course, he too is a fictional character.
How do you approach inner states and inner lives — an act that seems to be fundamental to you as a fiction writer — in order to render them in your writing?
I depict interiority in many ways. I generally depict my characters when they are alone, when there is nothing in the environment to distract or divert their train of thought, since those are the moments they have the most freedom to think about their lives. I pay close attention to their bodies — to their posture, the movements of their eyes, what they are doing with their hands — as a way of deciphering their moods. And I also pay a lot of attention to the rhythm and syntax of my sentences, since it is in rhythm and syntax above all that emotional texture is communicated.
Nawaid Anjum is an independent feature writer, translator and poet. He lives in New Delhi.