Difficult Empathies

“What would a successful war novel look like? This question concealed a deeper question I had: What would a truthful Kashmir novel look like?”

Krishan is a shy, sensitive social worker in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. One day, he receives an unexpected telephone call about Rani, his grandmother’s former caretaker. The night before, Krishan learns, Rani fell into a well, broke her neck, and died. Caught completely off guard and not sure what to say, Krishan finds his mind meandering, casting ponderous light on the accident:

He felt … [the] need … to hear all the circumstantial details that connected the unlikely death to the so-called real world before [he] could accept that its occurrence was not in opposition to the laws of nature. It was the fact, above all, that sudden or violent deaths could occur not merely in a war zone or during race riots but during the slow, unremarkable course of everyday life that made them so disturbing and so difficult to accept, as though the possibility of death was contained in even the most routine of actions, in even the ordinary, unnoticed moments of life.

This is only the beginning of Krishan’s story in Anuk Arudpragasam’s novel A Passage North. Reminiscent of W. G. Sebald, the novel meditates on the physical destruction and psychological damage that the Sri Lankan state inflicted on the Tamil minority during 26 years of war.

Arudpragasam belongs to that group of writers, who, when confronted with traumatic memory, transform their psychic anxiety into a kind of creative pressure, just the sort that is necessary for the writer’s survival in an excessively violent narrative. In A Passage North, that pressure is employed in how Arudpragasam frequently camouflages the spectacular with a teeming forest of trivial details, or, as the above passage indicates, circumvents the horrifying to broach the philosophical. It is through these long philosophical detours about the nature of love, beauty, time, desire, disease, and war that Arudpragasam exposes his readers to deeper and more disturbing truths.

What would a successful war novel look like? This question, asked of a teacher years ago, concealed a deeper question I had: What would a truthful Kashmir novel look like? I have grappled for years with such questions, since I grew up amid the violent rebellion that Kashmiri Muslims waged against the Indian state in 1988. At first, I wondered whether the job of the novelist was to replicate the traumatic event that one had intimately witnessed.

But ultimately, I found that the work of a novelist demands something more. Thanks to reading my teacher Robert Olen Butler’s book From Where You Dream, I understood that novelists need to transmute history, metabolizing it into the human details that constitute the selfhood of the character. My first book, The Night of Broken Glass, features multiple fictional narrators who contemplate the killings and custodial torture and myriad massacres that happened in the recent history of Kashmir. In the process of writing these interweaving short stories, I realized it was only possible because I’d witnessed the events of excessive military violence as they were inflicted on my people. But perhaps even more significant than witnessing these terrifying events was the act of measuring their psychological impact, in determining how they continued to manifest in the lives of characters whose fates they’d permanently altered.

In recent years, a number of South Asian novels that fictionalize war or extreme violence have appeared. It is true that rarely have any novels succeeded in transmuting the history of a people in the way A Passage North does. Still, it is worth examining Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field and Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs along with Arudpragasam’s book. While Vijay’s novel is about a young Indian woman from Bangalore who watches the struggles of a Kashmiri family during the war, Mahajan measures the destructive effects of a bombing carried out by Kashmiri rebels in the Indian capital, New Delhi. Both the Indian-origin American writers, falling afoul of Indian nationalist stereotypes, fail to empathize with their Kashmiri characters.

For a writer, the opposing impulses of suppressing the past and accessing it produce an inherent tension. And this, explains Butler, in a chapter titled “Yearning,” is especially true when the nature of the writer’s relationship with memory is difficult. Still, the terror that comes from plumbing the unconscious is unavoidable if the writer wishes to capture those chaotic, triggering moments and transform them into the starting points from where they string together more banal details to concretely draw the arcs that constitute the lives of their characters.

To commit to the act of writing and inhabit the dream space that Butler calls “the white-hot center” is scary as hell, no doubt. But taking the risk is rewarding in the moments when the writer sheds their inhibitions, establishing an intuitive connection to the characters’ yearning. It is in such moments of surrender and empathy that the writer feels supremely aware of the fictive being who is other than them. It is in these epiphanic moments of inspired vulnerability that the writer’s voice rises, becoming resonant and singularly truthful.

Though Butler concludes the chapter with a quote from Dubliners, he clearly is not satisfied with the Joycean idea of epiphany. Instead of a charged revelatory moment that could be thought of as “the climax or crisis of a story,” which is the second epiphany, Butler argues that “the first epiphany comes very near the beginning, where the sensual details accumulate around a moment in which the deepest yearning of the main character shines forth.”

While I concede to Butler’s position, when it comes to contemplating the qualitative aspects of the voices of writers who work within a complex tonality—Proust’s felicitous successors such as Nabokov, Woolf, Sebald, and more recently John Banville come to mind—it makes more sense to me to think of epiphany in terms of tone rather than time. Epiphany, I believe, is not temporal but tonal and should be understood as immersion into a state of heightened consciousness through one’s tone. One brilliant example is Banville’s The Book of Evidence, in which each word and image, sound and sentence, is burnished because the tone is not only achieved in the protagonist Freddie Montgomery’s very first utterance but also maintained throughout, imbuing even the most mundane moments in the life of the disgraced murderer with an unmistakable quality of incandescence.

Something similar is at work in Sebald’s style. Through his profound meditations on the places and people scarred and displaced by the Holocaust, he creates the kind of unique prose that is hallucinatory but luminous. Despite his grave subject matter and a mournful voice that is pervaded with a terrible feeling of premonition, Sebald thoroughly succeeds in realizing the interiorities of his characters through digression and deferral, use of lyricism and lofty tone.

To further build on the idea of epiphany and probe Arudpragasam’s need to stay in a constant state of rapture and revelation that enables him to transmute the places and people he contemplates so completely, I recall the eighteenth-century German playwright and poet Friedrich Schiller. Conscious of the Cartesian dichotomy between mind and the external world in his essay “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” Schiller propounds that the perception of the world and how it is rendered into words could be better understood through the notions of naiveté and sentimentality. Schiller argues that while the naive poets disengage their critical and conscious minds and embrace spontaneity, sentimental poets are conscious of the artifice of the written word and hence impelled to critically examine their creative moves. It must be noted that Schiller’s use of sentimental, translated from sentimentalisch, differs from what sentimental means to us in English today.

Despite the magnitude of his guilt and grief and the destructive nature of the atrocity committed by the Sri Lankan state that he confronts on the page, Arudpragasam, far from being sentimental, is naive. And it’s through the preservation of his naiveté—through his surrender to this unique intuitive force within him—that he is able to go beyond the bounds of his authorial self and inhabit and bring out the inner state of his characters and the settings they levitate around in a startlingly clear profusion of detail.

The indefatigable human desire to live freely and eternally among one’s people despite the inevitability of death.

A Passage North begins with Krishan receiving an email from his former lover, Anjum, from whom he parted in Delhi four years earlier. Anjum’s lukewarm tone disconcerts Krishan more than he would like to admit. Exhausted, he returns home and quickly checks on his ailing grandmother. Soon after, he receives the news (discussed above) that his grandmother’s former caretaker, Rani, has died. It gradually emerges that her death was not a mere accident caused by carelessness, a misstep she took in the night’s deplorable lack of light. Instead, Rani’s death is a realization of a war victim’s subterranean wish, which the terrible shelling that killed Rani’s son must have implacably planted in her soul.

On the surface, the novel consists of two journeys in two different times. One journey heads backward in time to Delhi, where Krishan met and fell for Anjum; the other journey heads into the future, when Krishan travels from the southern Sinhalese-dominated capital of Sri Lanka to Rani’s Tamilian village in the north. However, a deeper contemplation on the prose reveals that there are several layers to the author’s consciousness.

Arudpragasam straddles multiple temporalities, and time, in his novel, is not a river that flows from point A to Z. Instead, it’s a tempestuous sea where multiple bloodied eddies churn simultaneously. The enduring affect is that the stories narrated retrospectively by Krishan about his life—the reception of the email from Anjum, their parting in Delhi, the relocation to the northeast of Sri Lanka and eventual move to Colombo, the news of Rani’s death, the time Rani spent with Krishan’s family taking care of the grouchy grandmother—immerse readers and sweep over them, all at the same time.

In one such instance, Krishan reflects on the recalcitrance he felt when he was an undergrad in Delhi. As he sat “in the blissfully ignorant silence of his college library,” he got distracted by “the rumors of vast number of civilians killed by the army.” This was when it became clear to Krishan that Tigers would be defeated, as would be the idea of a free Tamil-speaking state. His resistance to believing what has just happened at home is dispelled by the Channel Four documentary that accused the Sri Lankan government of war crimes and genocide. Consequently, his response is complex.

His initial disbelief gave way first to shock, then to anger, and then to shame at his own easy existence, this shame giving rise, over the months that followed, to an uncanny sense of unreality, as though the world he was inhabiting in Delhi was somehow illusory … led him to feel that the spaces he inhabited lacked some vital dimension of reality.

As a reader and as a Kashmiri, this hit too close to home. Since leaving Kashmir in 2003, living in Delhi and later in different parts of the United States, rarely a day has passed when I did not read the news coming out of home. Like Krishan, I carry within me long, mangled inventories of the images of Kashmiris blinded, injured, and killed in the war. When I read the passage I quoted above, I paused. I know what this feels like, I said aloud. Arudpragasam is a writer of staggering honesty; he has the courage to confront his guilt of surviving the war. Along the way he creates a firm, embodied sense of his main character’s turbulent trajectory.

The inhibitive nature of Arudpragasam’s subject matter necessitates a fluent, unbroken stream of narration, as though if the narrator stopped narrating, he would not ever be able to start again; and as though if the narrator did not resort to eloquence, his voice would be altogether silenced. Thus, A Passage North is replete with passages where the tone becomes solemn and semireligious and in Krishan’s compulsive mind, the beleaguered homeland turns into an agglomeration of incandescent images.

Arudpragasam’s voice, however, is most unrestrained and compelling while he is dealing with the Sri Lankan state’s clinical acts of crushing the rebellious voice of Tamils. For instance, when he reimagines the life of the founder of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), Kuttimani. After Kuttimani was sentenced to death by the Colombo high court, the judge asked him whether he had any final words to share. Arudpragasam writes:

He ended his speech by asking that … his vital organs be given to Tamils who needed them, and that his eyes in particular be donated to a young boy or girl who could not see, so that even if he himself never had the opportunity to see Tamil Eelam, as he put it, his eyes at least would one day have the chance.

Through Kuttimani’s final pronouncements, Arudpragasam captures the essence of not some destroyer who has been hell-bent all his life on tearing away Jaffna from the brutal soldiers of the Sri Lankan state but a human with the universal yearning to behold with one’s eyes the place where one is born and that one calls home, the indefatigable human desire to live freely and eternally among one’s people despite the inevitability of death.

A Passage North testifies to Arudpragasam’s unfailing empathy. But reading Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field instead reveals this author’s jarring lapses in empathy. Vijay builds the plot around the intimate relationship between a young Indian woman, Shalini, and a Kashmiri family. But the manner in which she portrays her Kashmiri characters, the author fails to transcend the framework of Indian nationalist imaginary.

Shalini is determined to understand the lopsided dynamic between Bashir Ahmad, the missing head of this family, and her own mother, who, once infatuated with the green-eyed, soft-spoken man from the mountains, drank a tall can of mosquito repellent to a self-inflicted death. Upon Shalini’s arrival in the village by the Himalayan foothills, Bashir Ahmad’s daughter-in-law, Amina, welcomes her, nicknaming her Murgi (chicken) and training her to milk the family’s cow. Though the bond between the two women quickly burgeons, Amina senses that her husband, Riyaz, might be attracted to Shalini but does not confront her guest directly. Vijay’s portrayal of Amina’s unfailing hospitality unearths how damaged Shalini really is and how deeply she yearns to confide in and project an ally in this potentially hostile territory. This lends the protagonist an aura that’s unsettling but intriguing.

However, the premise on which the author predicates the character of Bashir Ahmad is narrow and nationalistic. Desired by Shalini’s mother, who is alienated by her factory-owning, often emotionally absent husband, throughout the course of the novel, Bashir is portrayed as a servile and crippled figure. Initially, during his days in Bangalore when he works as a clothes salesman and goes from door to door with his bundle, he is pitied by Shalini’s mother. Later, when Shalini hunts him down in Kashmir, she is the one who pities him, especially when she finds out how the soldiers have broken his legs after suspecting him to be colluding with the rebels who massacred the Hindus in the region. The characterization of Bashir Ahmad is a measure of Vijay’s empathy as a novelist. But is Bangalore, I want to ask, devoid of articulate Kashmiri businessmen who own carpet businesses? Why not fictionalize one of those men who are proud of the 500-year-old journey their family made on the behest of the patron of the arts and magnanimous, secular sultan, Zain-ul-Abidin, from Central Asia or Persia to Kashmir?

One explanation about why Vijay chose to write about the servile shawl seller and not an assertive Kashmiri merchant of carpets might be found through Schiller’s paradigm, as discussed above. It is not plausible to think of novelists in the strict binary of sentimental and naive; there is always a degree of intuition involved, even in the most self-conscious decisions a novelist makes. Thus, if I were to say Vijay did not choose but intuitively arrived at her Kashmiri character, which she did, then Bashir Ahmad is a distilled demonstration of her bias.


Hindu Nationalism: A Movement, Not a Mandate

By Alf Gunvald Nilsen

A bomb goes off in the busy Delhi market of Lajpat Nagar. The bomb blast is the decisive moment that structures the novel The Association of Small Bombs, from which author Karan Mahajan goes back and forth to trace the trajectories of his characters.

The spectacle of this destruction—seen by a young Muslim boy, Mansoor, who is dazed from witnessing the death of his two Hindu friends, Tushar and Nakul—is transmuted by Mahajan into a peculiar tone that is existential and disorienting. Specifically, Mahajan is determined to sound satirical about Delhi’s parched soul: the mammoth city’s myriad economic inequities, toxic air, and mounds of abundant trash. But, in doing so, Mahajan trivializes the language with which Mansoor and the parents of the dead boys, Vikas and Deepa, express the abiding pain the explosion poured into their lives.

Moreover, Mahajan is deliberate in constructing his representative Kashmiri character, Shockie, another green-eyed Kashmiri Muslim man—green eyes are rare in Kashmiris but have been fetishized by Bollywood—who is a bomb maker. Shockie idolizes Ramzi Yusuf, one of the main perpetrators of 1993 World Trade Center bombings. Shockie is patriarchal; he finds prayer “distasteful and feminine.” He is ruthless and fantasizes of raping women. About the wives of the dhaba owners who serve him food, Mahajan writes, “He wanted to ram his penis … He imagined pinning the dhaba owner’s wife on the table and ripping off her kurta.” Shockie is furious when his masters do not supply him with enough money and he has to steal a car to carry out his operations. As such, Mahajan turns Shockie into a mundane monster, a caricature shorn of any interiority or sense of history.

Before planting a bomb in a busy Delhi market, Shockie travels to the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The towns Mahajan describes reductively by merely naming them are viewed through Shockie’s desecrated point of view:

Gorakhpur is one of the armpits of the universe. The best thing that can be said about it is that it is better than Azamgarh, which, along with Moradabad, competes in an imaginary inverse beauty pageant for the world’s ugliest town.

This peremptory way of looking is not organic to Shockie’s perspective. If he is someone ready to blow up the bodies of people—with the undeniable knowledge that he might be captured afterward and brutally tortured and killed—Shockie must have some source of conviction to do what he is doing. I’m not arguing that Shockie must be inoculated with the ideology that gives him a more persuasive set of images and associations with the Muslim towns of Uttar Pradesh, and which he’d imagine organically to be belonging to the glorious realm of the faithful. I simply don’t understand the source of his motivation.

The reason The Association of Small Bombs does not succeed is because of Mahajan’s sentimentality. This is evident through his caustic, excessively authorial tone, which he uses to belittle the intelligence of his characters, negating their natural growth. So much so that there is no delineation and utterances of one character could be easily replaced by what the other character says. What is said by Ayub, a directionless, frustrated young Muslim man from Azamgarh, is no different from Shockie’s cocky pronouncements.

After the first brief epiphany, Mahajan’s tone quickly flattens and never really recovers. And that tells me Mahajan had no real necessity to sustain his voice while writing the book. The way I visualize the lives of his characters is as blips and incomplete loops comically arrayed along the shuddering central axis of the excessively violent event and not as kinetic realms of consciousness where I am suffused with the sensuous, human details that cohere around and have the shape of the characters’ yearning, the details through which Mahajan could have subliminally measured the lives of the humans that the Lajpat Nagar bombing suddenly disrupted and shattered.

In conclusion, one might say the act of writing a novel, performed however willfully, never transmutes the writer into a novelist. It’s after all a matter of sensibility akin to what I encountered in the pages of A Passage North. Anuk Arudpragasam heralds a novelistic vision that is compassionate, historically attendant, and tonally transformative. While reading the sections on the Tamils held in Sri Lankan prisons during the war, I was moved and often reminded of the Kashmiri engineer Farooq Ahmad Khan, who, following the Lajpat Nagar bomb blast, was wrongfully arrested and detained in Delhi’s Tihar jail for an 18-year-long imprisonment.1 I kept wondering how Farooq must have felt, how he must have cried and perhaps intoned a few verses of the Quran, slapping the mute, cold walls of the cell that timelessly contained him, as the impassive prison guard delivered yet another blow, this time by breaking the news of his father’s death hundreds of miles away at home in Kashmir. icon

  1. Uzma Falak, “In Search of Lost Time,” Himal, September 12, 2015.
This article was commissioned by Tara Menon. Featured-image photograph of the road from Srinagar to Gulmarg, Kashmir, 1987, by Kai Heinrich / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).