Love, Lies, and Brevity

I’ve been reading what one might call the Marriage Triptych: three unrelated books by writers who are part of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, each with “marriage” in the title and each about, among other things, the Sri Lankan civil war. They are: Love Marriage (2008) by V. V. Ganeshananthan, Marriage of a Thousand Lies (2017) by S. J. Sindu, and The Story of A Brief Marriage (2016) by Anuk Arudpragasam.

The titles are perhaps deceptively mellow, in the same way that you can’t tell just from the title of Toni Morrison’s Beloved that it’s a gothic horror. The titles’ echoes in each other seem resonant, too: the books are not very alike, but of course they are brought into the same frame by their connecting theme, in much the same way that communities—ethnicities, diasporas—are imagined and re-imagined.

Love Marriage was published a year before the war ended, and is set, I believe, during the same timeframe. The other two are more recently published, but Thousand Lies is set during the second Obama election in 2012, and the reason the titular Brief Marriage is brief is because it’s set in the holocaust at war’s end in 2009, which has shaped the decade since: the decade that ends today, the tenth Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day.

For the first half of that decade, Remembrance Day was called Victory Day. That tells you a lot about the Sri Lankan state, but what it doesn’t tell you is that the change of the name is meaningless. The apparent sensitivity of it, the sudden self-awareness: these things are cosmetic at best, and in so being, they are a mockery of the ideas of sensitivity and self-awareness. It’s much like the original post-war big lie: “zero civilian casualties”. The purpose of a lie of this nature is not to deceive, because nobody could possibly be deceived. It is to demonstrate utter contempt for the very concept of the truth, for the idea of being called to account. Victory Day became Remembrance Day to briefly whitewash the public personas of a new government and president—personas which are quite sullied again by now, of course, through every fault of their own. The name change was superficial: it did not lead to demilitarization in the North, or to reforms. In fact, today we are pointed quite in the opposite direction, towards increased militarization against a new enemy, because the Sinhala-Buddhist state cannot function without a marked enemy minority. Without this, they no longer know who they are.

Love Marriage is about Yalini, who was born during Black July and lives in North America, gradually finding out about her family. Much of that history comes to her from her dying uncle Kumaran, who was an LTTE member, and with whom Yalini’s relationship rapidly grows complicated: she loves him and his obvious love for her mother, and she loves him for his kindness to her, his willingness to share the history she has been denied, but she cannot reconcile herself with everything he has done, the people he’s killed, the ways in which he has compromised her and her family simply by coming to them to die, and bringing his daughter to marry an LTTE financier. The book treats Marriage as a kind of technology: always stylized, always formal, often figurative. Apart from the marriage of Kumaran’s daughter, which Yalini opposes, there is the mirror-marriage of Yalini’s parents, which Kumaran once opposed, and the marriages of her grandparents, in the alien worlds of the prewar past. And then this, the alchemical marriage of individual and family, of person and history:

This is an arranged marriage too, something ordained not by the stars, but by me: this meeting of girl and country.

This encounter with history doesn’t happen all by itself. Yalini only begins to learn about her family as an adult, after the tsunami, after her uncle. Partly it’s because her family keeps secrets, but it’s also that learning history—whether of your family or the world—is work. This is not only a problem for the diaspora: those of us who lived through those years in the South also have to work at encountering and uncovering our histories, of comparing versions of it, of trying to understand. This is especially true of those of us enculturated as Sinhala-Buddhist, because a century-old propaganda campaign effectively is culture and disassembling it is labourious. The absence of this work can be seen in the tightening cycles in which history repeats itself. When political memory is shorter than an electoral cycle, it gets harder and harder to argue for the relevance of historical context. And like for Yalini, the problem is as much a dearth of information in some cases as an oversupply of competing histories in others. The problem is learning how to sift through both silences and lies.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies is the book most distant from the war, I think, even though it’s inevitably shaped by it. In Boston, Lucky is a lesbian married to Kris, a gay man, in an attempt to form a superficially heteronormative brown marriage unit that keeps her conservative family happy and his visa intact (she eventually decides to divorce him, of course, but that’s not the climactic decision). Lucky is hopelessly in love with Nisha, with whom she’s been on-and-off forever, but who is now being arranged-married to a straight man, Deepak, and who is going ahead with it out of a sense of filial duty and confusion. Lucky, who is herself struggling with how she feels, does the work and makes her move: she asks Nisha to abandon her marriage-which-would-be-a-lie, and to run away with her. But of course Nisha says no. That’s how it works in this sort of book, and all too often in real life. Just because one person has done the work and figured out a truth they can live with doesn’t mean anybody else is ready to hear it.

Unlike Yalini, Lucky is not consumed with the need to learn and engage with her family history, but her grandmother is her most direct connection to the war, the family’s historian:

Hobbling out of the room on her walking stick, [Grandmother] says, “It’s always about the ones who aren’t here. Remember that.”

Grief is political. Grief is a politics. Every movement, every cause is founded upon its dead. And so the state fears grief, not because they fear that it will lead to violence but because they don’t care for grief’s accusations.

(The current wave of anti-Muslim violence, both organised and disorganised, shows how violence against minorities is, rather than a problem for the Sinhala-Buddhist state and polity, rather a cyclic process of identity-renewal. It is how that identity, both as held by large numbers of people and as encapsulated into law and practice by the state, defines its boundaries, reinforces its hegemonic position, and reiterates its own existence. Without that violence, ‘assimilation’ would more naturally flow in the other direction: the strict borders of the unmarked Sinhala-Buddhist identity would dissolve the moment they are not being enforced and reinforced.)

One of the ways in which we grieve is to dwell on things that hurt to remember: the faces and gestures of those that are lost, the ways in which they might have spoken or acted.

The wedding has probably started. Both sets of parents will give their children away. Nisha’s male cousin, stepping in for a brother, will guide Deepak to the flower-entombed altar. The priest will make a ring out of reeds and start the ceremony, his nasal chanting filling the room. When Deepak’s sister comes to guide her to the altar, Nisha will stand up, grab the chair for support.

Lucky’s not present at this wedding to see any of this: this is imagined. After she’s rejected by Nisha for the last time, Lucky goes home to make peace with, and come out to, her mother (the struggle is real!) This makes it the most hopeful book of the triptych, a book that’s thoroughly brown and queer (including in its awkward collisions with white queerness) and looking for and perhaps finding a future despite how much of a hold the past has on us. The voice of speculation here, the lie-of-the-imaginary with which she visualizes the marriage-which-is-a-lie on the way to finding and speaking her truth, mirrors a scene in Love Marriage where Yalini imagines Kumaran’s funeral in a different way than it really happened: a lie, but perhaps one that is more true than the truth. He dies in Canada, but she thinks, what if he had died in Jaffna?

Both death and marriage require fire. If we were in Jaffna, having a funeral, the sons of the dead man would gather around an ayer, a priest, a Brahmin.

Yalini goes on to imagine, in detail, maintaining the subjunctive for many pages, an entire traditional Tamil funeral for her uncle—which is, not incidentally, very similar to a traditional Sinhala funeral. (The rites in which we mark marriage and death are cousins, having drifted only a little in the few generations that we have been marked as separate peoples.) Yalini’s imagined funeral is her marriage to her own history, the coming together of woman and nation. Lucky’s imagined marriage is a funeral for her love for Nisha, a formal leavetaking of that which is gone and never coming back. Neither Yalini nor Lucky end their books with any interest in marriage for themselves.

Brief Marriage brings us as close to the war as fiction is capable of. It is set in the very heart of the war’s end. Where Thousand Lies spans years of life and Love Marriage spans generations: Brief Marriage spans a day or so. Dinesh is a young man in a camp along with many other refugees, all starving, many wounded. They are all sheltering, often futilely, from constant shelling by the military. Dinesh is also in hiding from being recruited by what the book refers to consistently as “the movement”. He and everyone else in the camp are living on the very brink of either slow or sudden death. Unexpectedly, he finds himself the object of an arranged marriage to a young woman in the same camp, Ganga. Her father, Mr. Somasundaram, simply accosts him one day.

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.

Dinesh and Ganga marry, rites and marriage curtailed by circumstance. The narrative is similarly contained. Dinesh is a thoughtful, precise person, undone by trauma and exhaustion but otherwise clear and methodical in his thinking. The shelling has made him all too conscious of his body, its fragility, the filth that encrusts it, the air that moves through it. He sees the people in the camp around him similarly affected in various ways, including some men so deep in grief that they become unresponsive:

the men reminded him of the frogs he’d learned about long ago in school, whose spinal cords were cut by scientists to study the difference between the higher and lower brains. Unlike the frogs you saw in ponds and puddles, whose wet skin was always expanding and contracting and whose deep, satisfied voices were always rising and falling, the embodiment of organic flourishing, these mutilated frogs were completely still and silent, oblivious to all stimuli, passive even when poked or prodded. Whether they were hungry or thirsty, calm or scared, it was impossible to tell for the only movement they made was when they were pushed over, in response to which they merely righted themselves and resumed their blankness, a blankness they kept till they died.

When Ganga dies, Dinesh too retreats into himself like this, and we finally see this state from the inside, the utter extremity of grief, of sympathetic dying.

Throughout, the book treats his perspective with deep dignity, because the events of the narrative do not. As Subashini Navaratnam says in her extremely thoughtful review:

It occurs to me that there is an ethics to this kind of careful, precise writing. Someone who writes like this must value the moral in the process of creation and the responsibility that comes with it. It is not merely to “tell a story”. It is to fundamentally disturb the reader.

The book depicts just one person’s interiority in all its depth and intelligence, and with all the attendant horror of those things being abused and destroyed. Its politics is contained in the crushing gravity of that stubborn singularity. In its refusal to simplify (or complicate, depending on how you look at it) it has no access to statistics: it cannot ask these questions in the way that we are more accustomed to. It does not ask any questions at all: it merely says that this is how one person might live and love and die in a place like that. It leaves to us to try and encompass the vast expanse of what one single person truly is, and to multiply it, and to multiply it, and to imagine a hundred thousand funeral fires, to imagine who they might have come home to, made peace with, come out to.