The story of a brief marriage is one of the finest books team t2 has read this year. A chat with DSC prize winner Anuk Arudpragasam of Sri Lanka 

By Samhita Chakraborty
  • Published 15.12.17

A 29-year-old Sri Lankan doctoral student at Columbia University in New York has won this year’s DSC Prize for South Asian Literature as well as the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize for his debut novel The Story of a Brief Marriage (Fourth Estate, Rs 499). Set in the middle of the civil war in Sri Lanka of a few years ago, this brutally beautiful story unfolds over the course of one day and night and leaves the reader with a bittersweet feeling and a yearning for a little more time with Dinesh and Ganga and their extraordinary “marriage”. t2 caught up with Anuk Arudpragasam over email... 

Congratulations on writing your first novel! We have a celebrated Bengali writer called Sankar who told me that when god sends humans to earth, he packs one story in their heart and that becomes a writer’s first novel. Would that hold true for The Story of a Brief Marriage?

I don’t think so. I don’t really place that much importance on stories and plots and narratives for their own sake. For me the plot is more like a medium for me to express certain moods and reflections; if it succeeds in holding these things together, then it works. If not, I need to find another.

Congratulations also for the DSC Prize and Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize. What was your first reaction when your name was announced at the Dhaka Lit Fest (where the DSC Prize was given)? What does this recognition mean for your writing life?

Thank you. I’m not sure I had a reaction at first; I wasn’t expecting to win, and I didn’t know how to feel. For me I think it mostly means I will have more security as I continue writing, which is something to be very grateful for.

You have grown up in Colombo, which was removed from the actual war. But you’ve said it affected the way you and your family went about your lives as Tamils. Did you consider writing about the urban, privileged Tamil experience or was placing your novel in the war zone a given?

In this case, I began writing the novel very immediately in response to photos and videos that started surfacing of what was happening during the war, so there was no question of writing on another topic. I’m not really interested in social observation or commentary as a writer, so I doubt I’d ever write about urban elite life in Colombo just for the sake of it.

The opening pages are so stark and brutal, they might leave some readers reeling…. Did you worry about that? Or did you say, well, this book is not for the faint-hearted!

No, to be honest I didn’t really worry about it. I don’t really write with the reader in mind, very much. I write mainly for myself, and for myself I felt this violence was something I needed to come to terms with. 

I loved the portion where Dinesh takes a bath. It almost felt sensual… and about a man in love.

I wouldn’t say the main character is ever in love. “Love” feels like too simplistic a word for it, given the kind of trauma and violence both characters have been experiencing. But hopeful, yes, and earnest about the possibilities of real communication with another human being.

I had once asked Arundhati Roy if Rahel and Estha would be welcome in her “ministry of utmost happiness”. Can I impose a similar question upon you? Do you think Dinesh and Ganga would have had a nice marriage in peacetime?

I’m not sure. It’s difficult to say, since I conceived these characters in a camp for displaced people, and it’s difficult to imagine what these characters would have been like if they hadn’t had those brutal experiences. These experiences are so defining that I’m not sure they would be the same characters otherwise.

Why do you write? And who is your ideal reader?

Nobody ever asked me to write; it’s something I started doing on my own, because of the peace and solace it provides me. As for an ‘ideal reader’, I would say probably my sister or a few of my close friends.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I think around the age of 21 was when I decided that fiction is what I would like to try to pursue, around my last year of university. When I was in school I didn’t read much fiction, but I did read a lot of philosophy. There is a bookshop in Colombo, Vijitha Yapa, that sells Penguin Classics editions of a lot of Greek and European philosophy, and I bought and read a lot of books from that section when I was 15 or 16. I suppose I was searching for answers of some kind through philosophy, answers I later decided to pursue through literature.

What is the best book you have read in 2017? Tell