Our protagonist Krishan receives news of the death of his grandmother’s carer, Rani, and decides to attend her funeral in the north of Sir Lanka, a region that still bears the scars of the 1983-2009 civil war. As Krishan prepares for the trip north and over the course of the train journey and the funeral, he takes us through his memories of his intense relationship with his ex Anjum, his grandmother’s deteriorating health and his feelings about the civil war.
Arudpragasam writes in sentences that go on and on, clause after clause, but they are actually remarkably easy to follow. He explains each idea extensively (sometimes within an inch of its life) and things can get repetitive: he tells you what something is and why, and also what it is not and why not, several times over. I am the last person to criticise a long sentence (guilty as charged) but sometimes I did think, ‘just get on with it’ during the more meditative passages.
However, despite my impatience, I enjoyed this book very much. It paints vivid images of Sri Lanka and India, and though the book is very specifically about the Sri Lankan’s civil war, Krishan’s preoccupation with the dilemma of pursuing activism vs comfort, companionship vs self-sufficiency and, above all, the pursuit of a sense of belonging and the effects of displacement, are pretty universal.
The tone of the novel is very formal, and reads almost like the memoir of a very serious person, which surprisingly felt like a breath of fresh air. It’s not a book I have fallen in love with but there’s value in the traditional, no-thrills style. A book like The Promise will leave your heart racing; A Passage North will sit you down on a sensible chair with a blanket and teach you some history and make you ponder the usual themes: belonging, displacement, ageing, grief, but not so heavily as to be depressing. There is comfort in understanding.
The best parts of the books are Krishan’s episodic recounting of his grandmother’s ageing process and of his relationship with Anjum, and of the stories that have informed his life – the story of Siddartha, the Buddha; the life of Kuttimani, an early insurgent of the northern separatist movement; a documentary about two female members of the Black Tigers, an ‘elite’ group within the fighters of the north; the origins of a small Pillayar temple in the south of Sri Lanka where he lives.
The soul of this novel is in the content, not the form. The tales from Hindu mythology and poetry will enchant you, and the stories of war will horrify, but humanise you.