Stories of lives torn asunder and fused uneasily at the crossroads of adopted cultures
Collateral damage in war usually has a spillover effect for decades and generations. A chunky tome of Sri Lanka’s history is the civil war between 1983 and 2009 that bludgeoned its population and caused over a hundred thousand deaths. The deeper roots of this conflict lie in a colonial time, and in the incestuous past between India and Ceylon.
Akil Kumarasamy’s debut novel Half Gods has its primordial roots in that tumultuous time, but the larger canvas is about exile, adopted cultures, about families and people that have crossed continents to make new lives, colliding awkwardly with each other in their chosen lands.
The 10 stand alone stories are a rich, layered tapestry, woven unusually, bringing together errant strands and creating a composite whole.
In the hazy historical backdrop of Ceylon’s independence from the British in 1948, germinate the lives of young Muthu and Selvakumar on rain-soaked tea plantations in the newly-born Sinhala nation. Years later, at the onset of the civil war, Muthu flees the country. The war draws to an end; Tamil Eelam sympathisers such as Muthu’s family living across continents have no reason to rejoice at the vanquishing of their people.
There are the other inevitable victims of human conflict: an entomologist in Sri Lanka who hunts for his son. In war-torn Jaffna, it was routine procedure for the Sri Lankan army to round up, question youth only to have them vanish. In another story, a young Selvakumar runs off from the tea plantation to ancestral India where an uneasy fate awaits him.
The immigrant story is a kaleidoscopic one: there is Nalini, married to one of two brothers, and lover to both; her sons Arjun and Karna share a complex relationship with each other and their Tamil poetry spouting one-lunged grandfather, a janitor who secretly devours books. The two boys carry the burden of their legacies and their names. As an Indian remarks to Karna, “I’m surprised they named you after that unlucky prince, the one that keeps giving whatever’s asked, the one slayed by his own brother.” There is the Punjabi family that owns a summer home at Lake George that is lined with Indian paraphernalia, all totem poles and wigwams and the Chinese neighbour in Kentucky, Mr Wu who pines for his son in far away China. “For five years, his now thirty-five year old son had been a disembodied head on a small rectangular screen echoing from the outskirts of Mr Wu’s childhood home of Beijing”.
Each story begins as a fresh, distinctive one, a thread peopled by characters that appear and reappear in subsequent ones. From the loose threads emerges a coherence: a larger canvas on which people, lives, stories collide, their dysfunctionality binding and destroying them. It is the immigrant story, of people in exile, grappling to live in their new home, strongly bound to their roots and cultures. Most of the narratives carry the American-immigrant stamp. Undeniably, an ‘us and them’ is also a sub-current. Rasheed, a neighbour Arjun idolises, is his window to all Americanisms, joints and other stolen pleasures
“Standing among museum relics, you remember the family gatherings, the ten-hour road trips to nowhere, eating lemon-and-curd rice at rest stations, where you called everyone aunty and uncle though they weren’t related to you, and their children, whom you saw on a handful of occasions, filled up your birthdays, broke your presents, fought for the icing flowers on your cake, and wished you a happy, happy day – all were parts of a childhood you had not cared for, and now thinking of your son, who would never have to listen to bhajans and deal with people he conversed with only in formalities, people who would drop everything to pick you up at an airport, hospital, cook meals when your mother was ill, all because they too travelled that same distance separating one part of the world from the other, you feel as if something dear has perished.”
“The Butcher” is perhaps the most poignant portrait: an Angolan from Botswana, a divorced engineer who loves poetry, who now chops and slices meat for a living. “He had spent a lifetime loving strangers”.
Of extreme pathos is Jeganthan’s quest for his missing son in “The Office of Missing Persons”. The gentle entomologist submersed in a world of insects is unwittingly dragged into the murkiness of political contemporaneity.
There is a ragged sweep to the settings: from war-ravaged Sri Lanka and scattered small town and mofussil parts of south India to Kolkata in passing, on to New Jersey and Kentucky.
Stylistically, each story is a different voice: Arjun’s sullen first person narrative of a young first generation American in “Last Prayer” or his younger self narrating in “Brown Smurf”, a dying Muthu’s reflections on his life that is interspersed with a bizarre story (in a different font) by his young daughter for a school assignment in “A Story of Happiness”. The unconventional use of the second person in “At the Birthplace of Sound” is all about Karna the man, the actor, the brother.
Brothers, wives, fathers, children, adolescent, the old and the dying all have their individual voice.
The writing is pithy: “all his possible theories had holes or perhaps bullet wounds”. On occasion, it is bitterly poignant: “his wife had left him, and his daughter, forever seven years old, stayed framed on top of his mother’s television set” which is the first inkling about Marlon’s dead little girl. There is a quiet eloquence in “fat slivers of dewy, sun-flecked minutes thrown away that some kid might have died to taste” or “It was not her fault. He should have known. They had exchanged occupations before names. “I am a nurse,” she said to him, the butcher, as she wrapped his hand.”
Kumarasamy rips open wounds, lays them bare, washes and wipes, and secures her creations; disjointed pieces of trauma and treasures, that come together to piece an irregular whole. Here the mortals too have feet of clay in a world full of poetic injustice.