Editor’s note: Anuk Arudpragasam’s novel The Story of a Brief Marriage won the prestigious DSC prize for South Asian literature, 2017 at the Dhaka Literary Festival. In this interview with The Rumpus, September 2016, he talks about the book and his approach to writing it.
The Rumpus: One of the things that struck me most about the novel is how little historical context is given. Instead, the reader is utterly immersed in the present moment of the main character Dinesh. So often, we read a book set in war which also gives the reader a history lesson. I’m thinking particularly of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the Nigerian civil war. Why did you decide to leave out this kind of context?
Anuk Arudpragasam: It is something I thought about, and there are a couple of reasons behind it. Because the subject matter of the novel is very graphic and it is so hard to be in the presence of, I think there is a natural tendency to find ways to divert one’s attention from these kinds of things.
To use a simple example, if you see somebody in pain or you see somebody suffering in some way, there are usually, if the pain is ordinary—of a conventional kind where somebody’s fallen say or somebody has been bereaved—there are established ways of providing some kind of therapy for the person who is suffering. If somebody is hurt you ask them if they’re okay. You give them a bandage, you rub them on the back. There are all these ways of helping them out. And then, there are situations in which there’s obviously nothing you can do in response to somebody’s suffering or somebody’s pain, and we tend to find other ways to deal with the person. You can’t actually help the person out, so you say, “I know how it feels” or “I’ve been there before” or you try to be with them in other ways.
There is an instinctive urge to act when confronted by the pain of another person, and I think this urge involves, in a way, a discomfort or anxiety about actually seeing that the other person is in pain. In trying to find a way to make their situation better, you’re doing something, and in doing something and in responding actively to someone’s pain, you are, in a way, free from having to contemplate the pain or reflect on the condition of the person. That’s not a bad thing at all.
I feel, though, when it comes to the suffering or the pain of people who are far away or in situations that are very different from your own, that the analog to giving somebody a Band-Aid or rubbing them on the back or talking to them is what you could call a political response. It is to say, “Who did that?” or “What was responsible?” or “When did this happen? How did this happen? Why didn’t anybody do anything?” And then to say, “It was these people. These people need to go to jail” or “These people need to be tried or taken to the international criminal court.” By making these kinds of political diagnoses—and I am not against them at all, they are natural and very necessary—by responding to the suffering of people far away in time and space in this very instinctive way, with some kind of plan for action, I feel that something often gets lost. And I feel that, at least in my case, what gets lost in my instinctive reaction to suffering is an understanding or a contemplation of the condition of the people who are suffering. So, in this situation, I wanted to give very little historical context and social and political context, so that this condition is forced on the attention of the writer or reader.