Some books absorb you so entirely that when you put them down, the voice inside your head seems alien to you after having been replaced by the author’s for so long. Anuk Arudpragasam’s latest book, A Passage North, did not invade my head in the manner that these authors can.

Although I spent long stretches unable to put the book down, I spent equal amounts of time with it in my lap, staring into space – simply because the book so frequently forced me to stop and mull. Often, my reading would be punctured with moments of breathless satisfaction, the thrill of finding a sentiment that had stirred inarticulately inside me – vague, impalpable and seemingly primordial – presented in words.

Our narrator Krishan, has just received news of a death. Unable to wholly grapple with its implications, he finds his mind wandering chaotically as he travels for the funeral from Colombo to the Northern Province. As Krishan – sometimes guiltily – uses the world around him as a springboard for his own thoughts, so did I as the reader.

The personal (and political)

Although this might seem like my personal reading, I suspect it will have a wider resonance – and this strand connecting the self to the other is one that I’ve lifted from the book.

A Passage North seems to demand a personal reading. Often it uses the first-person plural “we”, encompassing all its readers into its folds. The book begins with a meditation on the present, “one of the few things in life from which we cannot be parted”. And yet, it points out, we are so scarcely aware of ourselves that “[t]he present, we realise, eludes us more and more as the years go by, showing itself for fleeting moments before losing us in the world’s incessant movement”.

Arudpragasam’s novel pulls off the remarkable feat of compelling you to think – not just about the content of the book, but about your own life and purpose. In the process, it helps you grasp the elusive present, returning you to yourself in a gentle, reflective confrontation.

The narrator threads small moments and encounters – such as a gaze exchanged between strangers on the metro – with larger meditations on life and death. In order to reach the political, it utilises the personal, in talking about the general it doesn’t abandon the specific. Arudpragasam accesses a shared pool of human experiences without eliding over difference; instead, he pays it equal homage.

At one point Krishan recollects the sharp impression a twenty-four-year-old woman named Dharshika left on him. An active member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, he was able to vividly recall her from a documentary he had watched years before. “There’d been thousands of women like her but it was hard not to wonder, listening to her as she spoke, how such a person was possible and how she’d come to be, what experiences and what inner affinities had led her down this path so different from those taken by other men and women her age.”

He then describes that path as “a path that was headed so clearly toward death and the total extinction of consciousness it brought but that she followed nevertheless, with such ease and confidence as though she couldn’t wait to reach its end”. His character sketch of a woman binds together the personal, the political and the existential – taking you effortlessly from one to the other.

The effect of this is a feeling of marvel at the sheer variety and vastness of human experience – and startling moments of identification with characters whose lives are chasms away from yours.

‘A new mastery’

Writer Garth Greenwell’s praise for the novel includes the observation that there are few parallels or comparisons for Arudpragasam’s work among current English language writers, writing, “one senses, reading his two extraordinary novels, a new mastery coming into being”.

We are, in a way, not reading about the protagonist so much as reading alongside them. Krishan is parsing through his memories, photographs, films and poems. The breadth of content he engages with is immense. But to call it a piece of literary or film criticism seems inaccurate. It is less subservient to any kind of framework or structure – refined, but more realistic in its rawness.

The novel, despite being deeply existential, lacks the quality of utter loneliness protagonists of traditional existential literature are subject to. Our protagonist doesn’t get the luxury of confronting his purpose in solitude. It is, in fact, a relationship with a woman named Anjum that explicitly draws out questions of purpose for him.

Although Anjum clearly liked Krishan, he got the sense that she could not be fulfilled by him, or by any single person. She is described as a person for whom love, “no matter how otherworldly it seemed, was always bound to the so-called real world, a world whose basic structure she could never accept”. Anjum’s yearning is instead tied to her political work, to the life she wants to build with her comrades.

The liminality of their relationship is shown as evoking uncertainty in Krishan, sometimes making him want to sever his relationship with her and preserve his self-possession. The book does not seem to privilege one kind of purpose (or lack thereof) over another. It is patient, generous – acknowledging the influences and decisions that bring a person to a certain point, tracing the factors and circumstances that produce a person, but also asking – where do you want to go from here, what do you wish to become?

The act of noticing

Adurpragasam’s responds gracefully and astutely to a new kind of world – one in which a person cannot remain insulated from the different kinds of wars being waged across the world, no matter how far removed from their immediate clutches one might be. Krishan spends many of his college days in Delhi anxiously refreshing websites for news about the Sri Lankan civil war, perusing blogs, forums and websites.

He observes that it is impossible to forget images of war after glimpsing them, “not just because of the violence they showed but also because of their strikingly amateur quality, for unlike the highly aestheticised, almost tasteful shots of war often came across in books and magazines, the images he found online were of jarringly poor composition.” He points to the intrusive experience of looking at these images, the inability to express the horror that they elicited.

Arudpragasam’s novel makes it clear that we have been cursed with living in an interesting era, and it notices the intricacies and conundrums of this age. It is true that the protagonist has been shrouded in a certain degree of privilege – but the author does not try to simply acknowledge this in order to demonstrate self-awareness, but engages with it attentively and productively.

Author Amit Chaudhary, in a literary activism seminar, once remarked that to open up the cannon and decolonise the curriculum, “we must engage in being more true to what we’ve noticed.” Rather than just including and acknowledging diversity for the sake of representation, can we faithfully observe the world around us? In this act of noticing, “there is no hierarchy to where the gaze falls – it could be in the main story, the crowd”, even what we see through a screen. A Passage North seems to stride to this approach – a powerful, unforgettable exercise in noticing.

A Passage North

A Passage North: A Novel, Anuk Arudpragasam, Hamish Hamilton.