Where God Began by Appadurai Muttulingam, translated from Tamil by Kavita Muralidharan is a realistic portrayal of life as a refugee. In parts moving and humorous, it explores a man’s unending quest to belong and to find a new home after losing one. Through the story of Nishant, the protagonist and narrator, the travails of illegal immigrants unravel slowly. Suspecting that he is getting involved with the Tamil Eelam at the peak of the Sri Lankan civil war, Nishant’s parents sell their land to immigrate him to Canada illegally.

From Colombo to Russia, to Ukraine, Germany and finally Canada, living amongst a motley bunch seeking asylum, with agents who handle their movement changing constantly, Nishant’s arduous movements through different nations doubles up as his coming-of-age journey. Living with murderers, malingerers, swindlers and alcoholics, he strives to remain morally upright. From Ambikapathi master, he learns the virtues of patience and staying calm in times of adversity, he adores Jayakaran’s exuberant confidence, in Sakunthala, he witnesses the importance of keeping up one’s words.

When a caged bird sings

Nishant and many like him are like caged birds in foreign lands – they can’t go sightseeing, they aren’t tourists; they can’t take up work in an unknown language and culture, their fake papers and assumed names pose a threat. When the agent says, “Hundreds of them cross the borders without any problem,’ what remains unsaid is that two hundred-odd people were caught every day, trying to go into another land. While some wriggle through bureaucratic loopholes and porous borders without hassles, many are caught and beaten up mercilessly or left to rot in jail. While Lady Luck remains mostly miffed with Nishant, his repeated failure in love leaves him writhing in agony. “Being a refugee meant waiting”, and Nishant’s reaching Canada five years after he left Jaffna, Sri Lanka via different nations, a deftly dramatised journey, reaffirms this.

That said, Where God Began is not just Nishant’s story. Nishant’s conversations with fellow refugees and others who cross his path give us a compendium of stories making the first-person narrative wholesome. There is high-caste Pushpanathan who kills an agent’s assistant over the purchase of poor quality fish for a meal, there is Magistrate Anna who registers himself as a refugee with Holland to break even the losses his forefathers incurred when the Dutch plundered Ceylon, there is Aachi, an expert cook in a Toronto restaurant who recites all devotional songs except one dedicated to Lord Ganesha with the word “milk” in it, and Sabanathan whose life changes irrevocably because he falls short of the highest total in school exams by one mark. The tapestry of stories is peppered with references to English literature and Tamil movies and songs. In fact, one of the chapters titled “Son of a Chameleon” appears in the author’s collection of short stories – After Yesterday and Other Stories, translated by Padma Narayanan and published by Ratna Books in 2017. That the “I’ factor is never overpowering in Nishant’s account allows an organic build-up of compassion and empathy towards him and others.

On the road

The emotions Nishant experiences are evoked in us with the author’s words creating a montage of images. The writing boasts of two elements – wry humour and irony. When Nishant is wished a pleasant journey by a woman who checks his papers in Colombo, he thinks smugly “keep your country for yourself, I have got a new one”, unaware of the challenges that lie ahead. While attempting to cross over into Slovakia, Nishant is detained and beaten up at the Mukachevo station, even as his ladylove Ahalya walks scot-free, not once paying heed to his cries. Nishant is devastated by Ahalya’s betrayal only to act like her sometime later when he attempts to cross the border once more with his group of friends.

Most women characters are either relegated to kitchen chores or shown as hatching devious plans for their own ends, and some men are content washing plates in restaurants for several years, this repetition leaves a lull. While the translation allows glitch-free reading, the Tamil word kaamam, in a certain poem that Ahalya recites, meaning lust is translated as love.

However, these niggles cannot eat away the book’s merits. The book opens with Nishant’s future (his leaving for Canada) decided in a meeting without him in attendance, he is kept in the dark. And it ends in darkness, in Ottawa with the Aug 2003 blackout, indicating something akin to “coming a full circle”. The open-ended climax leaves us readers on tenterhooks. While many books have been written on the plight of refugees in their country of birth or in the country of asylum, Where God Began shines a spotlight on the hardships faced by refugees during the journey itself. It does so without delving into the political specifics and history of the Sri Lankan civil war. It dwells upon a fundamental truth – “A refugee in search of a new country had to have a good understanding of Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest.” By not pegging itself to the island’s politics, the author renders this read on the ordeals faced by illegal immigrants both universal and more urgent. In the novel, change is the only constant, whereas permanence is only transient.

Where God Began, Appadurai Muttulingam, translated from the Tamil by Kavitha Muralidharan, Eka/Westland.