In his sharp and carefully focussed novel, Life and Times of Michael K, the Nobel Prize-winning South Africa-born novelist J M Coetzee tells the harrowing, oddly compulsive tale of the book’s eponymous character, Michael K. Known to be simple-minded from childhood, Michael regularly tends to his allotted portion of Cape Town’s city gardens till that fateful call from his mother. Michael somehow knows he must respect and abide by her last wishes, to return her to her childhood home in the Karoo, and so he concentrates every effort to take her there, fashioning a rickshaw, almost a wheelbarrow, to ensure a modicum of comfort for her.

The two set off, despite the violence of the apartheid era, and the (imaginary) civil war that rages all around them, and to everything that comes his way (for his mother dies soon enough), concern, detention, mockery, aggression and even the physical strains of finding himself hungry and malnourished, Michael K shows the same stubborn, resilient desire to survive, to exist within the small choices allowed him.

The war in graphic words

On the other hand, there is nothing surreal or fable-like in the few events that unfold in Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage, narrated over the course of a day and a night. It begins in the aftermath of a shelling, as Dinesh runs toward the makeshift clinic with a severely injured boy in his arms – a boy who has already lost his leg. As Dinesh looks on, the doctor amputates his arm too, with precision but little surgical concern.

There is no anaesthesia administered, nor are there any surgical instruments. Instead, the doctor uses a kitchen knife, checking just once to see if it is clean. Arudpragasam details with the procedure in fine detail: how the doctor asks Dinesh to hold down the boy’s head and right shoulder, while the nurse holds down the left arm and leg, and how he began sawing from a point near the boy’s right elbow.

As do television images, and perhaps in even more visual and visceral a manner, this scene brings us right into the heart of the conflict. Otherwise – unless you’re reading the blurb and the author’s bio on the dust jacket – there is little other factual or even geographic detail provided. This slim novel is Arudpragasam’s first, set in the final phase of the Tamil-Sinhala conflict in Sri Lanka’s northeast, two and a half decades since it began in the early 1980s.

Acquiescing to the demands of the “movement” (evidently the one started by the Tamil Tigers or the LTTE), Dinesh and his mother have joined thousands of other evacuees in the run northeastward. The farther they run, the closer they get to the shelling by government forces. Their belongings soon dwindle to whatever they can carry with themselves, and then the days they spend at every makeshift camp shrink as well – from weeks to a few days. Till, from the time this novel begins, Dinesh finds himself at a makeshift camp by the sea, where the school now functions as the clinic, and the blue tarpaulin sheets stand on tottering poles, holding up lives, temporary in every tragic way.

A semblance of everyday life

Yet despite this all-pervasive doom, life must go on or else be made to go on. Old Somasundaram, who works at the clinic, and has already lost his son and wife to the shelling – which, as every war has its routine, rages just as night falls or as day breaks – knows he must provide for his daughter, Ganga, the only surviving member of his family. A marriage proposal follows, and Dinesh thinks it over while taking a shit in his own secret place by the sea.

This setting is deliberate. For, as Arudpragasam suggests, in moments of conflict, everything that passes for normal – routine, habits of thought and action – is upended and cease to exist. It isn’t just the loss of people Dinesh was once close to – his mother, his brother even before this novel formally begins – but the fact that he has little control and choice over things that he once took for granted. Sleep is elusive, he is starving though he does not even realise this, and it is only things like his habits of excretion that he retains control of and takes pleasure over.

Even after the marriage, as Ganga and he share their first simple meal together, the incongruity and irony of this exists alongside its very naturalness. Marriage, and for all the circumstances that bring it about, between two people must ensure a routine, a gradual familiarity, even a comfort in each other’s silence.

Despite the tension within himself, the silence that constitutes for now a pause in the conflict and his uncertainty about how Ganga feels about the hurried marriage – for even the priest has fallen victim to the shelling – Dinesh takes comfort in noticing how his breathing is almost in syncopation with hers. There is urgent sad irony too in this: a young man’s hesitation and nervousness about his proximity to a young woman, even his bride, when conflict means there are always other imperative concerns.

The difficulty of knowing

It is this suffering as an accompaniment of war and violence that this book is also about. Though what happens really, when another being suffers, as Arudpragasam writes some pages later, “is difficult to know”. There is some symbolism as Dinesh watches a dying crow. There is little he can do, he does not even dare to put the bird out of its misery, and all he can offer it is some living companionship in its end moments.

It is also in some ways apt that Arudpragasam, for all the control he has in his writing, somehow chooses not to detail or dwell on that exact moment of suffering: the boy "whimpers" as the saw cuts through his arm; the “sound” that makes Dinesh investigate on Ganga’s urging is the dying bird’s calling; Somasundaram leaves soon after the impromptu marriage ceremony and does not return or cannot bring himself to do so; in the moment of his mother’s death from exhaustion and the long march, Dinesh cannot cry.

War and suffering imply that life becomes or is reduced to an act of existence, and as individual control progressively and rigorously diminishes over what was once familiar, it is the small things that become vital: Dinesh takes his time over a wash, for instance, and notices with a studious concentration, his own breathing and Ganga’s too – something that appears as compulsion thrice in this novel, almost interspersed with the violence everywhere.

Ganga tells him soon after they are married, “What is there to be happy or sad about?...Things just happen and we have to accept them. Happiness and sadness are for people who can control what happens to them”.

Despite this, he wonders about the future, a life together with Ganga after the war. It is possible that they might die together, but he also knows that he would take care of her if she lost a limb or became disabled from the war – always a possibility – just as, and he was certain of this, she would look after him. When he finds Ganga sometime later, lying prone on the ground, he places his shirt over her, almost in a gesture of comfort, and much else.

It is via this small gesture of being able to care for another, despite the pervasive corrupting violence, that makes even existence, as Arudpragasam seems to be telling us, something very noble; an indescribable act of courage, almost.

The Story of a Brief Marriage, Anuk Arudpragasam, HarperCollins India.