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On Being Intensely Present
Anuk Arudpragasam's novel A Passage North is a revenge against the "days, weeks, and months [that] have slipped by without our consent"
In Andrew Sean Greer's Pulitzer prize-winning babe of a novel Less, Arthur Less, the main character, a middle-aged, disillusioned, heart broken, newly single gay author is asked to interview H.H.H. Mandern, the blockbuster science fiction writer with a new book out. It's a sparkling, well attended book launch. It is one of those landmark moments in the publishing calendar when the publishers pull out all stops to launch, promote, and propel a book to the bestseller list, not unlike the deafening haze of celebrity around Sally Rooney’s new book. Less notes, that in a world where people read one book a year, no stone was left unturned to make sure that this is that book.
If the number — one book a year — feels egregious, it is perhaps because reading has often been described, modeled, and advertised as a moral, intellectually replenishing act. And why should we morally and intellectually replenish in the ponds of literature more than once a year? People who pursue this line of thought make reading sound like a chore whose pay-off is entirely in the future. The joy of the present — temporary, easily enjoyed, and just as easily forgotten — is completely discounted, either because you assume a television show or a movie can do it better, or because you don’t think books are capable of being fun.
A significant problem with reading one book a year, and I say this having been that person for the longest time, is that you need to be convinced of the goodness of a book before dipping into it. You never come to a book fresh and blank, hoping to form an iron clad opinion through reading it. When it came out, I struggled through Yann Martel’s Life Of Pi, the Booker Prize tag forcing me to get on with it every time I sighed in boredom. I didn’t have the discerning eye then to say that it was a painfully slow book, because it was the only book I read that year, and somewhere I had this odd feeling lodged in my head that books were supposed to be boring. That was the allure. It would be like criticizing a movie for being a motion picture, I thought, completely transfixed by Ang Lee’s cinematic vision of the book instead.
I realized that the only way to feel confident about my opinion of a book, was to read many books. It gives you the courage to be flippant, to say “Fuck that” when a writer waxes eloquently through an indulgent faux-poetic profundity which make little sense and sketches characters like vaporous thought experiments, but to also say “I Love That” when a writer does something so egregiously polarizing that your job as a reader is to pick a side. Like this past week, when a friend and I read the coveted, superbly reviewed Detransition, Baby together and decided, Fuck That.
I have often resisted the platitudes of goodness and rigour attached to books because I genuinely think reading can be fun, and occasionally, perspective defining if not perspective altering. When the lockdown began last year, Juggernaut publications had made all their books available for free on their app for a brief window. It was the first time I decided to try e-reading given their envious collection of non-fiction, and gouged through Vaasanthi’s biography of the Tamil Nadu politician and writer Karunanidhi over one Sunday, supine on my couch — I barely ate that day, scrolling through my phone to finish the book, not bathing, not conversing, not exercising, just gulping pools of thick carbon coffee. It was like a thriller, a binge in the literal sense of the word. Books can do that, too.
I also don’t think they necessarily make us better people. I remember after reading To Kill A Mockingbird, I was really moved by Atticus Finch’s insistence that you can never know a person unless you “stand in their shoes”, unless you “climb into [their] skin and walk around in it”. For a brief moment, I thought I was born anew. (I wasn’t) I told my mother, driving me home one afternoon, about this quote and how she should put herself in the position of the person she was complaining to me about. She laughed, wondering how a book convinced me of something so basic, so easy to articulate, so difficult to inhabit. She was right. Atticus Finch, over time, soon became a passive moral threshold in my head, a theory, and not this figure I wanted to emulate and refashion myself on a day-to-day basis. Because empathy is exhausting. And to expect that from a book is equally so. I don’t mean to sound cynical. In the emotional aftershock of The Namesake or A Little Life, you’ll want to restructure your existence along axes of goodness and mirth. But it is perhaps a testament to life how short that window is.
Perhaps, then, what I mean by fun is a compelling quality that keeps you hooked — to be so intensely present so as to not worry about the page number, the duration of the film, the number of episodes, something theaters do de-facto, but also to buy into a promise that what you are reading and watching will yield something, pleasure or catharsis or panic, in the end.
Take Nikkhil Advani’s 8-part Mumbai Diaries 26/11, recreating the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, but fictionalized in order to moralize — a testament to the relentless, primal, and compelling quality of the present moment. When the show is intensely present — either following the characters in the hospital as suddenly the injured bodies pile up seeking attention with varying degrees of immediacy as the ambulances howl and rove in neon, or the various people stuck, hiding, or escaping as terrorists spray bullets in nuclear flashes — it has this tense quality, through smooth, mobile, threatening, eye-level long takes, that you can’t look away from. My stomach was in knots. But then, as narrative reprieves, we get the characters tired, seated in creaking, rusted chairs, with lazy one-dimensional flashbacks, or characters hoping to be quoted, waxing monologues on integration and duty as everyone stands, staring at the one speaking like it were a staged political rally, and the show completely loses not just its grip, but also its novelty. Sometimes, it is able to rev back into action, but sometimes, as in the later half of the show, the grip lost once is lost forever.
But as in cinema, in life too, being intensely present, has this quality of total surrender, of awe, of perspective, but also of deep admiration for all the chaos and comformity that led to you in this moment. One of the most stunning articulations of this comes in Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste Of Cherry (1997), when a man on a mission to kill himself is driving around Tehran asking people if they are willing to bury him in exchange for money. An Afghan seminarist and a Kurdish soldier after a long conversation decide to say no to him. The third man he encounters, an Azerbaijani taxidermist, is old, and tries to dissuade him by telling his own story of an attempted suicide:
“My mind was made up. I wanted to kill myself. I set off for Mianeh. This was in 1960. I reached the mulberry tree plantation. I stopped there. It was dark. I threw the rope over a tree but it didn’t hold. I tried once, twice, to no avail. So then I climbed the tree and tied the rope on tight. Then I felt something soft under my hand. Mulberries! Delicious, sweet mulberries. I ate one. It was succulent, then a second, then a third. Then, suddenly I noticed the sun was rising over the mountaintop. Chi aftabi, chi manzariye, chi sabzari. What sun, what scenery, what greenery. All of a sudden I heard children heading off to school. They stopped to look at me. They asked me to shake the tree. The mulberries fell and they ate. I felt happy. Then I gathered some mulberries to take home. My wife was still sleeping. When she woke up she ate mulberries as well. I had left to kill myself. I came back with mulberries.”
It is in this context I bring up the literary equivalent of Abbas Kiarostami’s radically meditative cinema — Anuk Arudpragasam’s Booker Prize-longlisted A Passage North, his sophomore novel, which I reviewed for The Hindu, a book so intensely present, so delicately tended to, so sustained. In an interview he noted, “Life happens too fast. Everyday there are so many things that pass us by that strike our eye that we don’t give life the time it deserves. There is an impulse to memorialize daily or ordinary life.”
To give life the time it deserves. This devotional intensity to the present moment is why his books, like Kiarostami’s movies, don’t have long, sweeping timelines — his first book takes place over a day, his second, over a week. His attention to his characters is almost cruel. If you burp in a room and look around to see if anyone noticed and you see a pair of eyes glaring at you, he is that. I am not being indulgent when I am saying that this microscopic retelling of life is his revenge on time. In the very second page of his book, the narrator — in third person yet intensely aligned to the main male protagonist, Krishan — notes, “[H]ow many days, weeks, and months have slipped by without our consent.”
“There are several similarities between Anuk Arudpragasam’s sophomore novel, the Booker longlisted A Passage North and his debut fiction, The Story of a Brief Marriage. Both are set in Sri Lanka, centred on the brutal civil war, built around a male protagonist who is unable to sleep at night, anchored by the “depth and pull of... trauma”, without dialogue and intensely meditative, devotional even. But this novel is more distant than the first from the May 2009 massacre by the Sri Lankan Army that pulled the final curtain on the bloodshed.”
Krishan has survivor’s guilt — that he, a Tamil man, survived the genocide on Sri Lankan Tamils. Arudpragasam, in his interviews, articulates a similar guilt, “As a person who hasn’t experienced the war, the only thing I had in common with Dinesh [the protagonist of his first novel, set in a frequently bombed camp] was that we both have a body. His mind would have been so different from mine, so I couldn’t take a lot of things for granted…”
I find that very moving — an author trying their best to not take a character’s interiority for granted. I find it more moving given the current trend in literature for these cool, cutting, caustic, catty books, privileging intellect over intent, ambivalence over curiosity, fractals over feelings. It is like what film critic Pauline Kael said about Godard’s characters — like they don’t have a future, like they don’t care about a future.
I also, and this is a reassuring impulse, find this incredibly sexy. A future. (Definitely not helped by Arudpragasam's physical profile. On a weekday afternoon I sent an e-mail with only a link of his face to a friend, Subject: “I've been staring at this portrait for a while now. It's not just because he's hot, right?”)
Both of Arudpragasam’s books plumb the depths of moments through interior monologues. His sentences are swollen — sometimes they stretch across a page, reaching their logical, syntactical end, and then stretch some more. Sometimes, often, you tire. When he uses words like soul, or transcendence, you itch. But the skirmishes dilute into the soupy page full of words, and no line or paragraph breaks. There are no dialogues in either of his books, and any conversational exchange gets threaded into this interior tapestry, leaking into blocks of text — sometimes a paragraph is a page, sometimes two, sometimes more — that is so relentlessly meaning-making, inward-gazing, and attentive, reminding me of Rita Doves’ poem Postlude.
only if you stop long enough to hear it