Published by Granta Books and Hogarth Press
This is a story about loss and obsession, about ghosts from the past and the violence of war.
Krishan gets a call one day informing him of the death of Rani, his grandmother’s caregiver. The funeral is to be held in a village in northern Sri Lanka in a couple of days, and he decides to attend.
Krishan had been studying in India but had returned to Colombo to work with an NGO helping Tamils who had suffered during the country’s civil war. He now lives with his mother and grandmother. They are Tamils but have not been affected by the war, something Krishan feels guilty about.
On the day of the call about Rani, Krishan also receives an email from Anjum, an Indian woman he is in love with. Anjum is an activist and, although Anjum and Krishan were together for a while, her work had come first. He has not heard from her in years, so her email brings back memories of their time together.
Krishan was in India during the conflict in Sri Lanka. There, he had become obsessed with detailed reports of events at home, “anxiously refreshing the news websites he kept permanently open on his computer”.
This is primarily a book about loss. Krishan loses his great love, Anjum, to her work, and is now slowly losing his grandmother, Appamma, to old age. Rani, a victim of the war, had been traumatized by the loss of her two sons—one who had died fighting, and the other, a child, shot by a sniper as Rani tried to get her family to safety. And this is not to mention the thousands of lives lost and the scars that will take generations to heal.
Through Rani, we understand what it is like to be caught up in war. Her trauma is part of her, “something that had to coexist with all the various exigencies of daily existence, and precisely for this reason, she couldn’t afford to treat it with the same weight or seriousness that [Krishan] did”. Appamma realizes this, but Krishan comprehends it only after Rani’s death. Rani is the character who touched me the most, with her unkempt hair and outward calm, even as she battles her own demons and shadows.
There is no dialogue at all: throughout the book, you are in Krishan’s head as his thoughts move from his grandmother to his affair with Anjum, to the war in Sri Lanka and to Rani.
The book is beautifully observed. The two most vivid characters are Appamma and Anjum. The description of Appamma early in the book through her rituals and behaviour makes her come alive. Her relationship with Rani is well portrayed: they seem to understand each other, and Rani’s companionship opens up Appamma’s world.
Krishan comes across as obsessive—whether it is his passion for Anjum or the hours he spends watching footage of the war—but also as oddly passive. His initial interest in the war is because he feels he needs to be like Anjum, a part of something bigger than himself. Anuk Arudpragasam vividly captures Krishan’s initial fixation with Anjum and their love affair. It is quite clear from the start that Anjum will not allow anyone or anything to come between her and her work, something that Krishan refuses to face until the final break.
Anjum’s uncompromising commitment to her work echoes some of the Tamil Tigers who had fascinated Krishan. As Krishan’s train crosses the invisible border between south and north, his thoughts move to the war and its brutality. He remembers some of the Tamil Tigers he had come across in news reports, such as the suicide bombers Puhal and Dharshika, who were also best friends. Puhal tells a journalist that she would not hesitate to kill Dharshika if she ever betrays the cause. Krishan wonders what made Puhal choose this path, “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”.
I enjoyed this book, although its absence of dialogue started to bother me about halfway through. The lack of direct speech made me feel as if Krishan was telling me about these people, whom I could imagine, but could not hear, and the narrative is entirely from his perspective.
In spite of this, A Passage North is a book that has stayed with me, and one that I have thought about long after I finished it.
 The war in Sri Lanka, from 1983 to 2009, resulted in some 80,000 to 100,000 deaths. It began as an insurgency by the Tamil Tigers who wanted a homeland in the north of the country. This escalated into a civil war between the Sinhalese and Tamils, and ended with a government offensive in the north.