V. V. Ganeshananthan, Love Marriage. New York: Random House, 2008 Page reference is to this edition.
(Review published in: ‘Confluence: South Asian Perspectives’, London, January 2009.)
“Love” marriage implies a contrast with what was the norm in South Asian society, namely, marriage “arranged” by parents, relations or, in their absence, friends. The narrator, Yalini, aged twenty-one, born (1983) and living with her parents in the USA, is the daughter of Murali, a medical doctor, and Vani, a teacher, both Sri Lankan Tamil. They met in the US, and fell in love - a development described with affection and humour. Their Tamil friends helped arrange the marriage ceremony, according to Hindu religious rites. When Vani’s brother, Kumaran, a senior member of the Tamil Tigers (greatly respected by some; feared and rejected by others), heard that his sister was going to marry a stranger, he threatened both Murali in far away America and his family in Sri Lanka. Now, years later, stricken with terminal cancer, Kumaran and daughter Janani (his wife, also a Tiger, had died in combat) are permitted to enter Canada as refugees. Murali, Vani and Yalini shift to Toronto, which has a large Tamil population, and nurse Kumaran during his last few days. Yalini now strongly encounters the past life of her wider family, and Ariyalai, once their home town. This makes her ‘excavate’ the past, launches her on a voyage of exploration, discovery and understanding. (The author subtly distances herself from the narrator. For example, Yalini, rather full of herself, is not exempt from banal pronouncements.) Since Yalini’s relations are Tamil, inevitably Tamil history and culture permeate the novel.
The name of the capital of the Tamil North of Sri Lanka is “Jaffna” in English, but Yaalpaanam in Tamil. (The Yaal is a stringed, musical instrument such as the lyre.) Vani and Murali name their only child Yalini, recalling the “music” of a much-loved home from which they are now, through ethnic violence, excluded. The major part of the novel is divided into sections and numbered from one to ten, but the numerals are given in transliterated Tamil: ondu, rendu, muundu. Each section is prefaced by lines from the central Tamil cultural text, The Thirukkural of Thiruvalluvar. The Thirukkural (Thiru means sacred) consists of 1330 couplets, on a wide range of subjects, divided into 133 chapters, each of 10 couplets: the sections in Love Story also number ten.
In Sri Lanka, tens of thousands have been killed, and many have ‘disappeared’ – have been made to disappear. There’s gross violation of human rights, and torture is frequent. But Sri Lanka is a small island, non-Western, without oil (p. 164), and so the world is unconcerned about the plight of its people.
It would be extremely naïve to think, “If I leave politics alone, it will, in turn, leave me in peace.” Because of heavy artillery and aerial bombardment, it is civilians in the Tamil areas who suffer most cruelly. Yalini’s parents remain in America due to political history, more precisely, to ‘racism’. (As I have written elsewhere, though ‘race’ has no scientific basis, ‘racism’ flourishes in some countries.) The novel refers to the ‘racial’ quota for university entrance introduced by the government. (For the term, “government”, see note at the end.) Tamil students had to compete with each other for the limited places allocated to them. Murali, intelligent and industrious, failed in his first attempt to gain university admission (p. 80). Finally, having completed the medical examinations, he faced a proficiency test in the Sinhala language. Protest wells up within him; he hands in a blank sheet of paper, and decides to leave the Island. Years later, as a father, he teaches Yalini to “treasure libraries”, remembering that the Jaffna Public Library was burnt down (1981) by “men in uniform laughing, with torches and gasoline and guns”, watched by government cabinet ministers (p. 23).
Some peoples and nations have a day that marks a calamity so great and deeply wounding; so far-reaching in consequence, changing lives and affecting generations to come, that it is forever marked and ‘celebrated’. It remains indelible in the collective conscious. For Sri Lankan Tamils, it is the pogrom of 1983, known to them as “Black July”. In Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Saleem is born at the moment India gained independence from Britain only to experience appalling ethnic violence and the partition of the country. Yalini was born in 1983 but joy was overclouded by news from home: “as I entered this new world, my parents’ old one was being destroyed […] Tamil people died, betrayed by their own country, which did nothing to save them (pp. 17-8). The Sinhalese security forces (“security” is an ironic term in this context) encouraged the rampaging mob, provided transport and petrol so that they could, after looting, burn both property and people. It is not the number killed but the horrific nature of the acts committed on hapless children and men; the shameful on women. Many Tamils, fearing a repetition, fled to the nearest country, India (p. 126). From there, some managed to get to the West, with Canada in particular opening its doors. “Black July” swelled the ranks of the Tigers: Aunt Kalyani asserts that Tamils, in their nature, are not a violent people but now the Tamil Tigers will fight to the end (p. 154). Yalini carries the name of a town and region laid waste by war, where bombs fall even on the burial sites of massacred civilians (p. 65). A cruel government “that gets away with everything because it is a government, has wronged Tamils in Sri Lanka […] The government burned my library and attacked my village and took over my house, the house my father built for Love” (Murali, pp. 53-4).
This version of events is contested, and there are other, counter, narratives with each “teller” absolutely certain about his or her version. This is how war is started, justified and continued (p. 119). Conflict is fuelled by the memory (history) one acquires or is given (p. 16). Yalini and parents are deeply hurt by Sinhalese attitude and action, but they reject violence, and distance themselves from the Tigers. (The novel’s epigraph is from Henry Reed’s ‘Naming of Parts’, an anti-war poem which contrasts the mechanical brutality of war with the delicate, beautiful, ‘livingness’ of nature.) The Tigers “fight against a government that shelled, starved, and tortured its own citizens” but they also killed Tamils who disagreed with them (p. 19). A thoughtful novel, Love Story takes up (but doesn’t provide facile answers) to perennial questions such as whether the means justify the ends. For example, the government purchases armaments openly in the competitive market; the Tigers must buy clandestinely, at higher prices, bring in material with difficulty, and (given naval surveillance by Sri Lanka and India) at great risk. Despite this context, is it acceptable to deal in drugs in Canada in order to raise funds for weapons, medical supplies and food? The Tigers are intolerant of dissent and deviation. A highly respected (Tamil) headmaster is murdered because he was arranging a cricket match between the Sinhalese army and his Tamil pupils (p. 131). Much in this fictional work is based on fact: Mr Anandarajah, Principal of St John’s College, Jaffna, was shot dead because he attempted to organize such a cricket match. The chasm of hurt and anger is so deep that when two individuals transcend it – Tamil Lakshman marrying Sinhalese Lalitha – both are branded as “traitors”.
“Love” (title) is of different kinds: the love and longing for a lost home which first-generation exiles live with; the love between Murali and Vani; Yalini’s love for her parents; Vani’s love for her brother, Kumaran; Murali’s love for his wife that makes him not only put aside the dire violence Kumaran had once threatened but to sign papers with Canadian immigration officials on his behalf, move to Canada, rent a house and, with great care and consideration, tend his dying brother-in-law. Love for her father and for the cause which he served all his life, and for which her mother died, makes Janani (Kumaran’s daughter) accompany her father into a foreign country, and enter into an ‘arranged’ marriage with a man who, although he worked for ‘the cause’, was a total stranger to her.
Love, sometimes, means loss: if there wasn’t love, neither would there be the feelings of loss and sadness. Murali has a heart condition, a “murmur” that is also figurative, linked to loss of home, to love and memory. It’s a frequent murmur, heard only by him. As is explained in Milan Kundera’s novel, Ignorance, the Greek word nostos means “return” and algos “suffering”: “nostalgia” is the pain caused by an unappeased yearning to return - be it to a person, place or time. When news of Black July breaks and dominates the television screen, Murali is in the company of American medical colleagues. Their faces are sympathetic but they don’t, they cannot, understand. Sitting in company, Murali feels utterly isolated. Sri Lanka had been the land he loved, “first and best” (p. 18). He and his wife had felt they belonged over there, but all was changed by Black July: “he knew he had left Sri Lanka totally and absolutely. He would not retire there, or grow old there, or die there” (pp. 19-20). It is said that hope dies last, but Black July kills at once for Tamils living abroad the hope of an eventual return home; of ending where one had begun. Two years later (1985), taking infant Yalini, Murali and Vani visit the Island knowing it is for the last time. How does one say goodbye to a country, to a place? (p. 229). Now with relations scattered in various parts of the globe (forming the Tamil diaspora: etymologically, “diaspora” means “scatter”), the older generation tries to pass on former ties to their children, but the latter grow up without that constant and close contact which had characterized life in Jaffna. When Vani meets her brother in Canada, Yalini sees her mother weep as she had never done before: they are tears of joy and relief but also tears for a lost country, a town, and within it, a home; tears for relations killed or far away; tears for the past, and an entire way of life.
Wole Soyinka, in his poem, ‘Massacre, October ‘66’ on the slaughter of Igbo civilians, says he has but “briefly” (temporarily) fled those “whirlwinds”. Yalini is both glad and guilty that she has been saved life in that beautiful little island disfigured by hatred and violence, corruption and poverty.
I was born lucky. I grew up safe and warm. No government sent soldiers to move into my village. I did not worry about my house burning or my [family photographs] being lost. I did not worry about dying. I did not fear having too little to eat. I never […] slept in a temple for refuge” (p. 259).
There is a sense of loss in that she cannot directly experience the traditional life her parents knew, and can enter that now-vanished world only imaginatively. But there is also the acceptance that she can, and must, live her own life. Scientists by studying small particles are enabled to understand much larger phenomena: through her portrait of one family, Ganeshananthan provides insight into the wider, human, aspect of the Sri Lankan tragedy; into exile, loss and alienation, and the destruction, dislocation and suffering that conflict causes in the world.
Note on the term ‘government’.
The legitimacy conferred by the term ‘government’ is contested by the Tigers who argue that the government, in the first place, is of, by and for Sinhalese Buddhists; secondly, for Sinhalese Christians. The word ‘government’ should, therefore, be qualified each time and expressed as ‘the Sinhalese government’.
On the other hand, the claim by the Tigers to be the real and sole representatives of the Tamils has been contested, not least by Tamil individuals and groups: see p. 142.
Charles Sarvan............................. firstname.lastname@example.org
A thought I add after this review was published. Those Tamils born outside the Island or those who were taken abroad as children or in their early teens, may not experience “nostalgia” - and one is glad for them.
As for those who left as adults, it is possible that, within this group, those who had lived in and experienced – for however short a period – the quieter and / or more beautiful parts of the Island, experience a greater sense of absence and loss than individuals who, for example, knew only Colombo.