by Kalyan Nadiminti, ‘Los Angeles Review of Books,’ June 16, 2018
EARLY IN Half Gods, the debut story collection by Sri Lankan-American author Akil Kumarasamy, Muthu, a Sri Lankan refugee-patriarch, narrates the melancholic reality of surviving the Sri Lankan Civil War. As an exile, he engages in games of “word memory,” compulsively absorbing text as a coping mechanism, but he complains that his grandchildren have no interest in “safekeeping words.” The children have a quick reply: “Sometimes we need to forget something to make room for new memories.” Half Gods asks its readers to do much the same with history, memory, and mythology. As the title suggests, the collection conjures various forms of incompleteness, whether in a search for identity, for a place that could be called home, or for bonds that endure as family. In each of the 10 stories, half of which have been published in venues like Harper’s Magazine, American Short Fiction, and Boston Review, home emerges as a distant and unwieldy concept that threatens to strand its characters in what Georg Lukács has dubbed the fundamental predicament of the novel form, that of “transcendental homelessness.”
The collection’s title also refers to the status of the Pandavas, who are the sons of Pandu, the king of Hastinapur in the Hindu epic Mahabharata — one of the most influential wellsprings of South Asian literary and popular narratives over the last four decades. From B. R. Chopra’s Indian television adaptation (1988) to Shashi Tharoor’s retelling of postcolonial Indian history in The Great Indian Novel (1989) to Ashok Banker’s ongoing Mahabharata book series (2011–present), a veritable cultural industry has found that the longest epic poem in the world makes for strong intellectual and cultural capital. Throughout these disparate projects, the Mahabharata has served as a crucial allegory of post-Independence as well as a spectacular event for the Indian popular imagination. Tharoor, in particular, doubled down on the epic’s allegorical resonance by mapping its narrative structure onto the founding of the nation in a tragicomic register that nonetheless gestures toward its monumental scale.
Kumarasamy takes a different approach to the epic tradition, embarking on a much quieter allusion to the Mahabharata to reflect on the magnitude of the Sri Lankan Civil War, which began in 1983 and lasted for 26 years. It was a conflict between the Sinhalese-controlled national army, the political party Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), and the globally vilified separatist insurgent group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), ultimately ending with the Sri Lankan army declaring victory in 2009. While Sri Lankan authors have often invoked the other great Indian epic, the Ramayana, by restaging its Indian antagonist Ravana as a tragic hero, Kumarasamy’s turn to the Mahabharata gestures toward the unhomed, divided condition of diaspora. The collection’s imperative epigraph — “Man or god or demon, let him in!” — appears early in the Mahabharata, when Drona — a mentor to one of the most accomplished Pandavas, Arjuna — allows the enigmatic tragic hero Karna to enter a warrior demonstration. Karna, who happens to be Arjuna’s secret half-brother, surpasses Arjuna easily but will go on to join their losing cousins, the Kauravas, in the succession war for the Kuru dynasty. The Pandavas are exiled from Hastinapur after losing to their cousins in a game of dice, spending 12 years disguised as Brahmins in a forest and preparing for the eventual Kurukshetra War. The epigraphic utterance, a relatively minor moment of uncertainty, takes on a surprising resonance with the vulnerability of the refugee seeking sanctuary, thus suggesting a structural resonance between the Pandavas’ exile and that of Sri Lankan diaspora more broadly.
Half Gods unfolds in the form of a punctuated story cycle, wherein the narratives offer brief, nonlinear portraits of a Sri Lankan immigrant family in the United States and the other immigrant lives they encounter. Kumarasamy’s refugee tales bring into focus atrocities in South Asia that remain relatively underrepresented in literary fiction. Diasporic narratives of refugees and stateless persons have become a prominent feature of contemporary American and global fiction, and Kumarasamy joins established Sri Lankan authors like Shyam Selvadurai, Michael Ondaatje, Romesh Gunesekera, and Shehan Karunatilaka in her return to the Sri Lankan Civil War. Half Gods straddles postcolonial pasts and American futures, asking whether it is indeed possible for its melancholy subjects of diaspora to remake their homes in a new land. Kumarasamy unsettles the Sri Lankan-American concept of home, not by gesturing explicitly to the conceptual similarity between the Pandavas’ exile and the Sri Lankan refugees but by meditating on the impossibility of making the allegory stick.
Instead, Kumarasamy casts Arjun and Karna, respectively, as the dutiful, good son and the unconventional, errant brother. Meanwhile, their mother, Nalini, finds herself in an affair with her husband’s brother and thinks of “ancient stories where men were married to many wives, and sisters agreed to wed the same man. She could not imagine Draupadi without the five Pandava brothers, all her beloved husbands.” Her father, Muthu, who is also the boys’ school janitor, smokes himself down to a single functional lung while secretly memorizing any book he can lay his hands on, perhaps an allusive reference to Vyasa, the purported author of the Mahabharata. While the focus holds on the experience of diaspora, Kumarasamy renders slow-moving pictures of both Sri Lankan-American and Sri Lankan grief that unspool over the course of the collection, weaving between nonlinear timelines that continuously revise the family narrative.
Signaling the resonances between family, community, and nation, Kumarasamy experiments with the use of the first-person plural “we” in her story “New World,” which narrates the bewilderment and confusion of Ceylon’s independence from Britain. Narrated by a chorus of women working on a tea estate, the story captures both the political eagerness of new freedom and the stark realities of infrastructural lack:
Our children clung to us tighter, fearful in their smallness, and we told them not to be afraid, because we had nothing to lose in the first place. We own none of this, we reminded them patiently, and their wide eyes looked over the imploded houses, the silver glint of metal, and they pointed at their buried things, waiting to retrieve what was lost.
The strength of “New World” is that its lyrical realism, though overwrought, conveys the fragility of South Asian post-Independence. At key moments, Kumarasamy references India to distinguish the uncertain position that Ceylon (renamed Sri Lanka) occupies in the geopolitics of decolonization.
Another story, “The Birthplace of Sound,” uses the second-person perspective of “you” to place the reader inside the consciousness of an established character, Karna. Writers like Mohsin Hamid have used this technique to renovate the bildungsroman or redeploy the self-help genre as fiction. Kumarasamy contextualizes Karna’s marginality within the family by aligning his growth with that of other marginalized diasporic figures. The story begins with an interpellation that arrests the reader with an expansive immigrant cast:
You are a convenience store owner, a taxi driver, a doctor, a terrorist, an IT worker, an exchange student. An Egyptian, a Pakistani, a Trinidadian, an Indian. You wear your skin like it’s something borrowed, not owned. Like all those hand-me-downs that belonged to your brother your mother saved, so you were always five years behind the latest trends. Who you are right now is temporary, you tell yourself when you break out with acne and miss an audition.
The multitudes of Karna, a struggling actor, also imply the polarities of immigrant work within an American narrative of race, such as the upwardly mobile lawyer Arjun or his working-class refugee grandfather. Half Gods is interested in the latter: there are times when the author seems to be trying to create images reminiscent of the stark refugee fictions of Viet Thanh Nguyen — broken communities that gather in decrepit housing complexes or failing restaurants. However, the sheer number of perspectival shifts — first-person plural, direct address, second-person address, and more — prevents a proper sense of character development. Surprisingly, for example, the collection gives relatively little space to Nalini, whose untroubled infidelity makes her one of the more intriguing family members.
The collection also portrays the difficulty of Sri Lankans, who do not manage to make their way to the United States, Britain, or another reluctant sanctuary. One story, “The Office of Missing Persons,” stands out as a grim representation of the Sri Lanka’s government’s genocidal practices toward the Tamil people and the LTTE. It presents a Kafkaesque tale of a university professor, an entomologist, who mounts a nonviolent demonstration to protest the disappearance of Tamil people after his son vanishes without a trace. Deviating from the lyricism of the rest of the collection, Kumarasamy prefers an approach that walks the thin line between reportage and satire. The story also seems to pause its allusive structure to speak directly about state-sponsored violence:
War had seeped into the meaning of everything. Forty-seven students and one insect ex-professor sitting cross-legged and calling for the return of the disappeared were terrorists in training according to the reports from the central government. That week the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances also released a report ranking Sri Lanka as the country with the second highest number of disappearances.
In later stories like “Lifetimes in Flight,” the portraits differ in their exploration of both Sri Lankan-American family values and the experiences of other global South immigrants. While Kumarasamy gestures toward a resonance between the Sri Lankan diaspora and other immigrants (like Marlon, the eponymous character from Angola in “The Butcher”), the collection loses its conceptual clarity by deliberately blending the Sri Lankan family into the generalized frame of global immigration. After inhabiting the inner workings of all four family members, “The Butcher” is too self-consciously staged from the perspective of an outsider and ends up rehearsing familiar conventions of immigrant displacement. “Lifetimes in Flight” reveals the crisscrossing immigrant history of Selvakumar from the second story “New World,” but its transatlantic shift to Essex seems too removed from the story cycle to have a significant payoff. In this sense, the collection does not add anything especially new or startling about the particularity of Sri Lankan refugees.
The collection remains in the shadow of established protocols of postcolonial and diasporic representations. The opening story “Last Prayer” pauses briefly with the charged symbolism of the National Geographic to reverse the magazine’s carefully Orientalized images of the East to its Western audience. Instead of deliberating on its images, Arjun dreams of natural disasters stripping various parts of the United States. The fascination with the magazine appears in small but crucial ways, recalling a similar conceit in Kiran Desai’s 2006 Booker Prize–winning novel, The Inheritance of Loss. In “New World,” possibly the collection’s most well-wrought story, Kumarasamy reaches for an overused conceit that recalls another Booker Prize–winning novel, Arundhati Roy’s 1997 The God of Small Things. “Whatever was left of our girlhood survived in small things,” writes Kumarasamy:
[T]he stones our daughters carried in their pockets, and the shriek of a koel bird we had dreamed of eating for its voice. For the new world, we must all transform, shed our skin and rename everything. The flowers were stripped, the trees slanted with torn limbs, and we needed to make sense of it while the water shriveled us into old women and plowed through the land to bring new life.
Much like the perspectival shifts, its lyrical realism retreads a predictable style of narration that privileges preciousness in its presentation of melancholic truth, a style that certainly worked for Roy but one that she has abandoned with alacrity in her more recent novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017). Neither does the prose have the same restraint or aesthetic conviction that Michael Ondaatje conjures in Anil’s Ghost(2000), perhaps one of the most prominent novels about the Sri Lankan Civil War.
In Half Gods, the Mahabharata’s allegorical distance from Kumarasamy’s realism, though intriguing at first, falls short of providing a clear generic or scalar purpose; it is never quite clear why Kumarasamy chooses to treat the epic obliquely through realism. How might the Mahabharata provide an ironic sense of scale of the civil war for Sri Lankan diasporic communities, for example? The family’s story cycle is frustratingly cryptic on the precise mechanics of the epic throughout the collection, pointing to a larger problem with the use of mythology in contemporary Anglophone literature. If, indeed, the Mahabharata is being invoked as an abstract, affective mythology, one that relies on a constitutive forgetting, then it seems that Kumarasamy relies on a conceptual slipperiness to invoke the family as a fluid rendition of the epic. In other words, the family members move through a variety of mythic roles — scribes, warriors, gods, men — in what often reads as an arbitrary assignment. It is certainly compelling to reimagine the Kurukshetra War as the battle between the Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic populations, but this too provides an unsatisfactory mapping: how might we account for Tamil lives — civilian, activist, or rebel — who have either perished or endured the war within the island nation in such an allegory?
Indeed, a return to magical realism as allegory, like Salman Rushdie’s much-debated reinterpretation of Islam’s origins in The Satanic Verses (1988) or Vikram Chandra’s satirical use of the Mahabharata in Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995), will hardly sidestep the problem of inventiveness. But the collection highlights a tendency with contemporary Global South/diasporic writing to reach for epic traditions rooted in vernacular languages to renovate the diasporic as well as Anglophone realist narrative. What transpires in this instance is that the world is both saturated with mythic potential and curiously evacuated from its central conceit. In fact, what is most surprising is that Kumarasamy keeps her readers at a remove from the civil war, which features as a persistent but peripheral location, despite the war having ended as recently as 2009. While three stories, “Last Prayer,” “A Story of Happiness,” and “The Office of Missing Persons,” certainly describe the civilian population caught between the government and the LTTE, the author’s emphasis on Sri Lankan-American lives privileges the haunting of diaspora over contested realities on the island nation, which is perhaps only reasonable given the writer’s American nationality. This tactic also calls to mind Zadie Smith’s complaint about the cost of lyrical realism, that of an “authenticity fetish” that comes “embroidered in the fancy of times past.” The fault is not so much that of Kumarasamy’s as that of a global writing and publishing industry that orients itself toward an inevitable Westward horizon, even when it attempts to account for difference, in the process relegating the non-bourgeois non-Western subject as mere background for its target audience.
Notwithstanding its allusive opacity and predictable prose, Kumarasamy’s debut moves in the right direction, provoking serious questions about the writing of human rights and the ways in which literature bears the burden of representing unsolvable political problems. Writing about the innately interpretative nature of mythology, Indian poet A. K. Ramanujan defiantly opined that “no text is original, yet no telling is a mere retelling — and the story has no closure, although it may be enclosed in a text. In India and in Southeast Asia, no one ever reads the Ramayana or the Mahabharata for the first time.” Kumarasamy adds Sri Lanka to this literary map by rescaling the grand narrative of the Mahabharata into a captivating story cycle.