A Passage North opens with the protagonist Krishan receiving a phone call with the news that his grandmother’s caretaker, Rani, has died. Despite his lack of closeness with Rani, Krishan is confused at her sudden passing. He feels an urgent need to attend her funeral for which, he must travel to north-east Sri Lanka from his home in Colombo. On his journey north, he witnesses the devastation from decades of conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers, a militant organisation. Around the same time as Rani’s death he receives an email from Anjum. Krishan is shaken and preoccupied by the receipt. He had dated Anjum briefly, years ago in Delhi and her email unsettles him.
The novel weaves in the physical journey that Krishan undertakes to Rani’s village and the emotional journey through his past. The book is simultaneously about the love he once felt and the loss he is now facing. But it is also about none of these things at all. Arudpragasam’s prose zooms into every single detail in each scene. He peels layers of characters and describes landscapes down to their minute detail. But through this, he portrays things much bigger and more universal. Through Krishan, readers feel the visceral need for belonging, to be loved and to rationalise loss.
Through Rani’s life, the author explores themes of war, devastation and the utter futility of it. Rani’s story is the reality of millions worldwide. With Rani’s departure, he witnesses the loss of her losses, piled high upon her burning pyre. But to even arrive at that scene, he must claw his way through his past, his memories, and arrange them in a way that he can make sense of. Page after page is dedicated to Krishan’s musings, although sometimes the reader is left to discern the line between self pity and sense of loss.
Characters, all seen from Krishan’s point-of-view, are beautiful sketches of people. The slow decay of his grandmother Appamma’s life is impossible to not be moved by. Anjum in particular, is portrayed both as vulnerable and strong. Through the fog of his memories and distance, she appears half-dreamlike, just out of reach. A beautifully written book, now nominated for the Booker prize and perfect as an autumn read.