Sri Lankan-American author V.V. Ganeshananthan’s latest novel, her second, is a coming-of-age story that unfurls itself with expert pacing and remarkable depth of characterisation. Brotherless Nightfollows the fortunes of young Sashikala Kulenthiren, a Sri Lankan Tamil teenager in the early 1980s, as the country plunges into ever-escalating violence and blatant apartheid-like policies.
Between the bloodshed carried out by the Sri Lankan army, the Indian Peace Keeping Force and the Tamil militant organisations (including but not limited to the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers), Sashi and her siblings (her elder brothers Niranjan, Seelan and Dayalan and her younger brother Aran) are forced to grow up very quickly indeed.
In the middle of all this, as Sashi is studying to become a doctor, there’s Seelan’s friend K, with whom Sashi’s relationship is neither romantic nor wholly platonic. K is the novel’s agent of chaos. He is the harbinger of transformation (even his first encounter with Sashi, thrillingly recounted in the first chapter, changes how she looks at herself) and that necessarily includes destruction.
In the works for well over a decade, Brotherless Nightand the events it describes were partially inspired by a non-fiction book called The Broken Palmyra, first published in 1989. Written by four academics from the University of Jaffna (one of whom has inspired a character in Ganeshananthan’s novel), the book was an insiders’ account of the Tamil crisis in Sri Lanka and also documented the human rights violations carried out by the Sri Lankan government.
During a video interview, the author speaks about the making of Brotherless Night. “I had gone to Sri Lanka in 2003 and stopped in London on my way back and a relative of mine, he had a copy of The Broken Palmyra,” Ganeshananthan says. “Another relative thought I might be interested in the book, so she called him and asked if she could loan the copy to me. I eventually returned that copy after a couple of years but I acquired my own—it’s such a stunning book.” The copy she has with her right now came from the estate of a former US ambassador to Sri Lanka. “He passed away and a lot of his books were being sold at a used book store in Detroit,” Ganeshananthan recalls. “This copy is full of the former ambassador’s annotations.”
The novel deploys the short, ballistic second-person paragraph quite strategically. On some occasions, the “you” is addressed to the white reader, especially Americans. On others, the “you” is assumed to be someone much like Sashi herself, no stranger to ethnic targeting and growing up under a cloud of violence. And sometimes, the “you” is deliberately ambiguous, universalising the experiences described by the novel (repeated displacements, starting from scratch, learning to survive on the go).
“You must understand: There is no single day on which a war begins. The conflict will collect around you gradually, the way carrion birds assemble around the vulnerable, until there are so many predators that the object of their hunger is not even visible. You will not even be able to see yourself in the gathering crowd of those who would kill you.”
One of the novel’s big themes is the idea of multiple allegiances. Two of Sashi’s brothers end up joining the Tamil Tigers. As a medical student, she herself agrees to work at a field hospital to treat Tiger cadres. But she does not agree with their authoritarianism, nor their blatant targeting of other rebel groups as well as civilians they consider “traitors” (and as the novel shows us, this happens with increasingly smaller excuses/justifications provided).
This multiple-allegiances theme also leads to some darkly funny scenes, none funnier than the one where Sashi’s feminist study circle is infiltrated, so to speak. Josie, a woman whose boyfriend is a Tamil Tiger, has joined the circle and all the other members are trying their best to rein themselves in. They fear Josie will report any criticism of the Tigers back to the cadres; a clear threat to their study circle, and, indeed, their lives.
“She and I had never discussed Josie, but I was sure she knew my body partner’s affiliations. Chelvi and Tharini came up to me, smiling too brightly, and as they greeted me, Chelvi pressed my book into my hands. Taking it, I put my schoolbag down next to the chair with Anjali’s things. When I sat and opened the book, I found a note: ??? WHAT DO WE DO? I folded it up and tucked it away. We could censor ourselves, or we could talk as we had planned. I had no idea which was the better route.”
Talking about the passage in question, Ganeshananthan says that as a university professor (she teaches creative writing at the University of Minnesota, US), she had expected the scene to be much easier to write. “That scene took a while to get to its final form, which is funny because I have been teaching for a long time and this (the study circle) is essentially a discussion at a university seminar. It’s intense and it’s tragic at some level but I also feel like it’s one of the funnier scenes in the novel,” Ganeshananthan says, adding, “I am Sri Lankan, I am Tamil and I am a part of the diaspora. I too have entered a room and wondered who the other Sri Lankans are.”
There’s a very Anne Of The Islandfeel to some of Sashi’s initial musings about her future, her education and even her romantic thoughts about K (indeed, it comes as no surprise that as a younger reader, Ganeshananthan enjoyed L.M. Montgomery’s works).
The genius of the novel lies in how smoothly it changes gear and allows Sashi to grow up emotionally—Anne Shirley never had to deal with death and despair on a scale like this, after all. Among other things, the novel also demonstrates how the middle-class façade of being “apolitical” fades very quickly.
“Sashi’s family, especially her parents, are not hugely outspoken at the beginning of the book,” Ganeshananthan says. “You have the father commenting about a political party. And later you have Sashi’s brothers wanting to go to a political rally but that’s because it’s this huge event, you know? As time goes on, this appearance of being apolitical becomes untenable. It’s their family, their friends being affected, after all.”
Ganeshananthan’s first novel, Love Marriage (2008), was longlisted for the Orange Prize. Smart money says that before this year’s awards season is over, Brotherless Nightwill receive more than a few nominations as well.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.