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Where God Began review: A tale of everybody’s loneliness

Through the ordeals of illegal immigration, Appadurai Muttulingam shows that unbelonging is inherent in every life

Muttulingam’s book tackles the travails of modern immigration.
Muttulingam’s book tackles the travails of modern immigration. (iStockphoto)

Where God Began starts with a decision already made. The protagonist’s family has discussed and decided, in his absence, a course of action—seemingly for his good —that will forever alter his life. “I had been kept in the dark and I was furious”, Nishant, the first-person narrator and protagonist says. On the last page of the book, on the way to a seemingly more solid promise of a bright future, Nishant is again plunged into darkness, but this time a literal one. Author Appadurai Muttulingam situates this last scene in the 2003 blackout that affected parts of the US and Canada. This deft execution of circularity is a powerful reminder of what the book is really about: an unending state of unknowingness.

Muttulingam keeps the plot, protagonist and reader, all on their toes. Nothing, ever, is permanent.

Nishant, an asylum-seeking Sri Lankan Tamil escaping the unrest of the 1990s, starts his journey from Colombo with one group of people. The cohort changes, sometimes in ones and twos, as people are sent separately to different destinations—France, Germany, Canada—or as old agents hand them off to new ones. Sometimes, out of sheer luck, individuals of this ever-morphing group of asylum seekers escape encounters with various border guards and law enforcement agencies. Other times, just as randomly, they are caught, detained and beaten up.

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What drives the book is its assortment of characters and their stories. Nishant encounters old women trying to reunite with their children who had reached different countries, handsome young men who start working with the mafia in transit countries that prove hard to leave, or students trying to get an education and a better life but often waylaid by dodgy and dangerous get-rich-quick schemes.

The way that these various characters float into the story can seem a bit undercooked, and many characters divulge their experiences in an almost naïve, interview-like conversation with Nishant. This peculiarity, however, works: Where God Began, translated from the Tamil original by Kavitha Muralidharan, was published first as a serialised narrative in 2011 the Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan, and as a novel, Kadavul Thodangiya Idam, in 2012. This is evident in the texture of the chapters, including how each one ends, almost like a short story in itself, with a gentle cliffhanger-like sensibility.

However, it is Nishant’s story that runs through the book as the main thread. In a way, he is a hybridised sutradhar, bringing together the stories of the many people he meets, even as he continues to discover his own. He makes friends and also fleetingly finds love. But Muttulingam does not afford the reader, or Nishant, more than a whiff of the balm of belonging.

Where God Began, by Appadurai Muttulingam, translated by Kavitha Muralidharan; published by Westland Books, 170 pages, Rs. 499
Where God Began, by Appadurai Muttulingam, translated by Kavitha Muralidharan; published by Westland Books, 170 pages, Rs. 499

In a particularly poignant scene, Nishant and his girlfriend Ahalya are about to cross into Slovakia by train. From here they are promised an easy route into Germany, where Ahalya hoped to join her brother. When the border police check the passengers, Ahalya speaks confidently and uses her new friendship with Russian co-passengers to efficiently duck suspicions. Nishant falters, unable to speak any Russian despite having spent three years learning the language. As the guards pin him down, Ahalya deboards without as much as a glance. “The police beat me as I yelled her name over and over again. They thought I was protesting in my language,” he says.

A little while later, Nishant does something similar to Shakuntala, a fellow-traveller who, as per plan, pretends to be his wife for one leg of a journey. Ultimately, they each have to pass the test at immigration on their own. He watches her slip up moments after he was stamped and cleared. As he exits the airport gates, he wistfully speculates about her future.

Little glimmers of hope come through in small, unexpected twists and turns, with characters or their goodwill returning in different ways. Despite ushering in a crowd of characters, Muttulingam is able to infuse, in a bittersweet yet matter-of-fact way, an essential loneliness to every character’s journey. In doing so, he reinforces the illusory nature of belonging, making the story of immigrants, most poetically, the story of almost anybody else.

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