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Collective cultural memory in individual narratives: The Story of a Brief Marriage

Vedika Kaushal

Two people in the foreground of a blue village under a blazing sky
Illustration by Sefi George

Set amidst the concluding days of the Sri Lankan civil war (1983 – 2009), ‘The Story of a Brief Marriage’ by Anuk Arudpragasam is a harrowing commentary on the reality of a human condition engulfed and shaped by war and violence. A narrative plot spanning nearly twenty-four hours in the lives of Dinesh and Ganga who have both managed to survive (in one sense of the word) until the telling of this story, the novel seeks to expose like an open wound, the memory and retention of the events which have and will come to define the cultural and nationalist identities of millions of people. The text is situated amidst a refugee camp, where the two central characters are tied together through circumstantial misery, and through an old man’s hope that if married, her daughter may be spared from ravaging harm that may befall women at the hands of victorious soldiers.

In a way this story reads like a timeless monologue; the inner workings of Dinesh’s mind ramble on for the majority of this narrative while also simultaneously constructing it for the reader – both time and space exist in abstraction in relation to his conscience. As a narrator, he aggressively marks his presence throughout and yet, as the subject of his own story, he is unavailable.

“It always starts from the moment of narrating and re-narrating. Narration and reminding are two aspects of one and the same complex: culture”, writes Wolfgang Müller-Funk in his essay titled – ‘On a Narratology of Cultural and Collective Memory’ – where he expands on the definition of ‘memory’ in relation to collective cultural consciousness that is shaped through the sharing of traumatic events and experiences (Colonialism; Holocaust etc.). The global narratives then formed around and within these communities are constructed through a weaving of multiple individual narratives recounted via the process of ‘remembering’, which in turn then lends itself to the formation of subsequent cultural identities rooted in a history that has been narrated and re-narrated across time. Following in this sense, the novel portrays a similar construction which is situated in the heart of not only the reality of its plot but within the very title of this story – the ‘brief marriage’ becomes symbolic of stability and security in a time of chaos but more so, it represents the act of reminding oneself of a time where things were normal and not immersed in war. For instance, while struggling with the proposal of marrying Ganga, Dinesh wonders about the purpose of getting married in such a scenario, but soon realises that there is a semblance of comfort and security that he craves even in this setting. “The fact was that soon he would die, and saying yes would mean he could spend his last few days with a person, with not just a person but with a girl, with a woman, a wife.”

The narrative style of the novel focuses a lot on the body, and the movement of everyday life to paint an illusionary picture, right from giving vivid descriptions of the mundane activities of walking, defecating, bathing, sleeping or simply watching things happen. These further represent the presence of the narrator within the story, even though he makes it vividly clear that he can merely participate in this narrative as an onlooker, helpless and distant. Anuk writes, “There were things, after all, that could happen to human beings, after which their thoughts and feelings became unknowable. There were events after which, no matter how long or intimately one has tried to be by their side, no matter how earnestly or with how much self-reproach one desires to understand their situation, how meticulously one tries to imagine and infer it from one’s own experiences, one has no choice but to watch blindly from the outside.” However, he does not remain unfeeling. The novel brings together the shared past and history of the people who suffered enormous loss at the hands of war and violence in Sri Lanka, but it also largely brings together the experience of any and every war; the experience of getting targeted by your own nation and people and being stuck in that situation for years on end has been a universal phenomenon, with civil wars breaking out in different parts of the world. There also exists a unitary feeling within this phenomenon that often finds people becoming stateless and displaced as a product of these wars; there are subcultures formed within existing cultures through individual narratives being re-introduced around the globe. “A text is often a multiplicity of layer upon layer of signification…”, writes Paniker K. Ayyappa as he talks about the narrative technique of ‘interiorization’ where a significant amount of narrative layering is created in a text to allow the reader power to discover the main narrative theme within this layering. Using Dinesh and Ganga’s marriage as the surface theme for this novel, Anuk Arudpragasam attempts at creating a narrative that can be peeled from within the ephemerality of their union in more than one way.

The marriage is a symbol; its production, duration, and execution are all examples of how culture and tradition remain relevant even in desperate times and the culmination of this union presents a critique on the superficiality of relationships formed in desperate attempts to find stability or dispel loneliness. War looms over the entire plot from the very beginning of the novel; the images of people surviving in the camps and hiding themselves from the debris that surrounds everything is vivid and inescapable, and so is the consequence of such an environment. The narrator remembers everything in meticulous detail and takes us frame by frame through his routine, which is almost identical to everyone living at the camps. In the midst of this remembering, he also recounts the time when this war started and how slowly and steadily his life fell apart, up until the point when he finally loses his mother in an identical way to how everyone was losing everyone around him. In that sense, the idea of combining yourself together with another person in the very same surroundings, by way of marriage may not seem like such a sensible theory. Yet, the larger theme of the novel reveals itself in such delicately placed contradictions, as it talks about the importance of ‘shared experiences’ and ‘real human relationships’ within a culture, which incidentally in this story, is the ‘culture of war’. One such instance that paints poignantly the effect of these contradictions is when the author tries to explain Dinesh’s larger anxiety against the backdrop of his new relationship, “Perhaps it had nothing to do with the fact that the two of them had been separated from their families and homes… or brought together without any real reason while all around them the shells were falling generously… perhaps what he was feeling was only the natural, normal nervousness of a boy, about to meet a girl.”

Dinesh’s memory, emanating from his mind as much as his body is significant to bring and keep the plot together. There is no other subject and no other person’s experience in this novel that finds a mention in the book except his alone, however, his memory automatically becomes representative of the various memories and narrative experiences of everyone living in those camps and anyone who has ever been a part of this culture. In the aforementioned essay by Wolfgang Müller-Funk, he explains how “memory and reminding are key issues for understanding the concept of the self, every identity produces the impossible: bridging the gap between the act of reminding and the reminded events, feelings and impressions.” To create a narrative from memory (as has been done to an extent in the novel) is an inherently difficult task that requires a dedication to individual truth as well as universal accuracy to facts and history of a collective culture. The novel brings together many such experiences to the forefront of the narrative i.e., the experience of violence, grief, death, decay and even intimacy which may have their own distinct individuality within individual stories, but which largely remain universal and which have the power to become symbolic and representative of a culture. “Every culture can be interpreted as a symbolic and narrative community that includes the dead, for diachronic unity, and symbolizes human relationships in recurrent forms with long-lasting effect, guaranteeing synchronic unity” (Wolfgang Müller-Funk). The diachronic experience of shared suffering becomes the deeper and layered theme of the narrative within which the synchronic reality of Dinesh’s marriage with Ganga is carefully placed. The death and decay that surrounds this couple is ominous of the brevity of their relationship, while the author’s decision to use Dinesh’s memory as a benchmark for this process of remembering and re-narrating, gives us a clear motivation for his survival till the very end and perhaps even after, since his memory serves a greater purpose for this narrative than any other.

As a (narrative) commentary around the culture of war, this novel reeks of great suffering and passion towards the significance of human relationships in a myriad of settings, which fail to lose meaning even amidst death and separation. However, it is the dexterity with which this text imbibes this perpetual human emotion into the reality of a national culture, from the perspective of an individual whose ethnicity and identity remains conscious of the incident of this war as a part of the narrative of their culture as a minority within Sri Lanka, and as his own personal memory of those times. There are many accounts of war and violence within literature which bring personal realities of people to the forefront and allow us to understand, even if from the surface, the experience of having gone through something so distressing. But for me, The Story of a Brief Marriage stands out from all such accounts essentially because of the way this narrative has painstakingly brought every aspect of personal suffering to the forefront while also combining it with the need for physical and emotional intimacy that a person can crave during such prolonged times of adversity and displacement.

The individual memory and recollection of Dinesh’s life, given to us by himself in a setting that reeks of universal injustice and grief, creates a profound collective memory that can contribute to his cultural identity. The telling of this brief tale encompasses a larger struggle against the consequences of war, political violence and the day-to-day fight for survival.

Works Cited

Müller-Funk, Wolfgang. On a Narratology of Cultural and Collective Memory. J-stor; PDF.

Ayyappa, Paniker K. The Theory and Practise of Narrative in India. PDF.

Arudpragasam, Anuk. The Story of a Brief Marriage. 2018. Harper Collins, India. Print.

Currently working as a freelance writer, Vedika Kaushal harbours a profound interest in research practices and cultural studies. She loves to read and study narratives, exploring the interdisciplinary connections of Literature with multiple fields of arts.


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