It is 23 July 1983, and in New York City, a child is born to a young Sri Lankan couple. They name her Yalini, after the town of Jaffna, located in the northern part of their tiny, island home country. On the other side of the world, the small family’s past, present and future are being shaped for them as the Sinhalese-dominant Sri Lankan government begins a pogrom against the minority Tamil community, from which the two young people had left a few years earlier, to seek their fortunes in America.
Like Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, who is born at the very moment India declares independence from Great Britain, Yalini, the narrator of V.V. Ganeshananthan’s beautiful debut novel, Love Marriage arrives in this world on the most anguished day of remembrance for all future generations of Sri Lankan Tamils—the beginning of what would later be termed, “Black July”.
Situated only 20 miles from the southeast coast of India, Sri Lanka appears reticent and demure next to its sub-continental neighbor. And yet beneath the surface, Sri Lanka is, and has been, one of the most violent places in the world for the last 30 years, as its Tamil minority has struggled in an ethno-separatist movement and war. As Ganeshananthan herself writes, “Sri Lankan Tamils are not a violent people; they are a people who have had violence imposed upon them”.
Love Marriage is ostensibly about the universal meaning and understanding of marriage. The author even writes, “Children are born to be married. To have their own children.” But like Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, Ganeshananthan uses “marriage”—and all of its variations—as a metaphor for the complexities of life ... and marriage. So, although her family, “speak only of two kinds of marriage ... Arranged Marriage [and] Love Marriage”, there is in reality, a whole spectrum in between—the Self-Arranged Marriage, the Cousin Marriage, the Marriage Without Consent, the Marriage Under Pressure and even Marrying the Enemy. Ultimately, Love Marriage is an exploration of marriage as an introduction to violence, an escape from violence, and a means of either securing or fulminating the ties that bond us to family, language, and culture.
Like the hybrid popular music of Sri Lankan Tamil expat Maya Arulpragasam aka M.I.A., Ganeshananthan’s sprawling novel works wonderfully because it takes the reader on a dizzying journey—a trip through the Sri Lankan Diaspora. As Yalini narrates the stories from Sri Lanka to the United States to Canada, with minor stops in England and France, we cannot but feel a sense of empathy with this family who are unable to find stability in any of their adopted homelands.
To be a Sri Lankan Tamil, according to the author, is to have lived with the pain of violence from youth. It is something so deep that it becomes genetic—even those Tamils who have never even lived in Sri Lanka, have this pain affixed to their DNA. So much so, that as American-born Yalini becomes emotionally devastated by the 2005 South Asian tsunami, she breaks off her relationship with her nameless boyfriend because, as she puts it, “He seemed too far away from everything I missed. He came from a place full of people who were just learning about war, and I realized then that I had grown up full of it”.
There’s a similar scene in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. When Gogol rediscovers his Bengali Hindu roots in the wake of his father’s unexpected death, he can’t help but push Maxine, his White girlfriend, away because at that moment, she seems too removed from the Indian way of life—his way of life.
It’s not too far-fetched to compare Ganeshananthan’s treatment of the Sri Lankan Diaspora to Jhumpa Lahiri’s treatment of the Indian version, because both authors use several of the same themes—marriage; names and naming; religion; family; intergenerational conflict; colonial legacies; displacement; and, most vividly, the confusion over native versus adopted culture. This last theme is significant because it frames many works of the South Asian American cultural movement, going as far back to Dhan Gopal Mukerji’s classic, Caste and Outcaste (1923), to more recent fare like Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg’s 2004 film, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.
As a native Tamil, albeit from Chennai (Madras) in India, I read this book with pleasure and sympathy. Too often, even in the Indian American Diaspora literature, the foci of books and authors have been on North Indian culture, families, and languages. So to follow the stories of a globally-scattered Sri Lankan Tamil family was gratifying and eye-opening. At the intersection of works on nationalism, cultural identity, and Sri Lankan history, stands this humble book—part family history, part war memoir. And a secure place it should have for future generations.