EPIC SONG

India Today - - INSIDE - —Ja­son Overdorf

With Half Gods, a strik­ing de­but col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, Amer­i­can-born Akil Ku­marasamy has drawn the sort of praise that greeted Jhumpa Lahiri and Arund­hati Roy be­fore the big prizes started rolling in.

“The prose it­self is a mar­vel,” Ta­nia James gushed in the New York Times Book Re­view, not­ing what she de­scribed as Ku­marasamy’s “at­ten­tion to ug­li­ness”. In an ad­mir­ing es­say in the New Yorker, Katy Wald­man de­scribed the di­verse sto­ries as sup­port­ing, con­tra­dict­ing and ar­gu­ing with one an­other to cre­ate “a rich dis­or­der”, like a com­pli­cated fam­ily around the din­ner ta­ble.

Such at­ten­tion to word­smithing some­times sig­nals the sort of dreary ru­mi­na­tions that have given the short story a bad name in re­cent years. But Ku­marasamy’s sto­ries of the Sri Lankan Tamil di­as­pora in Ken­tucky and New Jersey—more James Joyce than James Pat­ter­son, to be sure—com­mu­ni­cate a vis­ceral sense of ten­sion and long­ing.

“My work ques­tions the idea of bor­ders, how they are fic­tional con­structs. What we call In­dia and Sri Lanka is part of a colo­nial dream,” says Ku­marasamy, whose par­ents grew up in Tamil Nadu. “I have never been to Sri Lanka.”

The “half gods” of the ti­tle refers to two re­cur­ring char­ac­ters, Arjun and Karna, named af­ter the war­ring pro­tag­o­nists of the Ma­hab­harata and, through var­i­ous linked sto­ries in which they ap­pear, it’s al­most pos­si­ble to piece to­gether a sort of novel. But Ku­marasamy points out that Half Gods is not strictly a book about the Sri Lankan di­as­pora.

“The two broth­ers… are half-Ee­lam Tamil and half-Pun­jabi Sikh,” she says. “They are also Amer­i­can. They don’t even re­fer to them­selves as Sri Lankan, which is the Sin­hala name for the is­land. In this book, there are Ben­galis, Pun­jabis, Ee­lam

Tamils, Mus­lims, Sikhs, state­less Tamil tea plan­ta­tion work­ers, an An­golan man from Botswana. For me, it’s im­por­tant to put

brown­ness against a brown land­scape be­cause that gives a more nu­anced look.”

Many of the sto­ries hinge on the dif­fi­cul­ties of as­sim­i­la­tion and the ever-widen­ing gap—like the ocean they may never cross again—be­tween the first-gen­er­a­tion ex­iles and their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. They’re no­table be­cause they’re not about the usual cute-ex­otic clashes por­trayed in East is East and the like, but hit at some­thing more pro­found—if not so amus­ing.

“There are all dif­fer­ent kinds of guilt for th­ese char­ac­ters. Guilt from par­ents dis­ap­point­ing their chil­dren and chil­dren dis­ap­point­ing their par­ents. Guilt for leav­ing and liv­ing com­fort­able lives while oth­ers fought in the war and suf­fered,” Ku­marasamy says.

“I am in­ter­ested in guilt be­cause it can sub­merge our lives, but I’m also in­ter­ested in no­tions of for­give­ness and hap­pi­ness. Can you still see your own life as one full of hap­pi­ness even af­ter all th­ese trau­matic events?”

HALF GODS by AKIL KU­MARASAMY Far­rar, Straus and Giroux $25 ; 224 pages

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