The Sri Lankan Tamil writer and essayist on portraying the refugee experience in his novel, Where God Began, translated from Tamil by Kavitha Muralidharan, the Indian Tamil writers he admires and more

Sri Lankan Tamil writer and essayist Appadurai Muttulingam (87) wrote his first collection of short stories in Tamil, Akka, in 1964. Having left Sri Lanka in 1972, he spent the next 28 years working (with the World Bank and the United Nations) in various countries in Africa and Asia. He resumed writing in 1995, and published more than 25 collections of stories, essays, interviews, and a novel. His story, ‘Somewhere it’s Three O’clock Right Now, was a finalist for the Armory Square Prize. His latest novel, Where God Began (Eka), translated from Tamil by Kavitha Muralidharan, is set during the peak of the civil war and tells the story of a Sri Lankan refugee, Nishant, whose parents fear he is becoming involved with the Tamil Tigers, and send him on a perilous journey to seek refuge in Canada. He is smuggled across borders, encounters other refugees, experiences love and faces the harsh realities of displacement and exile. An exploration of loss of home and identity, the novel, narrated by Nishant, depicts the complex realities of forced migration. In this interview to The Federal, Muttulingam shares he drew on his own encounters with refugees in Sudan, Somalia, and Afghanistan, why he chose to tell the story in the first person, infusing humour, the Indian Tamil writers he admires, the process of translation, and what draws him to the short story form. Excerpts:

Where God Began grapples with the refugee experience by focusing on Nishant’s journey to Canada. What drew you to this specific aspect of displacement, and how did you arrive at the first-person narrator? Did you conceive it as an indictment of the global refugee crisis?

“We are other, no longer what we were,” writes Salman Rushdie in Knife. When I read this recently, I immediately thought of Where God Began. The novel raises the question of the refugees: “who are we and where do we belong.’ I have worked with the United Nations office in many countries, including Sudan, Somalia, and Afghanistan. My work also included resettlement of refugees and I have travelled to these countries and seen for myself the pathetic conditions of their lives and the hardships endured by them.

After I left Sri Lanka, I did not write for 25 years and when I saw the refugees I promised myself that some time in my life, I would write about them. I decided to write the story in the first person. It is the easiest way to reach the heart of the reader and from the beginning an intimacy and trust is built between the writer and the reader. I remember what a refugee told me, “I don’t know if my family is alive. I don’t know where I will sleep tonight. I don’t know where my food will come from tomorrow. I have suffered enough and have been cruelly attacked many times. But the greatest sorrow for me is that I don’t have a country of my own. In this huge world, I don’t belong anywhere.” Another refugee in Somalia confessed to me. “When I search for a job they ask me, ‘What is your talent?’ I tell them, ’Surviving and still living.’”

These words always remained with me, and I remembered these refugees when I wrote the novel. It also taught me that life does not end in one place. Ending means a new beginning. That is why you will see in this novel there is no ending. There is only a new beginning. As a reviewer once said of the book, “It’s a tale of unending state of unknowingness.”

Nishant navigates human traffickers, corrupt officials, and desperate fellow refugees. How did you research and develop these characters to ensure an authentic portrayal of the complex and often morally ambiguous situations they find themselves in?

Dealing with refugees in Sudan, Somalia, and Afghanistan is one thing but meeting them in Canada is different. They were all from my own country and it gave me a shock. I did not expect refugees to leave my country in such large numbers and settle in other countries. They were all very pathetic to look at and some of them I knew back in my own country. I talked to them, and each had a different story. Some friends and I joined together to record their stories for posterity. That plan didn’t work and I collected the details on my own with an idea of eventually publishing them as stories. Later on, I decided to work the stories into a novel form. So, eighty percent of the stories are true and the rest were filled up with my imagination.

All over the world, the suffering of refugees is the same. Many stories are already written about what happened during the war and there are also stories about the refugees in their new countries where they settled in. What was missing was the journey from their homeland to the countries where they sought asylum. I decided to write about the journey of the refugees; I concentrated my efforts on getting details as to how they planned their travels, the role of the agents, what happened on the way, and the problems they faced landing in a new country.

Most of the refugees travelled on forged passports and they were dependent solely on their agents. They were treated like commodities and passed from one agent to the other. Every refugee had a different story. It was like the travel of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus took ten years to travel from Troy to Ithaca, whereas the protagonist in the novel took five years and two months to reach Canada from Colombo. Like Odysseus, every refugee has adventures of their own but in their heart they are lonely. As one reviewer said, the novel is a tale of everybody’s loneliness.

Despite the grim subject matter, Where God Began is infused with wry humour and moments of unexpected tenderness. How did you strike this balance between darkness and light?

I had a friend who used to read books in a very short time. Once I noticed him skipping paragraphs and sometimes even pages reading the book. He said those parts had descriptions that were boring and slowed down the story. The author spends hours late into the night writing the novel and this person is skipping those pages because they were boring. I decided never to write a line that is uninteresting to the reader and to make the reader feel bored.

A refugee’s life may look grim but still it is filled with love, laughter, kindness, grief, vengeance, anger, and many other qualities that normal humans possess. There is an incident in the book where two people started a fight for a piece of fish and it ended by one refugee plunging a knife into the other and killing the person. All for a piece of fish. What happened after that was even more appalling. The police came, arrested the killer, and removed the body. They were all watching a Tamil movie on the VCR when the murder took place. They ate their meal with the fish curry for which one person died, and continued to watch the movie which was interrupted by the murder. They even laughed at some scenes in the movie. This is what happens in real life. In the novel all the emotions are balanced as in real life. Nothing changes. There is love, kindness, hunger, anger and humour. Humour is part of life and without it, life is incomplete.

You left Sri Lanka in 1972, during a time of growing ethnic tensions and political unrest. How did the experience of leaving your homeland and living in exile for many years affect your sense of identity and belonging? Did it shape your understanding of displacement and diaspora, which are central themes in Where God Began? Are there specific instances in the book that draw upon your experiences?

It is true I left my country in 1972 and though I was not living in the country the country lived in my heart. I never forgot my country, its people, or my language. I hail from a remote village called Kokuvil in the northern part of Sri Lanka and I am an average student. My neighbour classmate scored one mark more than me in the exam, much to the annoyance of my father. I used this incident in the novel. One character in the novel is sent to Canada to study because he lost a scholarship by one mark. He comes to Canada to study, gets involved with the wrong people and serves a prison sentence and after release spends the rest of his life washing plates in a restaurant.

Another incident is about my mother. She is fond of the migratory bird Indian pita in my village that flies to the Himalayas every year in the summer months. My mother will always wait for its return and identify it by the sound it makes in the early mornings. A refugee woman character in the novel is like my mother. She is a bird enthusiast and likes to identify them. She meets with an accident and is lying on the mat awaiting death. Her friend tells to cheer her up, ’Can you hear the sound of swallow’ and the woman’s last words before dying were ‘It is not a swallow, it is a loon bird.’ Like these, there are many instances in the book.

The Sri Lankan civil war serves as a backdrop for the novel. How do you view the role of literature in addressing historical trauma and contributing to the process of healing and reconciliation in post-conflict societies like Sri Lanka where the ghosts of the past keep resurfacing?

When I met the great writer Alice Munro, I asked her the question of why fiction is important. She said that the Nobel Prize is given only for fiction and not for nonfiction. From the earliest days, man has been fascinated by fiction. Children listen to the adults telling stories to them and learn the good and bad in life. Even history is learnt through fiction. For example, in James Joyce’ Ulysses, there is an incident where two people were talking about a fire in the ship Slocum which killed more than a thousand people near New York City. Now that incident is forgotten by most but the novel will keep reminding the people about this incident.

This happened in my life, too. I wrote a story based on the true incident of 155 Sri Lankan refugees in two boats landing in Newfoundland, Canada in the year 1986. A baby was crying in the boat nonstop for many days and the mother wanted to jump into the sea with the baby but the people in the boat prevented her from dying. Today the baby is a medical doctor practicing in Canada. I get calls even today to find out more about this incident. One hundred years from now a person reading the story will remember the conflict in Sri Lanka and the 155 refugees who escaped to find peace elsewhere.

In any conflict, the ultimate aim is peace. We have seen it happen in other places and trust it will happen in Sri Lanka, too. Recently, I visited Washington DC and was surprised to see a university named Washington Robert Lee University. I was shocked. Robert Lee was the General who fought against the Union. It was so heartwarming to see reconciliation taking place in real life.

Kavitha Muralidharan’s translation brings your Tamil prose to an English-speaking audience. Can you talk about how you collaborated with her to ensure nothing was lost in translation? Would you say that the subtle linguistic nuances are intact in the translation?

We have heard that Ernest Hemingway revised the last paragraph of Farewell to Arms 47 times. So, you can imagine the number of times it was necessary to revise a translated work. Translation can never be perfect. It was generally agreed that 80 percent perfection is possible. There will always be something lost in the translation. It is like looking at the reverse side of a carpet. Same thread, same colour and same pattern and even then the back side of a carpet looks different from the front. Kavitha and I had to work very hard to get the best possible translation. Every day, we would talk over the phone and go line by line of the previous day’s translation. Kavitha is extremely patient and diligent in her work and it was a pleasure to work with her.

The test of a best translation is when the humour in the original text is transported. Kavitha did that very effortlessly. As for the cultural part, it is very difficult. We decided from the outset not to have footnotes to explain things. The meaning should come out in the translation. I may say in one place that ‘he touched his foot’ and the Tamil reader will instantly understand the meaning. An English reader asked me the meaning. I had to explain that it is the way of a young person to get the blessing from an elderly person.

Your previous works, such as Akka, have received critical acclaim for their portrayals of Tamil society and culture. How do you see your writing in comparison to the major English writers from the country, some of whom, including Shehan Karunatilaka and Anuk Arudpragasam, have been recognized globally? What themes or ideas continue to resonate with you as a writer?

Akka is a collection of short stories written by me in my early twenties and published in India. It gives the background of a remote village in the North of Sri Lanka and the peaceful lives of ordinary folks. The language used was simple and direct and even a fifth-grade student could read and understand the stories.

Anuk Arudpragasam and Shehan Karunatilaka are two great writers Sri Lanka has produced. Both talk about ethnic conflicts and how the war affected the ordinary people. Anuk’s portrayal of the war and its destruction is so powerful that we in Canada invited him to give an award for The Story of a Brief Marriage. This was before he won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. Karunatilaka won the Booker Prize 2022 for his murder mystery novel (The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida) that made us all proud.

In our short life, we can only achieve as many things. In the last two years, I have published translations of at least ten of my stories in English in the UK, US, and Canadian magazines. The acceptance rate is two out of ten and you have to wait three months to know the result. The reason for rejection is always poor translation, I am told. At the moment I am doing more translations of my stories in English and whether they will make it to a publisher is not known.

In addition to your fiction, you are also known for your essays. How do these different forms of writing complement and inform each other? Do you see your non-fiction work influencing your fiction?

I was not interested in writing essays and avoided it. Once I met the great writer Sundara Ramaswamy and he encouraged me to write essays. Usually, essays are written in a very complex language using high-sounding words. The author is happy when people say that they understood only half of the essay. This was the style in those days.

I read something interesting in a book about Charles Dickens. His policy was that an ordinary person should be able to read and understand his writing. So, when he wrote a complicated sentence, he would read it to his cleaning woman and if she understood it, he would go ahead with the writing. If she didn’t understand it, then he would revise the sentence and write in a simpler language.

I decided to write nonfiction in an attractive and readable language and it became popular. Fiction has a form and it is restricted and there are certain rules to follow. But in nonfiction, there is no strict form to apply. As someone said, it is like playing tennis with the net down. In a way, I enjoy writing fiction and nonfiction but in different ways.

In recent years, Indian Tamil writers like Perumal Murugan have courted acclaim in the English-speaking world. Who are some of the Indian Tamil writers that you have admired through the decades?

There are many Indian Tamil writers I admire. Puthumaipiththan is like a godfather for short stories in Tamil. Starting with him there are many stalwarts in this field like Sundara Ramaswamy, Perumal Murugan, Prabanjan, Ki.Rajanarayanan, Ambai, S. Ramakrishnan, Jeyakanthan, Jeyamohan and many more. I usually avoid making a list because as soon as I finish one, I realize that I have left out a few names.

Many of these writers have not been translated into other languages, mainly English. I regularly read and follow up some important English magazines and see many translated stories from Russia, Spain, Denmark, Germany and France, but I rarely see a story translated from Tamil to English. I feel the Tamil stories are of international standard but the translations often do not reach the quality expected.

One of my stories, ‘Goat Milk Puttu,’ which was translated into English by Suchitra Ramachandran, appeared in the Narrative Magazine (US). But previously, three stories of mine were rejected because the translations were not up to the standard. It is, therefore, important to encourage new translators so Tamil stories can find their rightful place in the international arena.

What draws you to the short story form? Has it become easier writing a story with time? How would you define the art of short stories? Are there plans to get other volumes translated? What are you currently working on?

As a teenager, I started writing short stories and the reason was the influence of Puthumaipiththan. I was fascinated by his writings and style and I read almost all his books available at that time. Then, I discovered James Joyce’s Dubliners and that made a great impact on my life. After writing Akka, I moved abroad and for 25 years I did not write anything but I was accumulating experiences gained in different countries. It was during that time when I began my search for famous English authors to interview them. I have interviewed writers like Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, David Sedaris, Tobias Wolff, Frank McCourt and many others.

When I interviewed these writers, I also learned new things about short stories and life from them. Alice Munro always talked about getting the curve right in her short stories. It took me some time to understand that concept. Frank McCourt said, “My country is not where I was born, it is the country where I will eventually die.”

I noted one thing common among these writers. They all have an MFA or something similar to it. They all had read William Shakespeare. You cannot find a single English writer who has not studied Shakespeare. In Tamil, anyone can be a writer. Some Tamil writers do not know that we have great literature that is more than 2,000 years old.

I follow simple rules in writing a short story. The reader should be one step behind the writer, never able to guess where the story is going. Isaac Asimov used to say that even he cannot guess what is the next line that would come out of his typewriter. The story ending should leave the reader a little unsettled. Or the reader should be left with something more than what he started with. After authoring 150 stories, writing a new story becomes difficult. You have to think of something new that you have not already told before. Even some great writers begin to repeat themselves in their old age. I don’t want that to happen to me.

I am working on translations of English stories into Tamil. I am doing it for the sheer pleasure of interacting with the foreign authors and getting their permission to translate. A few days back, I paid $100 to a writer to get the right to translate her story into Tamil. This story was read by 1.5 million people in a period of one week. The first viral short story in the world and I have obtained the right to translate it. Who in their right mind will pay $100 and spend 20 hours translating the story. It gives me immense pleasure to do such silly things.

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