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Debut Stories Trace the Aftershocks of the Sri Lankan Civil War

HALF GODS
By Akil Kumarasamy
224 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.

In Tamil, farewells are never final. As Akil Kumarasamy pointed out in a 2017 interview, the Tamil equivalent of goodbye is poyittu varen, meaning “I’ll go and return.” These are parting words especially suited to the refugee: ever running away, ever looking back.

Kumarasamy poignantly illustrates this tension in her debut story collection, “Half Gods.” Across decades and continents, her characters are haunted by catastrophic violence, their emotional scars passed from one generation to the next.

Wisely, Kumarasamy takes a muted approach to the violence. In “The Office of Missing Persons,” a Sri Lankan Tamil father engages with the police to find his teenage son — this during the final and bloodiest phase of the nearly 30-year Sri Lankan civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the separatist Tamil Tigers. From the outset, it’s obvious that Jeganathan, an entomologist beloved for his research by the Sinhalese government, will never find his son, and so the story’s momentum feeds on a growing dread that is crystallized when “the officer asked for Jeganathan’s son’s name and he knew it was a trick. He needed his name to find him and then have reason not to find him.” Between those lines exists an entire world in which killing a man is as easy as erasing his name from a ledger of missing persons.

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On the other side of the world, in New Jersey, Jeganathan’s friend Muthu is tormented by what he has already lost: his wife and twin sons killed by a mob. In his old age, Muthu and his remaining family watch television to track the end of the civil war in 2009, when the Sri Lankan government besieged whole northern villages, and brutality from both sides resulted in the massacre of tens of thousands of Tamil men, women and children. Yet only state-sanctioned celebration is televised, with the sitting president declaring “in Sinhala that there were no casualties from the war and the people of Sri Lanka were finally free from terror.”

Muthu and his family’s is a suffering visible only to themselves. Rather than describing their sense of futility, Kumarasamy folds the emotion into an image of birds pecking at newly planted seeds, so that “in the end, the garden looked more like a series of mousetraps.”

Most of these stories are defined by contemplation rather than plot. In “New World,” a child laborer runs away from a tea plantation in an act of cunning and audacity, yet the act itself occurs offstage. It’s hard not to want a front seat to that delicious bit of drama; instead Kumarasamy bears testament to the laborers who have been left behind. In spite of the repercussions sure to befall them, the women find a fleeting comfort in writing the boy’s future: “He is an actor in a film … then he’s a teacher, a doctor, a train conductor.” Their voices, muted by history, deliver the story to surprising heights of compassion and hope.

At one point, Muthu’s teenage daughter, Nalini, asks, “Why do a few sad events have to make a whole life unhappy?” This question raises another: What does happiness mean in the context of a shattered life? Kumarasamy’s characters have managed to piece their lives back together, but her preoccupation lies with the seams — and how these are continually tested by the small, private aftershocks of trauma.

Still, a life without happiness is not a life without wonder. In “The Butcher,” a grown-up Nalini reaches across the meat counter to clean the butcher’s wounded hands; later he marvels at the memory of her fingers on his wrist. The prose itself is a marvel because of Kumarasamy’s attention to ugliness: “his skin hard and cracked like a frozen glove.” Such intimate gestures arrive like shafts of light throughout this lyrical and affecting collection, sparing us briefly from the dark.

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