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'Brotherless Night' explores Sri Lanka's civil war through stories of family

The cover of "Brotherless Night." (Courtesy of Penguin Random House)
The cover of "Brotherless Night." (Courtesy of Penguin Random House)

Here & Now‘s Deepa Fernandes speaks with V.V. Ganeshananthan about her novel “Brotherless Night,” which centers around a Tamil family caught up in Sri Lanka’s civil war.

V.V. Ganeshananthan is the author of “Brotherless Night.” (Sophia Mayrhofer)

Book excerpt: ‘Brotherless Night’

By V.V. Ganeshananthan

The hall, which was almost in Jaffna town proper, barely contained the people who had come; old men and young men and a few young women spilled out onto the edges of each hallway and entrance, craning their necks to see the TULF speakers. Just beyond them, at the edge of the crowd and also at the edge of the stage, stood several policemen. Just beyond that, a gunman from one of the Tamil militant groups lurked. Perhaps there was more than one; because my brothers went without me, I can only tell you what I heard over the years. He was from the LTTE or TELO or PLOTE. The groups had not yet begun to murder each other, so the person telling me the story did not mention which one, only that the militants wanted to make clear their dominance over the politicians. The gunman stood and waited as the first speaker offered a long and tiresome introduction, and the crowd fidgeted, shifting from foot to foot, looking at their watches, muttering to each other and trading judgements on his performance. The speaker, sweating profusely and wiping his forehead with a handkerchief, introduced another man, who introduced another man, who introduced the chief guest. No one in my family who tells this story remembers who this prominent politician was either. As this so-important person began speaking, the gunman lifted his weapon, considered his life, and fired. At least that is how I imagine it, as I have imagined so much violence in the years since I lived inside it. Am I imagining or am I remembering? I no longer know. But I want to imagine that the gunman considered his life, as I have considered mine.

Before it found its target, his bullet whizzed close to the ear of the woman standing next to him. She clutched her fingers to the side of her head and fell to the floor. Her scream, like a stone thrown into the ocean, rippled forward and outward. For years after this her hearing would trouble her. Beside the stage, the bullet struck a policeman. Another shot flew, and a second policeman dropped. The one beside him stepped forward and raised his own pistol, but then knelt abruptly, holding a bloodied shoulder with a pale, shocked face. He yelled at his colleagues at the back of the crowd. Catch him! That one! Panic spread in expanding circles.

The gunman had joined one of the Tamil militant groups with the dream of firing a shot like this at a moment like this. He had promised his superiors that he could do the job. He had aspirations. He was Dayalan’s age and they had once played a cricket match against each other. He replaced the gun at his waist and disappeared, one of history’s rumours.

My father warned my brothers to stay together, but as the mass of people swayed back and forth, shouting, anticipating and ducking gunfire real and dreamed, Aran lost hold of Niranjan’s shoulder. Dayalan pushed forward, trying to see what was happening, and Seelan went with him, surging between the sway of bodies. My father called for his sons, but in the crowd, they could not hear him for long, terrible minutes. “Niranjan,” my father called. “Niranjan!” Appa was tall, but he could not see his eldest son, who was the shortest among them.

Finally, Niranjan reappeared at Appa’s elbow. He had Seelan by one shoulder and Dayalan by the other. “Just a minute—stay here,” he said firmly, and ducked back into the ocean of people to find Aran, who was drowning in the rising tide of the rally’s panic.

When Niranjan emerged some moments later, he had Aran by the arm. “Let’s get out of here,” Niranjan said. “Now. Move quickly.” Still startled, his brothers and his father obeyed.

They had taken the bus there, but now the crowd spilled out of the building all at once. The buses that were passing that way rocked, overfull with people, and stalled among rally attendees trying to get rides away. Niranjan looked up and saw that they would not reach any of the vehicles. More shots echoed behind them, and it was not clear who was shooting or from where. Hurry, hurry, Niranjan said, and headed down a side lane, away from the building. He was almost running. Stay with Appa, he said over his shoulder to Dayalan, and Dayalan nodded. My father, who was getting older, couldn’t move as fast as them anymore. Dayalan took Appa’s arm.

“Where is K?” Aran said.

“What?” Dayalan said.

“Where is K? Where is he?” Seelan said more urgently, and then they realised that none of them knew.

“I’ll have to—I’ll go back,” Niranjan said. “Wait here for me.”

“No,” said Seelan, about to volunteer.

“You wait here for me,” Niranjan said, his face a stone. “There isn’t time to argue. Just listen for once, will you?” Then he turned to Dayalan and my father.

“I’ll go back in and find K,” Niranjan said, “but if I am not back in ten minutes and if this spot becomes overrun with people, you leave. I will come.”

Seelan started to protest again but then stopped.

My father nodded. “Be careful,” he said, his voice low. He held Niranjan’s arm and then released him.

“I promise, Appa,” Niranjan said. “I’ll come. Don’t worry.”

My father nodded and Niranjan ran back towards the building.

In the days after this, when Appa told me and Amma about those minutes of Niranjan disappearing and returning, first with Dayalan and Seelan and then again with Aran, and then leaving again to get K, his mouth trembled, and he had to stop several times because he was shaking too much to talk. When he regained himself, he said: What to do? What to do? As a boy, in a time of earlier communal trouble, my father had lived through his own brother disappearing. In his study there was a garlanded picture of my uncle, who was neither the first nor the last boy to be lost this way.

I should have gone myself, Appa said. Nobody would have thought I was a militant.

They are young men. I am old compared to these boys, with their guns. I should never have let Niranjan go back into that building.

We were not safe, Appa meant; he could not protect us. But I did not need him to tell me. I had known from the moment Dayalan returned to our house without his bicycle.

Everyone was going in the other direction, Niranjan told me later. I was trying to swim against a tide.

He found his way back into the building. The dark made it harder to see people’s faces. Some people held torches, but mostly, the remaining few faces were dimly lit.

The policemen were questioning witnesses. Across the room, Niranjan saw K talking to someone. Later Dayalan would tell Niranjan that this was the tutor, the same man who had been beaten for trying to protect K from the police, but at the time, he seemed to be merely a stranger. He was tall and stocky and had thick, dark eyebrows and thick-framed spectacles. What were they still doing here? K wore his most serious, listening face. Look at me, Niranjan said to himself very softly. And miraculously, K did. Then his expression turned guilty, as though he had been caught at something. But what? Niranjan had no time to wonder about this; K said goodbye to the man and cut across the room to Niranjan swiftly, like a ship with the wind at its back.

“I’m sorry,” he said to Niranjan. “Let’s go.”

“Who is that?”

“Your father will be waiting,” K said.

But K glanced back at the other man, whose Jaffna eyes were trained on them.

Excerpted from “Brotherless Night.” Copyright © 2023 by V.V. Ganeshananthan. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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