In her debut short story collection, Half Gods, Akil Kumarasamy takes readers into the lives of a multigenerational Sri Lankan Tamil family, tracing their history from the plantations of what was then the British colony of Ceylon to the beaches of the Jersey Shore. Across 10 interconnected stories, Kumarasamy explores what it means to be made to feel like a foreigner in one’s own country, a theme made all the more affecting by recent events.
When the British left Ceylon in 1948, independence from the British Empire had been secured through relatively peaceful means. The newly free Dominion of Ceylon entered the world with a number of advantages, including representative democratic institutions that were expected to provide stability and continuity. But the seeds of conflict between the majority Sinhalese (who made up roughly two-thirds of the island’s population) and the minority Tamils were nourished by an increasingly fervent nationalism that had subtly infiltrated the push for independence.
The British had long practiced the policy of “divide and rule” in its overseas colonies, and Ceylon was no exception. During the colonial period, the British set themselves up in the northern, Tamil-dominated region of the island. Access to British educational institutions and employment opportunities in the colonial government allowed Tamils to assert a level of power and influence that belied their minority status. This inflamed Sinhalese resentment; while the two groups had long been separated by their languages and religion, they were now, for the first time, separated by an ever-widening economic inequality.
In “New World,” Kumarasamy shows the departure of British authorities through the eyes of an Indian Tamil woman working on a tea plantation. It’s here that we get our first long look at Muthulingham Padmanathan, or Muthu, the patriarch of the family around which Half Gods is centered. Here he is a schoolboy, the son of the owner of the plantation’s company store. His father, Mr. Padmanathan, and Mr. Balakumar, the stern overseer of the plantation, take great pains to distinguish themselves from the laborers; though they are all Tamil, the laborers are descended from Indian immigrants rather than native-born Ceylon Tamils.
“He was Tamil too,” the narrator says about Muthu’s father, “but we didn’t call him brother, and after we paid, he whispered about us, called us Indian coolies. None of us had ever visited India, but he didn’t care about those details.”
Mr. Padmanathan and Mr. Balakumar adopt the habits and manners of the departed British, doling out beatings and adopting the Western style of dress. “We all remembered Mr. Balakumar weeping as Sir William drove away,” the narrator recalls, “but we could not tell if it was from sadness or joy as he hugged the blue lapels of the suit jacket Sir William left for him.” The new world the plantation workers hoped for, in the end, differed little from the old one.
Paradoxically, while the British presence on the island exacerbated ethnic tensions that had previously been virtually nonexistent, it also cloaked them and held them at bay. Once they left, Sinhalese politicians saw much to gain in stoking anti-Tamil sentiment and quickly moved to take advantage. In 1949, Indian Tamils were stripped of their citizenship in an effort to ensure a Sinhalese majority in the government. In 1956, passage of the “Sinhala Only” Act mandated that all government business would be conducted in the Sinhala language, effectively expelling Tamils from civil service. It was a transparently cynical move; “I have never found anything to excite the people in quite the way this language issue does,” said Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike. In 1972, the name of the country was changed from Ceylon (believed to originate from an archaic Tamil word and applied to the island by European colonizers) to Sri Lanka. As the government wrote their second-class status into law, the Tamil people increasingly became the target of violence from people emboldened by the bigotry of their leaders.
With no opportunity for legal or governmental redress and harried by recurring pogroms, some Tamils turned to what they felt was their only option—violence. In 1983, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers), a militant group later labeled a terrorist organization by 32 countries, launched a campaign of military assaults, assassinations and suicide bombings against the government.
The resulting civil war lasted for 26 years and killed over 100,000 people before government forces finally defeated the Tigers in 2009. More than 800,000 people were displaced, with many fleeing the country as refugees to India, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
In “A Story of Happiness,” a now-adult Muthu seeks asylum at the U.S. embassy with his daughter, Nalini, following the murder of his wife and two sons at the hands of Sinhalese in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. He recounts the story of his country’s downward spiral frankly, step by step, interspersed with short snippets of a poetic fable that Nalini has written for school three years after their escape, when they are settled in New Jersey. It’s a remarkable story, part history lesson, part emotional journey, and Kumarasamy balances each part well, helping readers unfamiliar with the events in Sri Lanka get a foothold while still maintaining momentum in the narrative with her graceful prose.
When the Padmanathans reach the United States, Kumarasamy uses Nalini and her sons, the U.S.-born Arjun and Karna, to illustrate the challenges faced by first- and second-generation immigrant families, particularly those who don’t fit neatly into the boxes that their new countrymen are inclined to sort them into. “You are a convenience store owner, a taxi driver, a doctor, a terrorist, an IT worker, an exchange student,” Karna muses. “An Egyptian, a Pakistani, a Trinidadian, an Indian. You wear your skin like it’s something borrowed, not owned.”
While the tug-of-war between Muthu’s longing for his lost homeland and Arjun and Karna’s coming of age in their new one drive much of the action, Kumarasamy makes Nalini the heart of the book with two beautifully vivid stories, “When We Were Children” and “The Butcher.” The first recounts her affair with her husband’s brother, Dilraj; the second is told from the perspective of Marlon, a lonely Angolan-Botswanan butcher who is drawn toward Nalini’s warmth and friendliness. Kumarasamy depicts the affair with Dilraj not as torrid but rather as desperate, an encounter between two lost innocents seeking comfort. “She had thought it was their grief that led them to kiss in the convenience store, their clothes still smelling of seawater and ash, but it was a human-shaped void, and standing at the edge, they had both wanted a closer look,” she writes. “When he held her, he was cautious not to give her pain and from his tenderness, she felt certainty in how their bodies progressed, each limb entwining in accord.” Kumarasamy’s writing is lush and evocative, capable of wresting beauty from sadness and finding slivers of hope amidst great tragedy.
Though the stories in Half Gods are rooted in a conflict that began decades ago and on the other side of the world, many of its themes are startlingly relevant to our current situation in the U.S.: politicians exploiting ethnic tensions, lacking either the vision to see where such acts would lead or the empathy to care; the suppression of votes, the narrowing of citizenship, and the weaponization of government institutions; a refugee seeking asylum with his child, their fates in the hands of distracted bureaucrats and petty tyrants. Akil Kumarasamy has written a book for our time and our place, showing us that others have been down this road before and warning us where we might end up if we aren’t vigilant.