NEA Literature Fellowships

V.V. Ganeshananthan

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(2014 - Prose)

Excerpt from "Hippocrates"

When I woke up I could hear the bells of a temple ringing in the distance. I wondered what the temples in Colombo were like. They could not be as big as our temples in Jaffna, I thought; the gods of Colombo must be cramped and noisy, sweaty and smoky, elbow to elbow.

I could hear someone else moving around towards the back of the house, in the kitchen, the sounds of a kettle being settled onto a stove. I had already learned to count on the sounds people make, and to consider them as markings, like fingerprints for the ears. It was not the sound of the servant woman; it was my uncle’s quiet, quick step. I put a housecoat on over my nightdress and went out into the corridor and back towards the kitchen, very slowly so as to not disturb his routine. Halfway there, I heard him turn the radio on. The voice of a news announcer crackled out into the morning. I heard him very clearly. I heard what he said, and then I forgot to be quiet and ran, the pounding of my feet waking up the house.

The voice on the radio said what had happened was this: a pregnant woman had gone to a government office building in Colombo. She had ridden the elevator to the top floor of this building, which was an important building that I did not know, having arrived too recently to understand the whereabouts of importance in the city. At the top floor, she got off and asked to see a man in charge, whose office was very large and had a wooden desk. She told them that she had an appointment; the secretary checked the records and saw that this was true.

The voice on the radio did not say this, but I imagined it to be so: the woman was seated and offered tea, which she accepted, with milk and plenty of sugar. She was from Jaffna; she liked a lot of sugar in her tea. She waited for ten minutes, and then, when the secretary called her, she picked up her bag and rose from the chair to be escorted into the office. The man shook her hand and called her Madam, respectfully, although she was not very old, perhaps no older than her mid-twenties. Her pregnancy was obvious, but this did not desexualize her in his eyes; she was a very beautiful woman, wearing a large green silk tunic and trousers that brought out the fairness of her skin and the darkness of her hair. She was wearing a red pottu between her eyebrows, the mark of a married woman, although she was not actually married. She shook his hand back and smiled at him disarmingly.

The voice on the radio only said: She pressed a button to detonate the primary bomb she was carrying.

I suppose that was the part that mattered.

I want you to understand: I was not born to fight for a political cause. I did not feel chosen. And this woman was not born this way. She was not chosen. She was born in a village in Jaffna, and soldiers raided her house, and she was gang-raped, and she watched the men who had raped her kill her four brothers. I want you to understand: this is not an excuse, or an explanation. It is a fact. She was not born to walk into an office building on an ordinary day, a day when the sun was shining and three-wheelers cluttered the streets, to try to detonate a bomb. And in fact, later, the forensics said that was what had happened. She tried to detonate a bomb. But she failed, because it had been built improperly. I want you to imagine this, as I did when I heard that: the bomb blew up, but not completely, not enough to kill them quickly as she had intended. The first small, potent blast caught her and the man together, and with her right arm gone and his left leg severed beneath the knee, they looked like one person dancing. Her hair fell out of its pins into his open mouth. Two building security guards burst into the room after only a few moments, and she screamed, and they pointed their guns at her. She held up like a prize the other bomb, the auxiliary fuse and its detonator, and shouted in Tamil. The man reached out to wrestle with her, screaming also but in Sinhalese, and the guards aimed for her. Their training had not prepared them for this. If they shot the bomb, it would blow up; if they shot the woman, she would probably manage to detonate it anyway. They aimed for the woman; they fired; they missed. They aimed again, the man shouting again, trying to push her between himself and the guards, and this time one of them hit her in the shoulder. Blood bloomed on the green silk. The other one aimed and shot her again. The bullet pierced her neck, and as she reached up to hold the wound, she let go of the other detonator.

She died and she killed other people and she did not mind, and in this she was different from me forever.

(Excerpt from a short story originally published in Granta, and is also an excerpt of a novel forthcoming from Random House.)

V.V. Ganeshananthan’s debut novel, Love Marriage (Random House, 2008), was long-listed for the Orange Prize and named one of Washington Post Book World’s Best of 2008. She is a graduate of Harvard College, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the MA program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a Bollinger Fellow specializing in arts and culture journalism. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Granta, the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, Ploughshares, and The Best American Non-Required Reading. She has served on the boards of the South Asian Journalists Association and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Phillips Exeter Academy, Yaddo, and the MacDowell Colony have awarded her fellowships. She previously taught creative writing at the University of Michigan. In the fall of 2015, she will begin teaching at the University of Minnesota.

Photo by C. Wilt

Author's Statement

Although it addresses related material and themes, my second book is very different, in many ways, from my first. Perhaps every book feels harder than what preceded it, but regardless, working with this complex material, I sometimes feel myself fumbling alone in a dark tunnel. I’m grateful for the NEA holding up a lantern: the grant offers me not only an expression of faith, but also precious time and room and resources for research and oh! headspace. Now, perhaps, I can begin to feel around in the not-as-dark for the shape of this story. I’m honored to be a 2014 NEA Literature Fellow.