Review : Half Gods

There is pain in every single story in Half Gods by Akil Kumarasamy. Like an old wound that reminds you of its existence at every misstep or at night when you’re already struggling to fall asleep. It guides every thought, every action. Consciously or subconsciously. The one who has been wounded does everything they can to keep that wound asleep or to prevent more. Such is the truth of anything that has managed to cut that deep into a person. It does not go away. Get hurt deep enough and it will even pass on to their children. Their children’s children.

And they don’t even realize it. Not really.

The collection opens with the story ‘Last Prayer’ and introduces the readers to the main family that the other stories involve or are connected to. There’s Grandfather (Muthulingam), his daughter Nalini, and his two grandsons Arjun and Karna. The cast expands to Grandfather’s childhood friend, a young student he knew, a butcher whose shop Nalini frequents, and the adopted daughter of Grandfather’s childhood friend. They are all either the direct victims of a tragedy, like Grandfather who experienced the Sri Lankan civil war and survived it by leaving the country, or are close enough to them to feel their wounds, like Arjun and Karna. And like Kumarasamy writes in the story ‘When We Were Children’: 

“Given the circumstances, they had all lived the best they could manage.”

What I appreciated about the collection is how the unfolding of this generational trauma is revealed bit by bit by the individual stories of the characters. The reader must parse it for themselves as Kumarasamy does not spell it out for the reader. It makes the experience personal for the reader themselves, much like the way we figure out why we are the way that we are because something happened to the people that raised us. For example, Arjun is mean to his younger, softer brother Karna and in some places it’s more than just classic sibling rivalry. Arjun sees the world as a cruel place and he is trying to prepare his brother for it. Whether this is right or wrong is not a judgment Kumarasamy makes. She simply presents it to us alongside moments where Arjun shows his love for Karna in less cruel ways, like giving the latter company after a break-up. 

The cast is so real, so masterfully fleshed out, that the traumas of the characters are shown even in the stories where they are not the main subject. Grandfather lost his wife and two sons in the civil war. All he has left when he comes to America is his daughter, Nalini. In ‘When We Were Children’ – a story mainly about Nalini – it is revealed that he had used a decades’ worth of savings to buy a two-story house. She says the house is too big and while she sits in the backyard with her father, she looks back into the house and thinks “…how perfect it would have been for them, her mother and the twins.”

For immigrants and/or people dealing with generational trauma, these stories might be too familiar to stomach reading. Or the familiarity might elicit a feeling of “alright tell me something new”.  The collection is not for readers belonging to those two groups. It’s for the ones trying to understand themselves and perhaps the cast of Half Gods can offer a direction for them to look. It’s for the people that have lived in a cushy bubble and could use a little awareness of the state of the world, to the reality that billions live in. It’s for Tamil kids and adults who don’t get enough stories featuring characters who look like them, who have names like theirs, and have similar lives.Or it’s for some other fourth or fifth group of people I didn’t mention because it’s a perspective I couldn’t think of. To them I say that I hope this review still gives them a reason to give Half Gods a shot. Akil Kumarasamy’s subtle, but often still visceral, prose is worth experiencing.

-R.S. Saha

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