The mul­ti­ple tragedies of Sri Lanka come alive vividly in this finely crafted novel

India Today - - LEISURE - By An­var Alikhan

Ilived in Sri Lanka in those slow, sim­mer­ing years be­fore the Civil War, and among my friends was an in­ter- racial cou­ple, he Sin­halese and she Tamil. They in­vited me to the house­warm­ing of the new home they had built, and fixed a plaque above the front door: ‘ Peace be upon this house and all who en­ter here.’ Within two months that house had been burned down in the great ri­ots of 1983, and lit­tle sur­vived ex­cept that sad, charred, black­ened me­tal plaque: ‘ Peace be upon this house…’ My friends left the coun­try for Canada, never to re­turn.

There was a sim­i­lar trauma in Shyam Sel­vadu­rai’s life. His fam­ily— mother Sin­halese, fa­ther Tamil— also left Sri Lanka for Canada in 1983, and the scars of that ex­pe­ri­ence are one of the themes that run through his works, right from his first, pre­co­ciously bril­liant Funny Boy. Sel­vadu­rai’s long- awaited new book, The Hun­gry Ghosts, is the story of Shivan Ras­siah, a young gay man, and his dys­func­tional Tamil- Sin­halese fam­ily liv­ing, at first, in Sri Lanka and, later, in Canada. The book takes its ti­tle from the Bud­dhist parable told to Shivan by his Sin­halese grand­mother, of perethayas, or “hun­gry ghosts”: Peo­ple who ask for too much from life, and are there­fore re­born with enor­mous bel­lies, but mi­nus­cule mouths, so that they’ll never be able to sat­isfy their hunger.

Sel­vadu­rai plays a sly trick on the reader. The pro­tag­o­nist, the first- per­son Shivan, whom one would ex­pect to em­pathise with, is a char­ac­ter one soon grows to dis­like: Weak, self­ish, ma­nip­u­la­tive, cruel and self- pity­ing. We see that right from the be­gin­ning, when, as a fright­ened seven- year- old he is first pre­sented to his im­pe­ri­ous, es­tranged grand­mother, Loku Nona, who im­me­di­ately falls in love with him— her sole male heir. The lit­tle Shivan has no feel­ings for her, and yet, even at that small age, in­stinc­tively be­gins his ma­nip­u­la­tion of her. It is some­thing that will win him many priv­i­leges, start­ing with the right to ride be­side her in her an­cient Bent­ley as she drives around Colombo, in­spect­ing her properties, and tor­ment­ing her ten­ants. Con­versely, the char­ac­ter that one slowly be­gins to em­pathise with is the grand­mother, who is pre­sented as a Dick­en­sian char­ac­ter, heart­less and for­bid­ding, plot­ting with her thug­gish hench­man Chan­dralal to in­tim­i­date ten­ants and cor­ner the properties of Tamil fam­i­lies cheaply. But by the end of the book the grand­mother, be­trayed and vul­ner­a­ble, is crip­pled by a se­ries of strokes, and her once grand house is fall­ing apart. So Shivan quits his job in Van­cou­ver, to re­turn to Colombo, once again, to look af­ter her. But some­how we know, deep in­side, that it’s yet an­other cold ma­nip­u­la­tion, to get him­self writ­ten back into her will, be­fore she dies.

Sel­vadu­rai is a mas­terly writer, with a gift for mar­ry­ing the per­sonal with the po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural. Thus he paints a painful por­trait of not just Shivan, his fam­ily and his love life, but also of Sri Lanka in the 1980s, a time when the govern­ment was fight­ing not only the Tamil sep­a­ratists in the north, but also, si­mul­ta­ne­ously, the Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ist ter­ror­ists in the south, and I thought I recog­nised peo­ple and in­ci­dents, just suf­fi­ciently dis­guised and wo­ven into the story— like my friend, hu­man rights ac­tivist Richard de Zoysa, whose body was dis­cov­ered on a beach one morn­ing with a bul­let hole be­tween the eyes: Just an­other vic­tim of the death squads of the time. The Bud­dhist para­bles that Sel­vadu­rai punc­tu­ates the nar­ra­tive with give the story per­sonal as well as po­lit­i­cal, a sad, al­most karmic, in­evitabil­ity.

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