LOVE IN THE TIME OFWAR
The multiple tragedies of Sri Lanka come alive vividly in this finely crafted novel
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.