Ghost who balks

Lead review

Ghost who balks

Sri Lankan author Shyam Selvadurai’s ‘The Hungry Ghosts’ is a tale of relationships shrouded in expectations and selfish motives, set in the backdrop of the civil war in Lanka, writes Shreekumar Varma.

At the heart of this story is an embittered grandmother, old and withered at just 65, defeated by love, life and mostly her own intransigence. The book begins as she takes her young grandson out on a rent-collecting tour of her properties, introducing him to the life she wants him to live, and ends with the grandson travelling back to her to heal a breach.

The place: Sri Lanka, shimmering, simmering land of beauty and discontent. The people: saddled with sad back stories that rub off on each other, getting them all sore and unsettled. The issues: sexuality and belonging.

It’s true, if your past has promises to keep, if you’re not like other people, if you live in a land torn by conflict, if your personal freedom is a hatstand where intimates routinely hang their decisions, life isn’t such a breeze. And this book, almost four hundred pages of it, has varicose veins of heartbreak running through it, every airy, lighter moment soon to darken into sobbing claustrophobia.

The grandson Shivan Rassiah is the story’s narrator. After the death of his father, a poor Tamil (and therefore a forbidden match), his mother Hema returns to her mother’s home with her daughter and son. The old lady Daya is still bitter, but the sight of her grandson melts something in her. Selvadurai’s Daya is a complete character, a creative triumph the reader can sink his teeth into. Or perhaps, complete isn’t the right word; she keeps growing, emerging, suffusing the story, a hardboiled presence and a haunting absence, a character never completely consumed, a characterisation resting on self-centredness and old belief. “It’s a terrible thing to be living out the effects of bad karma,” she tells Shivan.

She’s like those “hungry ghosts” she fears, a perethaya. In Lankan legend, a perethaya is someone who “desired too much” in life and is reborn as a hungry spirit, an ancestor who appears before us with an enormous stomach and a tiny mouth, its hunger insatiable. Impossible to appease them directly, it becomes our duty to feed Buddhist monks and siphon that merit to our ancestors. The past haunts, using us to slake its hunger. In the old lady’s case, her consuming appetite for obedience has to be appeased with many sacrifices from many people.

As Shivan grows up, his life is influenced and then radically changed by two critical triggers. The land erupts into the 80s violence. And Shivan discovers he’s homosexual. Both are crucial to the way his life will go from now.

When the Tamil problem gets too hot, it is Shivan who initiates their escape to Canada, a ruthless separation from his grandmother. Canada, a hungered-after dream, turns out to be drab and juiceless. Toronto is a terrible departure from Colombo, which was home after all. Selvadurai paints people with slow, revealing strokes and infuses places and situations with the colours of each character’s experience — as in the sordid search for male companionship that takes Shivan through unfulfilling streets of everyone else’s happiness. The Sri Lankan political condition is a backdrop through the years, with Tigers, JVP, Government, IPKF, activists and victims making a mark on the book’s characters, in fact staining them.

Repetitions reiterate and reinvent ambience. Hema and Shivan arrive at Daya’s house and always wait for Rosalind, the maid, to let them in. For the dried-up grandmother, her grandson is “like rain soaking a parched land”, a sentiment also echoed on other occasions. Rootlessness can never be addressed even by those closest to you.

Shivan’s interactions with his mother and sister are interesting, each holding on to their positions, hurting and protecting each other all the while. Shivan is a patient raconteur, getting us under the skins of people and situations: Chandralal, the small-time thug, who rises to eminence through Daya’s benevolence, his loyalty and avarice; Sriyani, a supportive human rights worker; the complex weaves that bring alive his mother Hema.
In fact, he’s so meticulous that, despite early indications, it’s only towards the end of the book we realise with surprise what a negative, destructive, self-centred person he himself is, a ghost with the burden of past love, who baulks at redemption through new love. It’s as if Selvadurai holds a mirror to the reader who feels goodness and love, but is tainted with an unrecognised blemish that alienates and dooms.

In his relationships with two countries, his mother and sister, most of all his grandmother, his two great lovers — the Sri Lankan Mili whose cruel loss shatters him and separates him from his grandmother, and Michael who patiently tries to ride his tantrums — it’s clear that however deep your love for another, demons are waiting to claim you. Finally, as it happens in this case, love is left bleeding at its own altar.

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