Forty-year-old Chhimi Tenduf-La’s India-connect goes back to his grandparents, the Tenduf-Las of Darjeeling who owned the famous Windamere Hotel. His great grandfather, Sonam Ladan La, was a leader in Tibet under the British, but when the Chinese came in, the family relocated to India where his father was born. Chhimi’s mother Elizabeth Moir is a pioneering educator, who has just been awarded an MBE by the Queen. Educated at Eton College and Durham University (Economics), Chhimi worked at the Children’s Society and then with Ernst & Young, in London, auditing investment trusts.
Sparkling with humour and featuring an endearing cast of characters, his first book, The Amazing Racist, is the story of Eddie Trusted, an English school teacher in Colombo, who wants to spend his life with Menaka Rupasinghe, a vibrant Sri Lankan beauty, but meets an obstacle in Thilak Rupasinghe, her orthodox terror of a father, whom he must woo since Thilak wants his daughter to marry someone of the same race, religion and caste, and if possible, from the same locality.
Here is an excerpt of the interview:
Amazing Racist has no intellectual pretensions, it just tells a story and it is more like a compelling film. Was this intentional?
I’m not an intellectual, nor a beauty queen, so I did not intend to propagate my thoughts to make the world a better place. While writing it, I did think of it as a film, because my goal was to tell a simple story that could entertain and challenge emotions in the space of a few hours. I’m obviously getting ahead of myself but, while writing it, I imagined Eddie being played by a Hugh Grant-type figure, because often in movies about other parts of the world, the lead is still white for some reason. Then I thought that Menaka could be played by Priyanka Chopra, but was pretty sure if she took the part she would want me to play Eddie myself. Then I imagined myself breaking it to Priyanka that I am married and can’t act. Poor thing.
The book has all the ingredients of a good international movie. Have you pitched it to any filmmaker or has anyone shown any interest?
I think, the way I have written it, it would be easy to adapt it into a movie, without losing anything. Whether anyone would want to invest in that is another matter, and I have no idea how to pitch it without being laughed at. It’s so far off that it’s like Muhammad Ali saying, if I even dream about it, I better wake up and apologise, but I do dream and I do apologise.
At some point the book reads like quite a populist novel heavy on emotional quotient. It dwells a lot on family values, bonding and also a father-daughter relationship in the latter part. As an Indian, one can relate to the characters. Have you met similar characters in Sri Lanka?
My father-in-law is not a racist, sexist, alcoholic, which is more than I can say for my mother-in-law (just joking). I found the book easy to write because each character is an amalgamation of people I know. This helped me to think whether or not the story was believable. I have seen a great deal of strong father-daughter relationships in this part of the world, maybe because mothers here drive their daughters mad!
What is your take on racism in the modern world? It exists everywhere, but you have written an endearing human story from the same angle and used humour to approach the issue.
As much as we accuse other countries of racism, it’s openly accepted here that parents disapprove of their children marrying the love of their life if they are from another race, colour or religion. That’s racist. Personally, I would never tell my daughter not to marry someone for these reasons; I will hate anyone she dates equally and fairly, regardless of their race.
The reference to LTTE and the war in Sri Lanka comes, but it never became truly a part of the story. Was it because you were not too touched by the LTTE issue since your stay in Sri Lanka?
I could be wrong but I think in the West they expect India to be like characters in books like White Tiger or Slumdog Millionaire. The same way, they expect Sri Lanka to be just about war. So I tried to avoid the war completely, but sold out in the end (and more so in my second book). We were all touched by the war in some ways. Our neighbours were assassinated a few feet from us, and we saw what our Tamil friends went through in the 1983 riots. Yet, I have no right to say I lived in a war because I was in the South (in Sri Lanka); I don’t think I would have been brave enough to have lived through what so many in the North did.
You are half Tibetan and half British, whose grandparents owned the iconic Windamere Hotel in Darjeeling. Tell us about your heritage?
Like many Tibetans, my father’s family left Tibet, so we know little of life there under Chinese rule. I do know that my great grandfather, Laden La, was quite a prominent figure in Tibet, and a favourite of the 13th Dalai Lama. I have fabulous memories of Darjeeling and the character-rich Windamere Hotel. Both my parents were born in India. I was brought up in London and Hong Kong, and then we moved to Delhi when I was seven. I now run an international school with my family, but my main purpose and role in life is as a father to a two-and-a-half-year-old budding comedian.
Are you writing any new book?
My second novel, Panther, comes out in July. It is about a child soldier getting a cricket scholarship to an elite Colombo school. Again, I let the war sneak in there, which I had not intended. I just wanted to write a high school story where the lead has a secret from which he can’t escape.