Observing emotions

Chhimi Tenduf-La follows his well-received books, The Amazing Racist and Panther, with this collection of short stories that strap you into the carousel seat, then takes you on a rapid-paced ride through the suburbs of Sri Lanka, which is where the author lives. We meet a motley crew of interesting people. Barring a couple of them, none are really nice and some of them are downright deadly, but ‘interesting’ fairly covers it.

Look at the way the very first story begins, ‘He wears swimming goggles and a bright yellow raincoat. I am naked from the waist down’. As we read on, we discover that the narrator is on a table and her doctor-father, the one wearing the raincoat and goggles, is about to perform an abortion on her.

Employing the style by now familiar to his readers, Tenduf-La cooks up story after story, adding the spice slowly, steadily, letting it simmer before bringing it to a gradual boil. Just when you think there is a healthy dose of normalcy to the brew, along comes something that totally upends the dish, and we are left gasping in amusement or dismay.

One way or the other, all the characters leave a mark on us. The rich young girl who was raped and then forced to have an abortion by her family, spends the rest of her life desperately seeking the son given up for adoption. The sinister preacher Conrad Cecil, who runs a church in his own name, the Church of Conrad Cecil, is, of course, neck-deep in all the most unholy acts possible. A promising young cricketer desperate to get into the team going to England to play club cricket, realises belatedly that what he has to give in exchange to his coach may be a bit too much. There is a smooth-talking security guard and his utterly charming son; the former needs to get the latter a bike in order to keep his place as the best father. Then there’s the young and wild couple who wake up to a Whatsapp message from the police warning that the Sky City killer is out on the loose and sports a devil-mask tattoo on the upper chest. Within minutes, the man picks up an antique hand axe off his wall and there follows a most breathless chase. The killer escapes on a motorbike and rides into the next story, which ends with a car chase and two dead beings, a man and a dog.

By now, the reader has realised that these characters are walking in and out of each other’s stories, an appealing device that totally works here.

Apart from the security guard’s sweet son, there’s another bright young man called Pasindu who has the reader rooting for him. Pasindu is dirt-poor; that he can live with. What embarrasses him no end is his eager mother trying to integrate him into his school, buying the other wealthy kids’ pencils and erasers and distributing tasteless sandwiches, which they eat because they have been brought up to be polite.

Then there’s a clever reveal tucked casually inside a story which deals with the pleasure and pain of a homosexual relationship. The title story is quite definitely the most chilling of the lot; Chin-up Channa, who we have met before in the cellar of Conrad Cecil’s church, is now a gym instructor, and in walks a lovely lady who is assigned to him. Chinna turns stalker and gets away with it, time after time. He’s in her house, in her bedroom, feeding her baby a bottle of milk and putting it to sleep afterwards, and the reader runs the gamut of revulsion, dismay, terror.

We meet the dog that we saw getting killed in the car crash in an earlier story. It’s anything but a good life for that dog; when we meet him again, he is being flung off a terrace by a sadist. Then he is adopted by the woman who is pining for the son she was forced to give up; Udeni, we are now told, is her name. But that brief period of contentment is soon over because the dog is out on the road when the police are chasing the Sky City killer. The collateral is a tuk-tuk driver and Aiyo, the dog.

There is a maid working for a rich couple, whose abusive husband comes and steals from the house when they are away. Of course, this costs the maid her job. We meet her erstwhile employer in a graveyard as he helps Udeni bury Aiyo. There is Nimal Warnakulasuriya Patabendige Ushantha Dias, who is detained at Heathrow where the cops have been tipped off that an Asian man is likely to be smuggling out some star sapphires. This gets to be an interesting encounter because Dias doesn’t submit meekly to a search; he repeatedly calls the cops out for racism. When Dias finally gets on the plane to Sri Lanka, he sits next to a young man who is returning to meet the mother who had given him up for adoption, many years ago.

These are stories that spin on one pivot. That may sound simple, but actually, the tales are complex in their layering of emotions. One terrific read.

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