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The Hungry Ghosts 

Shyam Selvadurai

Penguin Viking

Pages: 384 Rs. 599

Haunted by the weight of the past, Sri Lanka to Canada

Though accomplished, Shyam Selvadurai’s third novel is steeped so deeply in the narrator’s belief in destiny that it becomes a depressing read at times, writes Sharanya Manivannan.


Shyam Selvadurai

n the Buddhist folklore of Sri Lanka, a perethaya is a type of supernatural entity condemned to a permanent, insatiable hunger through sins of greed in a previous birth. They lurk at crossroads and outside what had once been their own homes, unable to have their fill of anything of sustenance. Only in adulthood does Shivan Rassiah, the narrator of Shyam Selvadurai's The Hungry Ghosts, come to realise that the naked perethi of his grandmother's stories is a reflection of how she perceives herself and her own life. Though surrounded by good fortune, she is denied, or withholds — through her own actions — her pleasure in any of it.

As an adolescent, Shivan is his grandmother's beloved pawn. Widowed early, his mother is forced to return to her mother's home with her two young, half-Tamil children in tow. Here, unable to understand the power dynamics of this arrangement yet compelled by his advantages within it, Shivan plays cat's cradle between manipulative grandmother and resigned mother, without grasp of the consequences. Karma is the novel's key theme: we pay for the sins of this lifetime as well as those that came before it, even if those sins were unintentional or without comprehension of their being sins at all. The wealthy grandmother is a landlord, with a thug — Chandralal — to do her bidding, and considers Shivan her only heir. He is to her, as she tells him often, "like rain soaking a parched land".

When communal tensions rise in Sri Lanka and foreign embassies begin to offer expedited migration to Tamils fleeing the country, Shivan sees an opportunity — though he does not himself quite understand why he wants to leave. Together with his sister Renu and his mother, he moves to Canada as a teenager. Here, he comes to terms — concurrently — with his homosexuality and his brown-ness. The manner in which Selvadurai deals with questions of migration is both honest and unusual in its relative dullness. He does not romanticise (or indulge in nostalgia about) the motherland to a point of overwhelm. The Rassiahs slip into immigrant life as it exists in the practical world. The children grow up as lower middle class children everywhere grow up, and do well with their access to Western academia, and the mother mellows into a calmly liberal lifestyle. Sri Lanka is not an obvious spectre, though every life — the novel fundamentally proposes — is a haunted one.

he novel opens with Shivan preparing to go to Sri Lanka for the first time in many years. His grandmother is poised to die after a series of strokes, and both practical needs and the needs of destiny — particularly the needs of absolution — require his return. Shivan contemplates the turns his life has taken and the memories he has thus acquired. The most traumatic among them, as well as the most beautiful among them, both come from his last visit to the country as a very young adult. In his early 20s, on a brief holiday, Shivan fell in love with a former schoolmate, the gorgeous Mili, a young political activist. While Mili was defying his role as a Cinnamon Gardens scion, Shivan was ironically coming into his own as his grandmother's heir — becoming drawn into her corrupt, bullying power nexus. Then tragedy struck, and horror at what he believes to be his own implicated position sent a grieving Shivan back to Canada so devastated that he severed meaningful ties with his family for years.

The protagonists know that there are consequences, yet they cannot help but allow the actions that result in them. Willingly or without thought, they perpetrate — and are punished, equally, by cosmic law and self-limitations. Shivan’s intractable and voracious grandmother’s hold over him is so complete as to be aggravating.

Eventually, he reconnects with his mother and Renu, and even finds a happy relationship with a young man named Michael. But he keeps the secret of his dark past — which he is unable to understand is in fact not his fault at all — from his partner, until the cost of withholding it becomes greater than the burden of bearing it.

Coming from the author of the searing Funny Boy, The Hungry Ghosts is certainly well-written, but it is also a depressing, sometimes difficult book. The inescapability of destiny is something the narrator believes in to such an extent that in many ways, the novel itself becomes like one of those cautionary tales his grandmother raised him on.

The protagonists know that there are consequences, yet they cannot help but allow the actions that result in them. Willingly or without thought, they perpetrate — and are punished, equally, by cosmic law and self-limitations. Shivan's intractable and voracious grandmother's hold over him is so complete as to be aggravating. Even at the end of her life, well into his own adulthood, he is beholden to her in a way he does not even comprehend. Selvadurai ends the book at an intriguing point — Shivan is about to return to confront his grandmother and become her caretaker, believing it to be fated, running away from his present by running toward his past. The reader is left demanding a sequel. Just like in the fables sprinkled through the book, if not in this one then in the next — in that book, perhaps, there will be redemption.

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