The ghosts never go away, of the pasts, of memories, of abandoned and discarded parts of oneself, of awkward details lingering from silenced familial histories. Shyam Selvadurai, walking the tightrope between his Sri Lankan and Canadian identities, seems to rely on the past’s enduring enticements for an artist, who tills the fertile landscape of remembrance with the waters of perspective and bathes it with love, inherited and lost.
‘In Sri Lankan myth, a person is reborn as a perethaya because, during his human life, he desired too much .. The perethayas that appear to us are always our ancestors, and it is our duty to free them from their suffering…’ So says Selvadurai, in the opening chapter of the book, as the narrator, Shivan Ressiah, a Sri Lankan-Canadian gay man in his thirties, reflects on his thirteenth birthday, on which the titular ghost of the novel, his grandmother Daya, takes him out on a ride on her Bentley and tells him that he’s to inherit her massive wealth, amassed over the years.
The Hungry Ghosts, Selvadurai’s ‘long-awaited novel’, written more than a decade after his mid-nineties roaring debut with Funny Boy, followed up quickly by The Cinnamon Lovers, is a quaint and reflective piece, that revisits many of the old tropes — sexual identity, Sinhalese-Tamil conflict, genocide in Sri Lanka, culture, religion and the history of the island nation, among others. However, he sprinkles the new book with generous doses of accounts of the immigrant life in Canada, spent first in Toronto, then in Vancouver, detailing the strange responses to the demands of a multicultural, but still predominantly white society. But Selvadurai goes beyond the usual character sketches ranting about discrimination on the basis of race or culture. In fact, the narrator Shivan is still housed in Toronto in the novel’s mid-1990s present day, as he cleans up his messy basement and reminisces about his Sri Lankan past that he could never junk, despite several episodes of extreme trauma, both for himself and his mother.
Shivan Ressiah goes down into the cellars of his history, both personal and political, between gulps of premium Scotch and wiping the dirt that has settled over the years in an unloved Toronto home bought with his grandmother’s money. Shivan, along with his sister Renu and mother Hema, had come to for Canada to escape the brutalities of the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict and the protracted war waged by the notorious LTTE in the mid-1980s. Now, after a decade of little or no contact with his grandmother, who’s ailing and frail after repeated episodes of damaging stroke, Shivan is slowly reconciling to the prospect of a reunion that is feared, unwanted but unavoidable. He falls back on the old Buddhist myth of the perethayah, of the hungry ghosts, whose souls are reborn with enormous metaphorical bellies and miniscule mouths, and are condemned to a lifetime of greed and frustration, and must be set free by kind relatives, the progenies and blood descendants.
Selvadurai attempts a breathtaking and wide-angle portrait of the grandmother, Daya, as he recounts the incidents from his childhood, when he saw her lording over her tenants all over Colombo, whom she discards with a punitive glee and on a whim, particularly if they fail to pay their rents in time. Despite bequeathing all her wealth to Shivan, Daya is hungry to have more control over the male heir to her humongous wealth, but her grandson, who’s as cunning, manipulative and petulant as this matriarch, but he instead disappoints her with his homosexuality — taboo and illegal in the 1980s war-torn Sri Lanka. Not only is Shivan a child of miscegenation between a Tamil father and a Sinhalese mother, a talented but ill-fated Hema, he is also a gay man whose sexuality drives his authoritarian grandmother to have the love interest, the handsome Mili, murdered, in her bid to both rectify and punish her wayward grandson.
The trauma of losing Mili pushes the Shivan over an emotional precipice, as he severs all his connections with Daya, who has by now turned into a Disckensian caricature of her former imperious self, a spent Mrs Havisham in her mansion, tethered to her rules and outmoded sensibilities. Yet Daya, too, has a backstory, a suspected indiscretion in her remote past that made her family disown her at first, a gesture she reciprocates in a heightened manner, cutting everyone off. But shrewd and self-fetching, Daya manages to survive and makes a killing in the rental business, buying up properties all over Colombo with the help of a local goon. Between Shivan’s Proustian languor recollecting his encounters with Daya and his walks around his house in Toronto, the exquisite and extensive remembrances of Sri Lanka reemerge as a lost continent floating up once again after staying buried for long.
Selvadurai paints human relationships, the nuances of conflict, the dolorous emotions and the bewildering spurts of sudden joys and discoveries, with beautiful colours of depth and understanding. His renditions of Sri Lanka of the mid-1980s and the Canada of the 1990s seem to merge into one another, often seamlessly, at other times with the requisite friction that enhance the act of story-telling.
Despite great similarities between Selvadurai himself and the narrator Shivan, the writer and the protagonist never really become one, as Selvadurai makes it very clear that he has no intentions of giving Shivan contours that are larger than life. In fact, the often wallowing in self-pity Shivan, storming into and out of conflicts, wimpy about being left alone, only gradually begins glowing in the authorial calm that Selvadurai’s lush prose is tinged with. It is only with this newfound stillness that Selvadurai can hold his ground, with his cyclical, quasi-religious and reclined narrative of tempestuous pauses and surrenders to memory.