The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai
Reviewed by Subhalakshmi Gooptu
‘In front of us the way is seen, but behind us the road is gone.’
The title of Shyam Selvadurai’s latest novel, The Hungry Ghosts brings out two important features of the novel- Selvadurai’s interest in Sri Lanka’s mythology and folklore and the haunting nature of the past, for an individual as well as the culture he belongs to. Being one of the most widely acclaimed South Asian Diaspora novelists, Selvadurai’s book immediately begs the reader to expect the kind of sensitivity and humour that characterised Funny Boy (Selvadurai’s first novel and winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men’s Fiction). Does Selvadurai’s latest novel evoke the similar emotionality of growing up? Maybe not entirely, but it does explore other concepts of human relationships, identities formed by communities, and the perpetual struggle of finding a home amidst political turmoil.
How it is different from usual Diaspora novels then? What makes it a worthwhile read? The answer lies in Selvadurai’s proficiency in narrating the emotional strain of his characters when it comes to the question of travel and home. The novel’s protagonist, Shivan (remarkably similar to the author’s own name) is introduced to us when he prepares to leave for Sri Lanka for one final time to care for his ailing grandmother. He is once againleaving home, since Canada is more comfortable and about to enter an alien place. Shivan introspects on his previous journey to Sri Lanka, which resulted in the death of his lover Mili, his disillusionment with his beloved grandmother and the political turmoil that estranged him from his childhood memories. Selvadurai rejects the simplistic notions of these ,origins. His distinctive skill lies in conducting sociological explorations of the dual ideas of ‘Homeland’ and ‘Diaspora’ without compromising his literary interest in the narrative.
The language of the novel is an easy-to-read narration of memories, filled with child-like nostalgia that turns into devastation at what he encounters in Sri Lanka on his return. He treats his characters as he would treat his country, which is traumatised with turmoil and violence- with compassion. The reader comes across a delicate balance of descriptive sections along with intense introspection. He draws a photograph-like image of his grandmother when he returns to Sri Lanka, while commenting simultaneously on the way that his past has lost its charm, almost shrunk in size. Selvadurai writes,
“My memories of her, I was realizing, had been from a child’s point of view and I was struck by how small she was amidst the bustle of activity. When I reached her, we were still, gazing at each other. Her face was thinner and more lined and the stroke had puckered her right cheek upwards. There was a walking stick beside her seat. My grandmother nodded to say, yes, she had changed.”
The most striking feature of the novel is the inter-weaving of folktales with main plot. While the main narrative constantly moves between the present and part of the novel’s time-frame, the Sri Lanka folktales haunt the memories of Shivan’s formative years. Selvadurai’s interest in traditional Sri Lankan Buddhist folklore led him to find a fitting title in the myth of the ‘hungry ghosts’ or of the ‘peréthaya*.’ Mythologies and folktales link the living of the present to ancestral histories and tradition of Sri Lankan culture. Hema, Shivan’s mother is decribed as having dreams of her husband as a ‘perethaya’
“…The same dream she has had since his death… A hungry ghost, with stork-like limbs and an enormous belly that he must prop up with his hands. The yellowed flesh of his face is seared to the skull, his mouth no larger than the eye of a needle, so he can never satisfy his hunger. He just stands, staring at her, caught between worlds.”
Selvadurai’s skill also lies in portraying human relationships. He tests the strength of human relation through almost all his characters. Selvadurai’s sense of character identities are an ambiguous mélange of the sexual, social, political and relational human. Shivan’s attachment to his mother and his sister, Renu,form his safety net in Canada. Mili, is an extraordinary character, one of the strongest and most resolute. He becomes the beacon of romantic ideals of love, passion and liberation. Shivan comes into his own by using Mili as a kind of koan, a union of learning and sharing, becoming a single entity and then splitting into two separate fascinating characters. Similarly, Shivan’s grandmother becomes one of the decisive agents in Shivan’s life. As he grows older, Shivan’s resistance towards her seems to be the resistance to constricting conventions. This equation is displaced by the grandmother’s own secrets of loss and anguish that shape her into a paradigm of the nostalgia of the past. Selvadurai is adept at invoking nostalgia and excitement of innocent childhood, but not without exploring anxiety of underlying ignorance of the world’s violence. While Funny Boy stood out as a refreshing novel, The Hungry Ghosts almost follows along the same vein, hoping to explore newer obstacles in the never ending exploration of finding one’s true self when you never feel at ‘home.’ The Hungry Ghosts is definitely over-shadowed by the delightful, yet frightening world of Funny Boy Arije’s adolescence, but does manage to delve into important values of remembrance, memory, duty, love and self-worth. While Shivan is unable to find his true home, he finds a hybrid ‘third space’ of uncertainty, which is no longer one of loss and perplexity but a new layer of the palimpsest of history, wherein, an individual has the responsibility to inscribe identity and selfhood. Migration and loss are unfolded along with motif of returning to a long-forgotten ‘home’ in The Hungry Ghosts, in order to create heart-rending and poignant adventure into human relationships amidst a world of violence and incertitude.
*“In Sri Lankan myth, a person is reborn a peréthaya because, during his human life, he desired too much- hence the large stomach that can never be filled through the tiny mouth. The peréthaya that appear to us are always our ancestors, and it is out duty to free them from their suffering by feeding Buddhist monks and transferring the merit of that deed to our dead relatives…”