Book Review

Fate is Inescapable
The Hungry Ghosts: Shyam Selvadurai

Arjun Raj Gaind

Publisher: Penguin/Viking
Genre: Fiction
Extent: 384 pp
Price: Rs 599

In Chinese Buddhist tradition, an egui,or a starving ghost, is a being that is not fully alive, in the sense that it is driven by such atavistic cravings that it is unable to appreciate the myriad delights most people enjoy. A similar idea is seen in Tibetan cosmogony, the notion of the preta, the form in which those humans who cannot transcend their material desires are fated to be reborn, doomed to spend eternity afflicted with an all-consuming, insatiable hunger.

This idea is the primary leitmotif which underpins Shyam Selvadurai's dark and often painful novel, with its Sri Lankan idea of the peréthaya, the hungry ghosts. As he writes, '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 novel is a saga spanning three generations of a Sri Lankan clan, in the style of Amy Tan or James Michener. It tells the story of Shivan Rassiah, a young immigrant of mixed Tamil and Sinhalese origins, who lives in Canada. As he prepares for his homecoming to Sri Lanka, he recollects the tumults of his childhood, interspersing the uproar of Sri Lanka's violent history with the story of his own sexual awakening and his painful struggle to come to terms with the fact that he is a homosexual.

Part bildungsroman and part historical epic, the story is non-linear, often to the point of being jarring, moving back and forth from Colombo during the Civil War years to Toronto of the 1980s, to present-day Vancouver. The key figure that dominates Shivan's youth is his grandmother, a Livia-like figure who rules over the clan with an iron fist. She is both the key benefactor and primary antagonist in Shivan's life, an unrepentantly cruel woman who would stop at nothing to have her way. She despises Shivan's mother for having married a Tamil, and in spite of her disdain for Shivan's mixed blood, takes him under her wing to spite her daughter, using him as a pawn in her never-ceasing prevarications.

It is to escape her domineering influence that Shivan's mother takes her children and emigrates to Canada. However, rather than finding the perfection of the American Dream, all they find is even more hardship. While his mother wastes away in a job she despises, Shivan himself grows more and more estranged from his sister, and experiences the bewilderment of being brown in a predominantly white world, all the while coming to terms with the fact that he is gay while haunting the meat markets.

One of the central themes of this novel is the idea of karma, that fate is inescapable, and that no man can escape the sins of the past. Perhaps the best personification of this is Shivan's grandmother, who is by far the most memorable character – a Sinhalese Miss Havisham, living in colonial splendour amidst her vast landholdings. Sadly, even though she is quite affluent, her riches fail to bring her a moment's pleasure, only serving, instead, to further deepen her resentment. And it was this very rancour that had impaired Shivan and turned him into a ghost as well.

The best part of the story is the Buddhist myths interwoven within the narrative. One such is the story of the perethi, a poor woman who steals from a group of drunks. Soon after, she offers a famished monk a meal. For this worthy deed, she is reincarnated in a "golden mansion on an island." Nonetheless, she cannot evade celestial punishment for her theft, and as a result, she is doomed to remain naked and starving, in spite of being surrounded by copious wealth. As Shivan narrates, "Many years would pass before I understood that my grandmother saw herself as that naked perethi, marooned on an island, surrounded by so much that is good in life but unable to enjoy it. Everything she touched, everything she loved, disintegrated in her hands.'

Selvadurai has stated in several interviews that The Hungry Ghosts is an emotional autobiography, based in part on the anguish of his own experiences as an immigrant. While his language is rich, often teetering on sublime, and his storytelling occasionally exquisite, it is the characterisation of Shivan that makes this novel somewhat difficult to read. As a protagonist, he is at best annoying, and at worst, petulant to the point of being melodramatic. At the end, you find yourself wishing that if only he had been a little more engaging rather than whiny, perhaps the reader would not walk away from this novel feeling rather like a hungry ghost himself.

Arjun Gaind has an MA in Asian History and an MPhil in Creative Writing. He writes comic books for a living, and his first novel, a memoir about the troubles in Punjab during 1984, is due for publication later this year.