Shyam Selvadurai of Funny Boy fame, discusses his latest novel, The Hungry Ghosts, in this e-mail interview with Smriti Daniel The most interesting character in ‘The Hungry Ghosts’ is an old woman. Daya might be dressed in a butter yellow saree and pearls, but she wears them like battle armour – her pleats ‘starched to [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Weaving in Buddhist philosophy, autobiography and politics


Shyam Selvadurai of Funny Boy fame, discusses his latest novel, The Hungry Ghosts, in this e-mail interview with Smriti Daniel

The most interesting character in ‘The Hungry Ghosts’ is an old woman. Daya might be dressed in a butter yellow saree and pearls, but she wears them like battle armour – her pleats ‘starched to a knife edge’, her ‘forearms garrotted’ by gold bangles. In his grandmother, our narrator Shivan Rassiah, finds someone he both fears and detests; her love for him an overwhelming burden he bears with increasing desperation and decreasing grace. Aacho’s relationship with author Shyam Selvadurai is far more pleasant – she is the most complex female character he has attempted over his four books and one who is absolutely essential to his latest novel. “She was just supposed to be backstory, but once I had created Daya sitting on her bed, polishing her little silver teapot, there was no getting her off the page,” he says in an email interview with The Sunday Times.

In Daya, Shyam sees a familiar variant on Sri Lankan grandmothers: these are the women who came from rural gentry, married into the urban gentry and brought different ideas of womanhood with them. “They were not like their westernised Colombo counterparts who tended to mimic Victorian norms,” says the author. These women managed estates, bought and maintained dowry houses, controlled their husband’s finances and ran their homes. While Shyam teaches us to be wary of Daya’s unscrupulous business practices right away, it is through the stories that she delights in telling that we warm to her. Fittingly, the story which she relates to best leaves her vulnerable to the reader – in hearing it, we know what she fears most.

That tale – that of the naked perethi who is surrounded by abundance and unimaginable luxury but is condemned to never partake of either because of her previous actions – is one of many Buddhist stories that find their way into the book. Their inclusion reflects Shyam’s growing interest in Buddhist thought and philosophy. Though he shies away from calling himself a Buddhist (averse to organised religion and all that implies) he sees it as a “commonsense way to conduct my life and myself in the world.”

However, as a writer reared on western concepts which in their turn were based on western religion and philosophy, Shyam’s primary interest was in how Buddhist writers, particularly in ancient times, expressed Buddhism’s sophisticated concepts in narrative form. What he found “amazed and delighted” him. “To me these stories are literature and I treated them as such, not as exotic trivia to stick into my book to add on for a bit of ‘oriental’ colouring.” He made the story of the naked perethi the bones of his novel, then turned to the long dénouement of the Demoness Kali for further inspiration. Other narratives – such as that of the Thieving Hawk – appear and reappear across his pages as metaphors revealing the inner workings of characters’ emotional lives.

Though there are many things to love in this book, you’ll find few characters make the list. Certainly, neither Daya nor Shivan are at all likable but that, says Shyam, is how he intended it to be. He confesses candidly to being a “fairly autobiographical writer”: “My books are autobiographies of time, place, period detail and feeling but not of character or plot.” So while it comes in handy that Shivan like Shyam is gay, roughly the same age and has one parent who is Tamil and another who is Sinhalese, he nevertheless takes his creator to places Shyam has not set foot in before. “I feel that one must travel to a dark place with one’s character before coming up to the light. That a story or a drama should be cathartic in the true classical sense,” says Shyam, revealing a personal aversion to characters who “skim the surface of dark feelings, who seem to pander to the audience.” He knows Shivan is not lovable but hopes readers will root for him, will understand him anyway. “Likeable characters are dull. Shivan is tragically flawed in the way that Lear, Macbeth, Oedipus, Humbert Humbert in Lolita etc are flawed…We all have parts of us that are like him.”

Shyam’s autobiographical impulse extends to the context in which the novel is set. He wanted to incorporate the complicated politics of the 80s and 90s. “To me politics to fiction is like salt to food. Too much and you ruin the taste, too little and the book/meal is insipid…I think that once I had figured out that the politics would fit the theme of the book i.e. the cycles of violence and enmity, as in the Demoness Kali story, I had my scaffolding.”

As a young boy, Shivan is kept safe while the riots of 1983 rage outside their home. Afterwards, he speaks of the sizzle of fear that has bystanders start at the backfiring of a car and the disturbing sight of the building hollowed out by fire. ‘We never went, like others, to ogle the destroyed houses on neighbouring streets but little messengers of destruction would periodically arrive in our garden – birds feathering their nests with crisped book pages, squirrels carrying cupboard knobs and buttons to bury in our flower beds or an occasional bone whose provenance we did not want to guess.’

His decision to grapple (though briefly) with the riots in fiction once again is the inevitable result of how it changed his life. “To me and to the class I write about (i.e. the English-speaking middle and upper middle class of Colombo), 1983, marks a watershed for us, just as the JVP insurrection was for the south or the evacuation of Jaffna in the early 1990’s was for the people of Jaffna. 1983, really marks some point of no return after which the country, already teetering at the edge of chaos, really began its fall into the chaos and horror of the civil war… It would really be impossible to write about someone like me and not deal with 1983.”

This truthfulness extends to the act of immigration and the challenges that faced the Selvadurais on their arrival in Toronto, the year after the riots broke out. Shyam was only 19. In the novel, Shivan finds a gay scene that is ever so faintly racist and a leak in the basement that has their flimsy new house smelling of damp. Poverty brings with it multiple indignities, friends are few and dreams of a better future wither under the strain of the grim present.

Shyam recreates the greyness of Scarborough from memory – his family lived in that same area for a while. (The basement bedroom of Shivan’s is an exact replica of the one Shyam had.) He remembers that his mother, a successful doctor in Sri Lanka, couldn’t practise there and had to take on work as a file clerk. But there are critical diversions between fact and fiction. While the move to Toronto “felt like it was for the family in the novel,” it was different says Shyam because “we had each other as a family and we were strong as a family and that is something that Shivan doesn’t have.” It’s something of a comfort then, that while we can’t be certain of Shivan’s future, we know Shyam is living his happy ending. Here is a successful author with a new book eagerly awaited by his legion of fans, bearing on its first page a dedication to Andrew, who to him is ‘like rain soaking a parched land.’ Having found work he enjoys, teaching creative writing at York University in Toronto, Shyam has been able to share his learning with Sri Lankan writers through his Write to Reconcile Project. It is in many ways a life Shivan would have envied, not least because Shyam has a place here in Sri Lanka and is welcomed when he returns home.

The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai is available at Sarasavi Bookshops and is priced at Rs. 1250.

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