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Updated: July 6, 2013 16:54 IST

Autobiography of a feeling

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The Hungry Ghosts; Shyam Selvadurai, Penguin, Rs.599.
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The Hungry Ghosts; Shyam Selvadurai, Penguin, Rs.599.

An evocative blend of history, politics and religion that negotiates immigrant anxieties with love and longing for the homeland.

Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts is a non-linear novel of dislocation moving from Colombo to Toronto and Vancouver with the gay protagonist, Shivan Rassiah, going through the travails of shedding the painful memories of his turbulent past in Sri Lanka, a past where he seems almost consumed by the obsessive love of his grandmother. The intention in the novel is not to mount a defence of diasporal space but to focus on constructions of identity and culture, on the contradictory voices within transglobal locations. The existence of spectacular subcultures, of migrants, of asylum seekers, continually opens up those surfaces to other potentially subversive readings. But there is no one moment for studying this.

People have moved across spaces through history. There seems to be no cultural sanctity left any more and the agitated quest for home and belonging continues. However, the diasporic state throws up an opportunity to think through some of the vexed questions concerning religion and politics, belonging and distance, insider and outsider space. It would, therefore, be an appropriate point of departure to take up these issues and examine the immigrant who corrupts the purity of a cultural ethos and at the same time contributes to the idea of multiculturalism and plurality. In this context, it is clear that cultural difference is essentially ambivalent, liminal, and full of ironies and aporias.

Selvadurai knits a Buddhist myth into the narrative of his story by borrowing the idea that the dead can be born as hungry ghosts if born greedy in their present life, devoured by an unquenchable desire to possess land, wealth along with an authoritative control over people, a reflection of the struggle for power visible in the nightmare of Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Sinhalese havoc. The deeply personal with all its raw human longing is underpinned by the tragedy of the nation. The grandmother’s love is of the ‘hungry ghost’ seen in the common human desire to smother our dear ones, an emotion literally depicted in the turmoil in Sri Lanka that is brought about by the love and struggle for one’s nation state.

The novel stands out as an evocative blend of history, politics and religion negotiating immigrant anxieties with love and longing for the homeland. Shivan plans to return to Colombo to rescue his grandmother from the rundown house she now resides in and which had been once her pride. But within his heart there is the deep struggle to get rid of the hungry ghosts that haunt him from the past. He is in a state of disaffection both with the country of his residence and his motherland, which he is at pains to accept in its present state of turmoil. As Selvadurai argues, “Shivan cannot find happiness, and he can’t let go, or accept. You can’t just leave your past behind, but rather you must come to terms, incorporate, and absorb your karmic past. But, this is a human condition not just a Shivan condition…. If you’ve inherited certain things, you have to come to terms with what you’ve inherited. Free will is how you deal with what you’re given, but you can’t escape what happens to you. You must find a way to deal with it.”

Past transgression can bring about spiritual drawbacks that bind future outcomes. Having faced the tragedy of the death of his gay lover at the hands of his ‘hungry’ grandmother who is completely devastated to know about the sexuality of her only heir, Shivan migrates to Toronto. His whole existence is to shed the burden of history and though he tries to find solace in a new relationship with a man, he realises that it is impossible to overcome one’s karma.

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