Shivan understands, years later, that his grandmother sees herself as the peréthi from the parable. She lives like a ghost, naked and hungry, surrounded by pleasures that she cannot enjoy.
“Everything she touched, everything she loved, disintegrated in her hands.”
Readers benefit from Shivan’s understanding and follow him back to the land of his childhood.
There, he says, “I smelt that odour of Sri Lanka, like the inside of a dry clay pot, an odour I had never really noticed when I lived here, but which now, because of my long absence, my foreignness, I recognized as the smell of home.”
But it is not straightforward.
“Everything about the landscape was familiar and strange at the same time; that odd disjunction of coming home to a place that was not home anymore.”
There is something haunting about Shivan’s relationship with Sri Lanka and the memories there as well. It is not only his grandmother who struggles to find pleasures in this world.
Much of the complexity is rooted in the political turmoil of the country.
Shivan grew up against a background of civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority, the tension escalating and erupting in the 1977 riots.
The adult Shivan details the facts but as a child he was largely unaware of the dynamics, although the Tamil lives lost in that conflict fuelled the independence movement, even as the government enacted the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and all of this discord shaped the family’s decision to move members to Canada.
(This act allowed the government to make arrests without warrants, hold people without laying charges, use confessions made under duress as evidence, and dispose of bodies without an inquest. Contemporary North American readers will find some of these tenets familiar.)
There were more riots in 1981, and there was a great exodus following the 1983 riots, so that by the time that Shivan was attending university at York in Toronto, there were enough Tamils attending to form a students’ society.
While Shivan was living in Canada, India became involved in the struggle, and tensions escalated, and a Marxist group that had led a failed insurrection in the early 1970s, the JVP, gained power so dramatically and suddenly that they were called the Government of the Night or the Little Government.
Shyam Selvadurai manages to sketch this political shifts and events succinctly, so that readers with little awareness can readily comprehend, without losing track of the fact that this is Shivan’s story.
Shivan’s bookishness will immediately appeal to bookish readers. Books contain memories of the past and embody promise for the future.
When he returns to his childhood room as an adult, there are all his old favourites (the Famous Fives, the Secret Sevens, the Agatha Christies, War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice, and the Jeeves and Woosters).
“[I] sat on the edge of my bed and read the first page [of The Magic Faraway Tree], remembering what joy it was to lie in bed, the fan grating above me, lost in the world of these books.”
When he finds it difficult to fit into his new school, he finds refuge in a used bookstore on Queen West (and eventually finds a pamphlet there — “Are You Gay?” — which opens the door to better understanding his sexuality).
“The smell of old books in Canada was different from the raw-rice odour of books in Sri Lanka. Back in Scarborough on a Sunday evening, I would often pick up one of my purchases and sniff its greenish crushed leaf scent – a promise that my life would not be confined to this suburb, that pleasure awaited me the following weekend too.”
The bookstores and cafes in the Queen West neighbourhood are of vital importance to Shivan, whose world is both literally and figuratively widening with every weekend.
(Later, he recalls first meeting a lover, who was reading Clear Light of Day and who read Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen on the first morning they shared. These are not random selections; Desai’s novel considers the scars left by demanding familial relationships, and Yoshimoto’s is a ghost story too.)
Much of The Hungry Ghosts takes place in memory, in Sri Lanka, but the portions of the novel which unfold in Vancouver and Toronto are intricately detailed as well. Even readers who are unfamiliar with the Toronto neighbourhoods will readily distinguish between the varied landscapes therein. (Beyond Queen West and York U, Shivan also explores and/or inhabits Kensington Market, Pearson International Airport, Cabbagetown, and the Bridlewood Mall and environs in Scarborough.)
Still, Sri Lanka is at the heart of the novel.
“She pushed past the woman and led me down a narrow corridor, rooms on either side like dark groves on a forested path, paint peeling like bark, floors rutted with cracks.”
The descriptions are lush, and Shivan’s relationship with his grandmother is as peeling and rutted as a poorly cared-for rental property.
“My grandmother stepped over the photograph as if she had not even noticed it, and I understood that she was so confident of her dominance she did not fear my judgment. Yet she had miscalculated her power over me. Or that was the moment, as I now recall it, when my betrayal of her began.”
But this grandmother is not only a privileged and commanding and domineering woman; she knows the “lives of fisher people well”, goes down to the beach to buy prawns, haggles in the colloquial village dialect and argues about weather predictions.
Key aspects of her history are gradually revealed, and Shivan’s understanding of her gains another dimension when he returns to Sri Lanka and reaches for an understanding of earlier tragic events.
This tragedy circles around a relationship that he had there as a young man. The experience profoundly changed him (and, simultaneously, made him more determined to be himself).
“…in Sinhalese there are two words for rice: ‘haal’ for the hardened grain, which becomes ‘buth’ when it is boiled. In speaking of our inability to reverse actions, our inability to change karma’s ripening, we say that haal, once it has started to become buth, cannot revert to being haal.”
At several points throughout The Hungry Ghosts, an observation like this, or a short parable adds a fresh perspective to the narrative. That sense of layered storytelling, in combination with the sense that the experiences of the love relationships nest inside each other (each with an element of the forbidden), combines to make this novel a powerful read.
The gloss on the page is provided by the occasional gleam of poetic description.
These descriptions are more often rooted in the Sri Lankan scenes, with the “jewelled moss on rocks, like gems on a dowager’s gnarled hand”, the “miniscule balcony perched like a sparrow’s nest on a corner of the twentieth floor”, and the roof’s “rusting takaran patches all over it, like sores on a beggar’s back” create vivid images for the reader. But in Toronto, too, Aunty Shireen was “angular like a faceted jewel” and Shivan “felt like a cork bobbing in the whorl of students coming and going” around first-year classes at York.
Ultimately the narrative is rooted in the in-between, as Shivan moves between the landscape of his childhood and the life he has built, since, as an adult in Canada.
Readers travel with him, through the pages of The Hungry Ghosts, until “the life we knew there, the life that has haunted and misshaped us all, will come to a close”.