Insatiable Spirits

How disappointment and desire haunt us

Its setting between Sri Lanka and Canada may suggest that The Hungry Ghosts is a book about dislocation and dispossession—a multicultural tale or a story of escaping strife in the homeland (and, for the record, it is all that)—but the dominant force in Shyam Selvadurai’s remarkable new novel is an internalized psychic struggle that transcends geographical or physical space. Time, too.

After all, of what significance are spatial or temporal considerations when the philosophical framework for your first novel for adults in nearly 15 years is a Buddhist myth in which those who desire too much in life are reincarnated as disfigured, hungry ghosts whose appetites may never be satisfied? It is up to well-meaning descendants of these restless spirits to perform good deeds and put the greedy bastards and bitches out of their misery once and for all. The novel is punctuated with iterations of—to use the technical term—the peréthaya myth, and while all its characters are very much alive and kicking, their stories echo the myriads of emotions captured in the ancient tales.

The masterful storyteller in Selvadurai would have us believe that the living embodiment of the hungry ghost myth is the Sri Lankan matriarch and real estate tycoon who happens to be the protagonist’s grandmother. There is strong evidence, however, to suggest that the ghost-like figure with an insatiable desire for love and belonging, the one who is destined to endure one tormented life after another, is her grandson Shivan Rassiah. He is the novel’s narrator, and also serves as its permanently alienated and angry young man—and, at first blush, for good reasons.

As the mixed-race son of a Sinhalese mother and a Tamil father who dies early in the narrative, Shivan grew up with difference in his blood. In his native Sri Lanka he was accustomed to hearing Sinhalese staff in the family-run guest house refer to his father as a “Tamil dog.” His grandmother has more or less adopted him away from his mother in a transaction that is more businesslike than family affair. He is her pawn and trophy offspring in one. For his part, Shivan is egalitarian in lashing out at his family once they all are living under the grandmother’s roof and thumb. “Even the slightest reproof from my mother or jibe from my sister would send me into a rage. Their lives, despite drawbacks, were free of my grandmother; their lives were actually better for us being here. And this happiness, I saw, had been won at my cost.”

When the civil war between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority sends the country into a tailspin in the early 1980s, Shivan’s mother reluctantly relocates with her children to Canada, which had eased immigration requirements for thousands of fleeing Sri Lankans. And thus begins the first of many journeys that Shivan and family take between Canada and Sri Lanka in the last two decades of the 20th century.

Although he is currently one of our more acclaimed Canadian writers, the Sri Lankan–born Selvadurai has shied away from any fictional representation of his adopted country until The Hungry Ghosts. Both his breakthrough novel, Funny Boy, and its follow-up, Cinnamon Gardens, were set in the Sri Lanka of the immediate and distant past, a world that, while touched by imperialism and expansion, remains hermetically sealed in its distinctive, class- and ethnicity-based cultures.

I wonder why it took Selvadurai this long to write Canada into his fictional universe, given his sharply drawn observations of it? Shivan’s first impressions of life in Toronto’s suburbs lend this otherwise sad and elegiac book some of its brief and most-needed moments of comic relief. Early impressions of York University’s architecture in the winter remind Shivan of “grey boulders abandoned by a glacier.” How true is that? And it is in Toronto that he experiences what self-loathing looks—or more accurately smells—like when the more-established Sri Lankan family that takes the Rassiahs under their wings ban cooking food from the home country because the “lingering odour of curries smelt like cow dung.”

But it is also in Toronto that dreams of sexual freedom turn into a psychodrama. Shivan comes out as a gay man only to discover that his dark brown skin and what he perceives to be his average looks attract the old and the ugly or men with a fetish for the swarthy Other. It is not long before Shivan’s list of enemies includes the gay community in Toronto for turning him into an exotic sexual animal and the city itself for his chronic underemployment. In a moment of not-so-quiet desperation, he agrees to travel back to Sri Lanka to spend time with his grandmother. That visit sets in motion the narrative pull of the book—first love, betrayal, political corruption—and the very unravelling of Shivan.

Because the novel is narrated by Shivan and more or less obsesses over his every single emotion, it is difficult not to consider it on the merits of this one character. I found him intriguing and empathetic even if I did not always understand his motivations. Occasionally and particularly in the part of the novel set in Vancouver—where Shivan meets and falls in love with local pretty boy Michael—Selvadurai stacks the decks against him, deliberately and manipulatively. The soul searching that underwrites much of Shivan’s experiences in Toronto or Colombo is replaced by pettiness and mood swings. It is jangling for us as readers.

This focus on Shivan comes at the expense of supporting characters, especially female ones. In an appearance on morning television in Toronto, Selvadurai has suggested that his skill at writing women comes, in part, from his identity as a gay man in whom female friends often confide. Nice-sounding theory, but it does not seem to be supported here. Renu, Shivan’s sister, a feisty feminist and academic worthy of her own book, is rendered in such broad comic terms as to suggest a discomfort with feminism and women in academe. Even the overpowering grandmother is captured (or explained) in the melodramatic “fallen woman” trope that undermines her strength: she is not a victim but an agent of modern Sri Lankan history.

None of my criticisms takes away from the structural complexity, confident tone or wisdom of this work. This is a novel by a mature, pensive writer. I found myself returning to Shivan’s desires and disappointments and recognizing how deeply felt and rendered both are. On a more personal level, I related to Shivan as a gay man of colour myself and as someone who escaped political and familial oppressions.

Yet the significance of Shivan goes beyond the personal or the geopolitical and into an area of human psychology that fiction is well equipped to explore. He represents the restlessness and discontent that come when integration into a community, large or small, elude the body and spirit. It is, in part, the immigrant lot in life and the prevailing human condition of a world where the more mobility options and personal choices we have, the less anchored we are. Some of the dispossessed lash out at the world outside them (see self-radicalized immigrants or lone gunmen on both sides of the American-Canadian border). Others, like Shivan, take it out on themselves. I will take the (fictional) self-lacerating ones any day.