Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts is the book I wish I could have written. Moving, evocative, a beautifully written, absolutely amazing coming of age, immigrant story. What Amy Tan does for the Chinese-American saga, Shyam Selvadurai does for Sri Lankan-Canadians, and I can only wish I, or someone far more talented, can do as well someday for the Filipino immigrant. The story is steeped in the richness of Sri Lankan culture and mythology, and the author masterfully weaves it through the more grounded, all too real narrative of growing up with mixed Tamil and Sinhalese lineage in Sri Lanka.
That this story of a young gay man leaving a tumultuous past behind in Sri Lanka to begin a new life in Toronto resonated so deeply with me, a young straight woman unfamiliar with Sri Lankan history and moving from the Philippines to Toronto with far less need for emotional severance, is a testament to Selvadurai’s talent. I cannot recommend this book enough, and I feel that no review I write will be good enough to give it justice. The last time I felt this strongly about a book was with Steven Heighton’s The Dead Are More Visible, for which, over a year later, I still haven’t dared write my review (and quite frankly, while I very much remember the impact that book made on me, I’ll have to re-read it to refresh my memory enough to write a review). I didn’t want to risk going a full year before reviewing The Hungry Ghosts, so here we go.
The Hungry Ghosts is the story of Shivan Rassiah, the beloved grandson of an utterly memorable matriarch. Trained from a young age to take over his grandmother’s assets, he instead flees the country to seek freedom and a better life in Toronto. The novel begins with present day Canada where Shivan is, reluctantly, preparing to go home for the first time in years, to take his grandmother back with him. As the story shifts from the present day to Shivan’s childhood in Sri Lanka and the sexual freedom he first experiences in 1980s Toronto, we begin to understand the multitude of “ghosts” mentioned in the title. It is impossible to completely escape the past and, as Shivan learns, it is just as impossible to return to it.
Shivan’s grandmother is such a beautifully rendered character. Ruthless and vicious in her quest for power and fortune, she has no qualms evicting tenants who are unable to pay, nor does she hesitate to send out her henchmen to, well, convince people to see things her way. She is somewhat like Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, though as a widowed woman in Sri Lanka, without as much power. It’s no wonder Shivan’s mother wants to escape her, and that Shivan later on realizes he cannot follow in her footsteps. And yet, in the world Selvadurai depicts, as in the legends and stories Shivan’s grandmother tells him, karma always catches up, and even Shivan’s grandmother turns out all too human.
One such story, for example, is that of the naked perethi, a poor woman who steals money and clothing from a group of drunken men. A few days later, she invites a hungry monk in for a meal. For her good deed to the monk, she is reborn in a “golden mansion on an island.” Yet she cannot escape the consequences of her theft, and so she is naked and hungry. If she puts on any of the fine clothes she owns, they burn her skin, and if she tries to eat any of the sumptuous meals laid out for her every day, “the food turns to urine and feces or swarms with maggots.” Shivan says:
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. [p. 77]
Even more powerful, at least for this reader, is Selvadurai’s insight into an immigrant’s experience, which resonated so closely with my own. Take for example the following:
We might be living in Canada, but we had brought Sri Lanka with us. [p. 126]
Upon Shivan’s return to Sri Lanka after a long absence:
As we drew closer to Colombo, large billboards appeared for things I had not eaten in five years, whose taste I knew so well […] and as I read the Sinhalese lettering, I felt the delight of rediscovering that other language which had lain submerged within me for half a decade. [p. 150]
I would think of all the Canadian men I’d had affairs with and the strain of having to explain myself and Sri Lanka to them. With Mili it felt so peaceful, this shared history, this elliptical way of talking, because we both understood the same world and its idioms. [p. 169]
On that same trip later on, someone tells him:
If you don’t mind me saying, you misjudged this country, because you are now foreign to it. [p. 240]
Often, I found myself nodding, recognizing similar experiences and realizations from my own trips back to the Philippines. Selvadurai does a wonderful job in capturing that feeling of being both home and not-home, of recognizing the familiar and realizing how unfamiliar it now is, of the desperate need both to hold on to a remnant of the past and to build a completely new life elsewhere. The Hungry Ghosts is a brilliant book on so many levels. I can’t claim Shivan’s story to be even close to my own — he has gone through far more than I have and unlike him, I can fly home whenever I want (money and schedule permitting, of course). But his story did resonate with me. And ultimately, all I can say is: thank you, Mr. Selvadurai. As an immigrant myself who longs to find her own experience someday reflected in a novel, thank you for writing this.
Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.