Book Review: The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai

The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai Title: The Hungry Ghosts
Author: Shyam Selvadurai
Publisher: Penguin Viking
ISBN: 9780670085750
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

It was through a dear friend that I got introduced to Shyam Selvadurai’s works. We were younger than and wanted to read everything queer and take it all in. At such a time, I was introduced to “Funny Boy” by my friend, written by Shyam Selvadurai. The book was about a boy’s coming to terms with his sexual orientation and that too in an almost conservative Sri Lankan society. I fell in love with Selvadurai’s writing. There was no looking back since. I have read almost every single book of his (well including the latest one, there have been only four books to say the least) and loved them all, some a little less than the others and some a little more.

“The Hungry Ghosts” falls in the latter category. The title comes from Buddhist mythology, where the dead may be reborn as “hungry ghosts” – as spirits with stomachs so large that they can never be full. It is but left to the living relatives of the ghosts to free them of this desire by doing good deeds and creating good karma. Why am I telling you this? Because this is at the heart of this story, centered on a matriarch, becoming a living ghost and the relationship she shares with her grandson – who but after all must free her.

The book moves between Canada and Sri Lanka and Selvadurai does a brilliant job of describing the essence of both places with ease and panache. “The Hungry Ghosts” is centered on Shivan Rassiah, who is of mixed Tamil and Sinhalese lineage, and is a beloved grandson to his grandmother, who is extremely orthodox and at the same time, Shivan happens to be gay. As the novel opens, Shivan is living in Canada and preparing to go back to Colombo to meet his ailing maternal grandmother and get her to live with him and his mother in Canada, till her final days. This is the crux of the novel.

For me what struck a chord in the entire book is the fact that you can never let go of the past. It will keep hounding you or keeping up with you wherever you go, till it is at peace. The law of karma holds strongly throughout the book and sometimes most ironically so. Each character is stuck with his or her karma and that runs beautifully throughout the novel. There were times when I thought it was getting a bit much, but I could overlook it, primarily because of the writing.

Characterization is another strong point of Shyam Selvadurai. He gives all his characters their due and their voices are distinct. No one is either good or bad. Everyone has their own drawbacks, which makes them connect more with the readers. The fact of Shivan coming to terms with his sexual orientation and at the same time trying to make sense of Sri Lanka’s disruptive political scenario blends and fit together to perfection. This to me is great writing. The grandmother is overbearing and strong and yet has her own share of sadness which isn’t revealed till later in the book. The idea of the book is clear: Forgiveness and Karma.

This book worked with me on many levels as I was able to relate my life to what was taking place in the novel. I loved the Buddhist myths and fables that run throughout the book. It is almost as though they were much needed to propel the story ahead. I highly recommend this book to almost everyone who want to know more about Sri Lankan customs and traditions and also above all who want to read a good story.


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