The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai
The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai This past week I attended a book launch in Toronto to celebrate the publication of The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai. With author Judy Fongs Bates in this photograph.
I was first introduced to Shyam at the Trillium Book Awards when his novel Cinnamon Gardens was nominated for the award in 1999. He was then a stunningly beautiful 34 year-old – about the age of his narrator, Shivan Rassiah, in The Hungry Ghosts. Shyam Selvadurai is an openly gay man, still very attractive, who lives with his partner of many years in Toronto, and now divides his time between Canada and Sri Lanka. “Like rain soaking a parched land” is the dedication to Shyam’s partner, a sentiment those of us who have truly found someone who loves and accepts us for all of our flaws and difficulties understand.
Shyam is of the generation of people who have seen sexual orientation become a non-issue – almost. We now live in a time when gay men and women can openly live together, marry, and have families without – mostly – fear of reprisal. We’ve just elected an openly gay woman as our Premier in Ontario, unthinkable a generation ago.
It was a pleasure to be able to congratulate Shyam on the publication of his new novel, and to be able to tell him how very much I had enjoyed reading The Hungry Ghosts.
The Hungry Ghosts, according to legend, are those who are, after death, caught between worlds for having desired too much in life. It falls to us to “free them from suffering by feeding Buddhist monks”. In Shyam Selvadurai’s new novel, The Hungry Ghosts, these figures linger in the present and haunt the living.
It is not quite a generation ago that this story takes place. We first meet Shivan as a teenager in Sri Lanka, and follow him as he emigrates to Canada with his mother and sister, and leave him as he is about to return to Sri Lanka fifteen or so years later. In the intervening years we come to know the story of his childhood, his relationship with his grandmother – a woman he should love and respect but who is so obviously a cruel and domineering tyrant. The grandmother, however, has control of the money supporting the family, and along with it the power to control Shivan’s mother and her children. To her the “the grandson is the most important” - what a horrible thing to do to a child.
It is not until the danger of unrest in Sri Lanka, and Shivan’s awareness that he can never live in his homeland as a gay man, that the family has the courage to escape. One might almost consider having some compassion for this grandmother who should have enough awareness to see her own future as a hungry ghost, “surrounded by so much that is good in life but unable to enjoy it.”
There is so much story – and so much wisdom - in this novel that it is hard to know how much to reveal. There is Shivan, when faced with the death of a loved one, even in shock having the ability to do what has to be done immediately after the death. He thinks “I felt nothing because it was too soon for feeling.” It is a death that Shivan will never come to terms with, “an emptiness that both surrounded me and was inside me”, but we hope that he can accommodate it and build a life for himself that includes true happiness.
I was somewhat saddened at Shivan’s choice as the novel ended, as well as being sorry that the end of the novel was the end of his story for me. That is the power of this writer, Shyam Selvadurai has created characters so real to us as readers that we really care what will become of them. For Shivan, we want to know what choices he will make when he arrives in Sri Lanka, we want to know if he will return to Canada and the life he has established here, we want him to be happy.