Set in Sri Lanka and Canada, The Hungry Ghosts is a coming-of-age story which follows its protagonist, Shivan Rassiah, in his quest for identity and reconciliation with his dysfunctional family.
The action starts in Colombo during the years running up to the outbreak of the civil war in 1983. Shivan's Sinhalese mother, Hema, has been cast out for committing the ultimate sin of marrying a Tamil. However, when Shivan's father dies, Hema decides to beg her mother, Daya, for shelter. Daya grudgingly accepts them into her house only because she has taken a fancy to her grandson. She insists Shivan does his schoolwork under her careful eye and begins to groom him to eventually control her empire – she is, to all extents and purposes, a slum landlord.
While Daya nurtures Shivan, relations between herself, Hema and Shivan's sister Renu remain bitter. As hostilities between local Tamil and Sinhala factions intensify, Hema acts on Shivan's suggestion that they emigrate and they move to Toronto.
Despite the fresh start, the family fortunes do not improve. Renu and Shivan attend good high schools but they live in a rough part of town and are subject to racism. At the same time, Shivan has to come to terms with his sexuality and is exploited by the outreach helper from the local gay community.
For Shivan, therefore, the ties with Sri Lanka and grandmother remain strong. Eventually Daya entices him back to Colombo where Shivan becomes involved in her property business and the goons who help her to evict non-paying tenants. He also begins a love affair with an old school friend. Happiness, although tinged with corruption, seems within his grasp.
But the time he spent away in Canada has made him a stranger to his homeland and its conservative values. It doesn't help that Shivan is hopelessly self-centered and unable to appreciate the impact of both the war and his own actions on his newly adopted community. The result is a politically motivated and personal tragedy which will, ultimately, poison his future relationships in Canada.
Interspersed with the narrative are Buddhist teachings, often imparted by Daya, who hopes her piety in this life will earn her advantages in the next. Shivan ponders these parables about animals and ghosts like the perethaya but rarely understands them. It is only at the end of the novel that he comprehends the recurring motif of the thieving hawk which steals meat from the butcher but is attacked by other birds wanting their share. Eventually it is forced to drop its food, but is then free from the object which caused all its suffering.
Shivan finally realises that this kind of self-sacrifice – the relinquishing of one's own desires – is the solution to his personal problems and the way to avoid becoming a perethaya himself. It can also be read as a suggestion of the best route to resolving Sri Lanka's civil conflict.
Whether or not Shivan manages "putting another before myself" is not revealed. The novel would possibly be a more satisfying read if it was, particularly as Shivan is such an unsympathetic character, displaying truculent teenage attitudes throughout with little of the charm of the archetypal anti-hero such as Jay Gatsby or even Humbert Humbert.
Such niceties, however, do not chime with real life. Rather than attempting high art or intellectual debate, The Hungry Ghosts aims at a vivid reportage of the atrocities of war, the difficulties of assimilation with a different culture and the burden of the past. In fiction, Shivan would learn from their mistakes and work on improving himself. In reality, that conclusion is not guaranteed.
By Jane Wallace
(Jane Wallace is a Hong Kong-born journalist and author living in London)