2021 Apr 18
“My grandmother stepped over the photograph as if she had not even noticed it, and I understood that she was so confident of her dominance she did not fear my judgment. Yet she had miscalculated her power over me. Or that was the moment, as I now recall it when my betrayal of her began.”
In Buddhist myth, “peretheyo” are ghosts with a large appetite and a tiny mouth which prevents them from ever satisfying themselves. It is believed that certain people turn into these entities after their death. Translating to “the hungry ghosts”, this is also the title of a gripping novel by Shyam Selvadurai. The story of Shivan Rassiah, an individual coming from a Sinhala and Tamil mixed background, is introduced at the point where he is planning to travel back to Sri Lanka from Canada, where he has settled down. Gloom begins to circle the pages of the novel, with hints of deep-rooted issues surrounding his return. The reader is then swept back to Shivan’s childhood, and as the story continues, the foreshadowing fits together like the pieces of a sad puzzle.
A melancholic tone runs through the novel from beginning to end. It is as though Shivan’s life is deprived of joy throughout the pages, paying homage to the title of the novel. The novel brings to light a myriad of issues in Sri Lankan society. Shivan is mixed race, gay and is forced onto a pedestal by his domineering grandmother. Though this is the story of Shivah’s life, the plot stays firmly anchored in the rocky relationship between him and his grandmother. Shivah struggles with his identity and tries to hide it until ethnic conflicts force him and his family to flee to Canada, leaving his grandmother behind.
“She is just a woman whose life has made different. This is her strange way of trying to love you.”
The story also offers a glimpse into the pasts of his mother and grandmother. Outdated ideologies and female oppression come into play in scarring both women’s lives. Trauma is passed down from generation to generation. We find a hungry ghost in the grandmother too. For reasons unexplained, she develops a strong affinity with the main character, spoiling him with expensive gifts and wealth to benefit him in the future. Her obsession with Shivan is both endearing and suffocating to the point where the reader may question whether her attachment is love or greed. According to Buddhist myth, it is the duty of the living to free these ghosts from their fate. The grandmother’s attachment to Shivan is similar to that of a hungry ghost, desperately clinging to the hopes of the living for salvation.
“Everything about the landscape was familiar and strange at the same time; that odd disjunction of coming home to a place that was not home anymore.”
A shift arises in the novel with the family’s departure to Canada. Here, the trio faces a different set of problems, arising from culture shock and differences. Shivan blossoms into his identity, but it is not long before ghosts of the past begin to disrupt the life he has carefully built and his relationship with his foreign partner Micheal. The Hungry Ghosts is a testament to the scars left over from a society that imposes restrictions on lifestyle and old wounds that do not heal.
“Everything she touched, everything she loved, disintegrated in her hands.”