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The Ghosts They Carried

Shyam Selvadurai’s latest novel reckons with the violence that haunts the lives of many in post-war Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is a country haunted by demons and specters.

In August 2011, two years after the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, villages throughout the country were haunted by “grease devils”—men who were once known as petty thieves, but now assaulted women and killed indiscriminately, their bodies smeared with oil to escape capture. Stories of the assaults circulated through local rumor and newspaper articles but when no officials intervened, many accused the devils of being government soldiers, or at least protected by security forces. The suspects were met with vigilante violence, and were occasionally seen running into army camps or police stations for shelter. Police spokesmen denied the existence of grease devils at community meetings and in media appearances. Government officials dismissed complaints, while the Secretary of Defence joked that the grease devil might be the ghost of the Tamil Tigers’ dead leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. Eventually, the government felt compelled to respond: “The Grease Devil is not real,” they admonished, in a statement broadcast over a striking image purported to capture one such figure, who bared blood-reddened teeth set in a face painted white.

The moral panic of the grease devil revealed popular—and ongoing—anxieties in post-war Sri Lanka. Tamil and Muslim minorities in the former war zones of the north and east were afraid of an occupying army, while minority communities in the island’s central and southeast regions lived nervously among their neighbors and feared retaliatory violence. Rural communities everywhere experienced disruptions to their ways of life in the name of a heavily securitized national development. Meanwhile, state denials of grease devil stories only amplified them. As the government tried to quell an upsurge of discontent, one thing became clear: Demon-sightings and ghost stories allowed Sri Lankans to make sense of their tense and uncertain times.

The island of Lanka has a rich literary history that references these demons, ghosts, and other ghastly spirits. Ancient chroniclers and early travelers wrote of mysterious beings that lived on the island. Spirits and demons also abound in Sri Lanka’s traditional myths and recent retellings. In Sinhala folklore, such demons live under the rule of a king and are forbidden to kill directly; instead, they bring disease and bad luck to their victims who must undergo a healing exorcism to be cured.

The island’s contemporary literature is also indelibly marked by the 26-year war between Sri Lanka’s Sinhala majority-led government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—also known as the Tamil Tigers—who fought for a separate Tamil homeland in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. That war, which ended with the military defeat of the Tigers in May 2009, continues to afflict a country besieged by authoritarian violence and political conflict. When the fifth anniversary of the war’s end was observed recently, the government marked the occasion with a ‘victory’ parade and banned Tamil remembrance ceremonies for the war’s victims. In spite of the state’s triumphalism, many remain troubled by the war and its aftermath. Canadian-Sri Lankan writer Shyam Selvadurai’s latest novel, The Hungry Ghosts, reckons powerfully with the violence that has formed and fractured the social and personal worlds of many Sri Lankans.

Sri Lankan writers have struggled to represent the war during and after it’s end. However, few Sri Lankan authors writing in Tamil and Sinhala have been translated, and even English-language work is largely unavailable outside the Indian subcontinent. Diaspora writers—positioned to examine the war from the relative safety of exile—have taken up the task of writing before an international English-speaking audience. Although few mainstream novels directly engage with the war, there are some notable exceptions: When Memory Dies, by the essayist and fiction writer, A. Sivanandan; V.V. Ganeshananthan’s innovative diaspora novel, Love Marriage; Nayomi Munaweera’s debut, Island of a Thousand Mirrors; and Romesh Gunasekera’s portrait of post-war Sri Lanka, Noontide Toll. These writers explore the conflict’s complexities with empathy for all Sri Lankans affected by a war that killed more than one hundred thousand people. Their work amplifies the voices of the living who must quietly mourn their losses in a country where government-led ‘reconciliation’ means forgetting the past.

These dead and missing bodies—remembered by families and friends, but excised from the nation’s post-war rebuilding and development—are among the ghosts that haunt Sri Lanka today.

Like many writers before and after him, Shyam Selvadurai dives into the personal politics of memory by exploring the tumult of Sri Lankan history and society from the perspective of people caught in its undertow. In his award-winning debut, Funny Boy, a young boy confronts gender norms and comes to terms with his sexuality in the social tensions leading to war. Likewise, Cinnamon Gardens, set in 1920s colonial Ceylon, and his young-adult novel, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, are charged by conflicts between his characters’ desires and society’s constraints.

The Hungry Ghosts continues this tradition with a devastating meditation on love, loss, and longing in Sri Lanka and its diaspora. For the first time, Selvadurai sets part of his story in Canada, where the writer has lived for the past 30 years. He turns to the 1980s and 1990s—decades of political violence, insurrection and war in Sri Lanka—to explore his immigrant protagonist’s complex relationship to home and host lands, the margins of sexuality, community and race.

In 1995, Shivan Rassiah’s thirtysomething life is spiraling out of control as he prepares to return to Colombo, Sri Lanka, to bring his ailing grandmother to Toronto to live out her last years. A three-month-old ceasefire has just collapsed, thrusting the country into another cycle of war. Shivan expects the trip to fix his broken life. On the eve of his departure, he is haunted by memories of his past.

Shivan’s parents married across a Sinhala-Tamil ethnic divide, but their love quickly soured. When his father died, Shivan’s mother, Hema, reluctantly returned to her wealthy mother, Daya, hoping that she would take the family in after years of estrangement. Young Shivan learned to bond with his formidable grandmother to ensure the family’s survival. Seizing an opportunity, Daya used the “malformed thing she calls love” to control him, rewarding his obedience with gifts and tales about the Buddha’s previous lives.

These tales, interspersed throughout the novel, are what Shivan recalls as he reflects on his family’s travails. In Sri Lankan myth, peréthayas, or “hungry ghosts,” are ancestral spirits who desired too much in life, and are unable to transition to their next life. Their desires—earthly or spiritual—remain unfulfilled until a relative’s meritorious deeds free the ghost from suffering. Daya fears she is such a ghost and, with her grandson’s aid, tries to secure a good rebirth. Instead, Shivan becomes like her, a phantom in-between worlds. Their uneasy ties mirror the growing troubles of their country.

As Shivan grows into manhood, the novel picks up where Selvadurai’s Funny Boy left off: In the aftermath of Black July, when racist mobs set ablaze Tamil homes and businesses, injuring and killing thousands. In this terrifying event—which marked the beginning of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 1983—Shivan finds a chance to escape his grandmother’s control. He persuades his family to join the wave of emigrants who leave Sri Lanka’s violence to resettle and build new lives in the West. In Toronto, Canada, the family finds safety and freedom; they also find unexpected hardships and struggle to belong. Shivan longs for love and acceptance as a gay man, while navigating his family, community politics, and Canadian racism. Selvadurai’s suburban Toronto landscapes magnify this inner landscape of turmoil:

A corridor of electrical towers cuts through the centre of the field, making us all appear diminished and fragile against this row of hulking pylons that stride the field like robotic monsters, massive limbs planted in the brown mud.

Shivan wanders late 1980s Toronto, feeling alienated and disconnected. When he learns his grandmother has suffered a stroke, he returns to Sri Lanka for the summer, against Hema’s wishes, during a period of chaos—an Indian-brokered peace accord is in shambles, with the Tigers fighting Indian forces in the north and east of Sri Lanka, while rural youth fight an insurgency in the South. In Colombo, however, Shivan feels understood amid a “shared history” and “elliptical way of talking.” His anger dissipates as he finds power and status as the caretaker of Daya’s properties throughout the city. As he settles into this role, Shivan appears destined to repeat his forbear’s mistakes. He also makes friends, and finds unexpected love. Unwilling to let that love takes its own course, Shivan rushes headlong into it, setting into motion a chain of events that will haunt him throughout the novel. He returns to Toronto where, unable to face the terrible truth of his time in Colombo, he hides in his mother’s damp basement until he finds a new escape in another romance. But his escape is a trap, as Shivan learns that “…love always comes with its dark twin—the spectre of loss, which drives us to do such terrible things.”

Ultimately, Shivan makes a decision that will shape the course of his life. His act follows a karmic logic, as he realizes a lesson from his grandmother’s Buddhist tales: “No one can escape their past actions.” The novel’s form embodies the wisdom of this precept in a circular narrative that reveals how Shivan’s dilemmas and decisions result from his and his family’s past and present acts.

Selvadurai stays close to his protagonist’s thoughts and feelings, weaving memories of Sri Lankan life with recollected tales, dialogue, landscapes, and historical accounts into a multilayered tale that reveals the immigrant’s profound loss of a sense of belonging. Shivan’s retelling of Hema’s and Daya’s stories add perspective and weight to an account that occasionally sinks into the protagonist’s despair and self-pity—a murk that threatens to obscure the novel’s inventive plot and emotional intelligence about the promises and perils of diasporic life.

The Hungry Ghosts is the author’s first book since the end of Sri Lanka’s brutal war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. While Shivan’s story prefigures efforts to forget the war in post-war Sri Lanka, Selvadurai deals obliquely with the war itself, which forms an occasional backdrop to his protagonist’s life in 1990s Canada. More often, Shivan’s rages conjure this war, destroying his world to transform it—much like his namesake, the demon-slaying deity, Shiva.

The novel’s karmic narrative might lead readers to assume that the characters’ lives are determined by the “fate” of their past actions—a notion that some, like Daya, use to explain away the social injustices of the caste system, racism, and homophobia in Sri Lanka. This would be a grave mistake. Instead, Selvadurai shows us that Shivan, like his country, is at war with himself. Only by facing the tragedy of his past actions—while carrying its burden—might he find the freedom he desires. This reckoning with the past is the novel’s great deed.