My mother recently told me that she still dreams of her husband, the same dream she has had since his death. In it, she encounters him at my grandmother’s gate or standing by a pillar on the verandah or sometimes outside the market. He is reborn as a peréthaya, a hungry ghost, with stork-like limbs and an enormous belly that he must prop up with his hands. The yellowed flesh of his face is seared to his skull, his mouth no larger than the eye of a needle, so he can never satisfy his hunger. He just stands, staring at her, caught between worlds. For years, the anguish of that dream would continue into her day, because my mother believed she had caused his death by her anger and there was no way to beg his forgiveness, or at least reach some companionable peace with him.
In Sri Lankan myth, a person is reborn a peréthaya because, during his human life, he desired too much — hence the large stomach that can never be filled through the tiny mouth. The peréthayas that appear to us are always our ancestors, and it is our duty to free them from their sufferings by feeding Buddhist monks and transferring the merit of that deed to our dead relatives.
In their own way, the three generations represented in the novel all “desire too much” and each time they reach out to satisfy that desire (or hope) they only achieve more frustration and agony, adding a personal requirement for atonement to those of their ancestors which already are part of their burden. While the novel ranges over decades of time, The Hungry Ghost portrays a series of attempts by people trying to make things better (the hungry ghost’s desire to eat) and only making things worse with each effort.
Shivan’s grandmother’s issues come with her material success. Daya owns a substantial portfolio of rental properties in Colombo ranging from mansions rented to American diplomats (who pay the rent in dollars deposited to her already substantial offshore account in London) to slum dwelllings which she “polices” with the help of a hired goon, since legally evicting tenants who are behind in the rent is not an option in Sri Lanka. The enterprise is successful enough that she lives in a substantial villa herself — and she has a Bentley, with driver, on hand when it comes time to tour the properties.
The novel opens with Shivan’s memory of his thirteenth birthday when his grandmother takes him out in the Bentley — he hopes they are headed to a shop to buy the bicycle he desires but it turns out to be a tour of the properties. Amassing and maintaining the empire has involved a number of dodgy acts for Daya, with the resulting guilt, and her first step in atonement is to promise that she will hand it all on to her grandson. That is not enough, of course, and as the novel moves on more and more of her time will be devoted to spending her time and assets on building shrines at the temple she attends.
The asset bequest is skipping a generation because another of Daya’s failings is that she has rejected her daughter Hema, Shivan’s mother. As a teenager, Hema seemed destined for success, ranking first in the Senior School Certificate results. That produced a brief harmony with her mother who decided Hema should head to medical school after her Higher School Certificate exams. The reconciliation began to fall apart when Hema panicked and failed those exams. It broke down completely when her response was to take up with and marry a Tamil — since the family is Sinhalese, that effectively put the couple at the centre of the very violent sectarian disputes that plagued Sri Lanka for the latter half of the twentieth century.
Daya’s response was to cut the couple off completely. When Hema’s husband dies suddenly she is forced to ask Daya for help — her mother responds by supplying a residence but nothing more. Nothing more, that is, until Shivan’s thirteenth birthday when she unveils her plan to leave him her estate. She still will have nothing to do with her daughter, but begins to take over her grandson’s life — his willing acceptance is the price that is exacted to continue support for his mother and sister.
Shivan is uncomfortable with this from the start and a few years later, aware that Canada has loosened the rules and is accepting refugees because of Sri Lanka’s troubles, he gets the appropriate documents. Despite Hema’s love of her job with a local newspaper, she agrees that escaping her mother needs to be a priority and the three head off to set up a new life in Toronto.
Shivan’s looming peréthayas now include both his grandmother and mother — the self-discovery that he is gay adds a personal set of challenges, ones that his grandmother in particular makes worse. Life in Toronto proves to be a predictable problem for the three and, despite Shivan’s and his sister Renu’s apparent success at adapting, a part of all of them remains back in Sri Lanka.
All these memories and back stories are provoked by the impending trip of Hema and Shivan to Sri Lanka to fetch Daya (who has suffered a series of damaging strokes) and bring her to Toronto for her final years. Each chapter of the novel opens with Shivan getting ready for the trip — and getting distracted by the memories that it raises, each one of which seems to have resulted in more, not less, anguish.
The Hungry Ghosts is Selvadurai’s (long-awaited) third adult novel, following on the very well-received Funny Boy (short-listed for the inaugural Giller Prize in 1994) and Cinnamon Gardens (1998). I liked both of those books, so can be safely slotted in the “long-awaiting” category when it comes to this one.
Alas, despite the fifteen year wait, I felt like I had read this book before — twice, actually, since both Funny Boy and Cinnamon Gardens have many of the same themes as this novel. In all three, the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict, and its atrocities, are ever present — understandable, since Selvadurai has a Sinhalese mother and Tamil father and alternates his time between Canada and Sri Lanka, so that conflict cannot be overlooked. All three are equally concerned with generational and class conflict. And both this novel and Funny Boy add the element of a central character who has to fit the discovery of his gay sexual identity into the over-riding conflicts around him.
What The Hungry Ghosts has that neither of the other two do is the story line of Sri Lankan immigrants living in Toronto and how those coming of age in this new country cope with that new challenge (both Shivan and Renu in this book, since they respond very differently). For this reader, it was the best part of The Hungry Ghosts and I would have welcomed even more. For those who have not read Selvadurai, however, it might be wiser to hunt up a copy of Funny Boy — memory says that the author developed his other over-lapping themes better in that debut novel.