05 October 2015

The Hungry Ghosts; interview with Shyam Selvadurai

Shyam Selvadurai's novel, released in 2014, The Hungry Ghosts, marks a gigantic leap in his craft and writing. The author who garnered international acclaim with his first novel, Funny Boy, and went on to become an icon for the Sri Lankan literary world, has authored a story about haunting recollections from his childhood and young adult life. The novel is bewitching, going back and forth, travelling different time zones between Sri Lanka and Toronto. It gives an accurate portrayal of immigrant life for South Asians in Toronto, which to my mind, makes this a valuable work of contemporary fiction. It has the same heart-wrenching passion of his previous novels, but clearly, the author's understanding of his craft, and his felicity with language have scaled up to extraordinary extent, making The Hungry Ghosts a tour de force.

I find it propitious that he lives in Toronto, which is also my home now. I took the opportunity to do a short interview with him, and was glad to get an insight about his writing.

1. You moved from Sri Lanka to Toronto due to circumstances back home. You've lived in Toronto for many years now. How do think Canada has influenced your work as a writer? What would you say is the upside and downside of living in a foreign land, and how has it defined your career as an author. Toronto, while a safe and multi-cultured place, is often looked upon as restrained and staid. There is diversity, but perhaps less originality and idiosyncrasy.  I see some of that dreariness reflected in The Hungry Ghosts as well. Would you say, Canada's political positioning and national temperament make it greatly liveable but less inspiring in terms of writing? Feel free to vehemently disagree with me.

There are many Canadas in The Hungry Ghosts, there is the ghastly suburb in which Shivan and his family find themselves but there is also vibrant downtown Toronto and Vancouver which is portrayed as a haven, a golden place, where Shivan because of his past cannot find peace. I don't see Canada as dreary or as foreign. For me it is home and Toronto is a vibrant place to live, while at the same time being safe and stable. This stability has greatly helped me as a writer coming from a very unstable place. Here in Toronto, I can let down my guard and be who I am and write what I want. Because I spend 4-5 months in Sri Lanka each year, it is no longer some lost magical place but a place lived in with its own tedium and pleasures. 

2.  Did you always wish to be an author, or were there other interests you were dabbling with as well?  Was it Funny Boy's wide acclaim that propelled you into being a full time author? Now, with Cinnamon Gardens and The Hungry Ghosts, you are firmly placed as one of South Asia's best known authors.  This perhaps means that you can devote every minute towards honing your craft. This, if I may say as a long-time reader of your works, was evident with The Hungry Ghosts which has the fineness and assuredness that comes to writers at their peak. How are you enjoying this phase, and what are your creative struggles? What are the aspects you enjoy most about being a writer? Also do shed some light on the authors and books you read.

I was happy that Funny Boy allowed me to keep writing on a more full time basis but my decision to keep writing was not based on its success. In other words, if it had been published by a small press and sold very little I would still have kept writing. Yet, like most artists through the ages, I must do other things to survive such as teaching. So I can only write 1/2 to 3/4 time. Thank you for your nice words on Hungry Ghosts but alas, I am not enjoying this phase but rather trying to take on more and more challenges as a writer. The enjoyment lies in constantly pushing for a higher level. This is what I enjoy about being a writer. I read widely and voraciously and love many authors. At this stage in the game, a writer tends to be drawn to writers whose work is nothing like theirs out of curiosity and admiration for something different. I don't have therefore a favourite author. I will read anything written by Jumpha Lahiri, Zadie Smith, Kiran Desai, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Margaret Drabble and a few other writers.  

3.  The uneasy struggle with the self, the fear of rejection and prejudice - mirrored by Sri Lanka's bloody ethnic strife - is a powerful theme. But how essential do you think is the homosexual instinct to the core of your being as a writer. In Funny Boy, Arjie's struggle with his sexuality masterfully parallel the ethnic conflict and malevolence he sees in the adult world. Your subsequent novels (Cinnamon Gardens, Swimming In the Monsoon Sea and The Hungry Ghosts) also carry a definite theme of homosexuality.  But it's not altogether hard to envision these last three books when taken out of the prism of sexuality.  In The Hungry Ghosts especially, there is such wealth of memory and ideas, that the novel could stand on its own, without the protagonist's sexuality being brought in question.  (I found myself comparing it to Of Human Bondage.) Would you agree at all to that? Or would you say homosexual love is the chief driver of your stories. I ask this, because my favourite author, Somerset Maugham, who was said to be bisexual, never so much as dropped a hint about it in his works. The times he lived in didn't allow it perhaps, but when asked if his stories are autobiographical, he said, "The characters are not me, the emotions are all mine though," or something to that effect.  Do you see yourself attempting that?  Also, do you believe, taking sexuality out of the equation lends more universality to a story?

To me being Gay is normal, it is the world that sees it as abnormal and this is the way I have approached my work. I like having gay characters because I like working with them and I feel it is important to create visibility. I can identify with straight characters so I work on the assumption that the straight reader will be able to identify with my gay characters and that the work will be "universal" in its themes of family, displacement, search for self, search for love etc. What drives the story is not sexuality but ideas and themes and a desire to capture a certain experience.  

4. I can't help but ask you to tell us a little about your new book. Also, you mentioned about your teaching. How rewarding is that experience?

 I don't talk about any work in progress as it seems to kill it. I do love teaching and next to writing it is my favourite occupation. 

11 March 2015

The Weight Loss Club

The Weight Loss Club
The Curious Experiments of Nancy Housing Cooperative
Author:  Devapriya Roy
Published in: 2013
Publisher: Rupa
Price: Rs 250

Devapriya Roy’s novel proves once again why books and literature continue to offer women the most satisfying expression to their lives.

After thoroughly enjoying her first book, ‘The Vague Woman’s Handbook’, I took up her second, ‘The Weight Loss Club’, with a certain assuredness in the young author’s talent. Also, since Devapriya Roy tends to draw a lot from her own personality and interests, which I relate to, I knew I was in for a good time. The author is a bibliophile and much of the things that happen in her fictional universe mirror her real-life passion for books.  Her lead characters have academic careers, revel in their intellectual pursuits, and have a singular love for books.  Like all book lovers who love leisure and have a special fondness for cafes, bakeries and tea time in general, Devapriya’s books abound in lush descriptions of food, which are guaranteed to make you head to the kitchen while reading the book.
Being a researcher herself, she has a curious mind, and many subjects find expression through the novel’s varied and interesting characters.

The novel has several strengths. For a woman of 30, and a lovely looking one at that, Devapriya has an enviable grasp on the workings and dynamics of human relationships. More importantly, she articulates these thoughts with linguistic grace and humour. Importantly, the book shows the courage to confront many intimate feelings that women tend to experience in their emotionally charged lives. Devapriya is particularly on surer territory when she’s talking about women. Her best creation in the book is the character of Monalisa Das, whose only description can be that she is the mother of two boys. Her mind is all at sea, as she plots and plans to see her sons succeed. All her energies are focussed on seeing her sons embark on a picture perfect career.  This desperation to not slip up and her refusal to let go is aptly reflected in her maniacal daily routine of cleaning and scrubbing her house till it sparkles. Devapriya, who is otherwise quite compassionate with her characters, reserves her most bitingly ironic commentary for hyperventilating mothers obsessing over their sons.

There’s not much here by way of plot. The setting is a housing society, teeming with a varied lot of inhabitants. Every household has its hitch. There is the inevitable scenario of the tipping-on-the-wrong side-of- marriageable-age daughter, Aparajita (Apu). Notwithstanding her Ph.D, her mother, Mrs Mukherjee is worried about Apu’s weight issues, and is determined to find her a worthy match. This is where the novel tackles the traditional Indian mindset versus the new, emerging attitude of the young.

The Sahai household typifies the traditional Indian joint family, with its high-handed mother-in-law and well-meaning but absentee husband.  Meera, the bahu, battling postpartum depression, is barely able to cope up with the mom-in-law, when the whole extended family descends on her.

Then there is Treeza, who cannot summon up any will to clean her house, cook or even take a bath. Her husband, John is worried about his wife’s state, while their maid, Anwara is struck by the sloth on display.  But you soon learn that Treeza is no Madame Bovari. This is one of the more intense tracks, and the author manages to treat it with sensitivity and insight.
The book is at its most interesting when the narration revolves around these stories. There are other characters and their stories as well, but not all are equally interesting. I found myself skipping pages too.  But what one finds interesting could depend on what one relates to at a certain point.

 There are several plot points within each story, which hold quite well, but the central plot line involves a modern-day guru Sandhya, who begins residing in the colony. Soon, she becomes privy to the problems of the inhabitants and heals them in her own unique way. Devapriya in her useful epilogue mentions how the Bhrahmacharini character was inspired by a book called ‘The Path of Practice’ by Maya Tiwari to which she keeps returning again and again to dip into its wisdom. There are other authors on healing and spirituality whom she mentions. The insight in ‘The Weight Loss Club’ no doubt gives it heft and purpose. However, the plot itself, involving the guru with a back story, does not seamlessly blend with the story. The track appears forced, and is also unduly long.

Yet, the novel is a delicious slice-of-life book with lush characterisation, setting and atmospherics. The book speaks beautifully to the modern Indian woman, bringing many untold emotions to the fore. Female bonding was the subject of Devapriya’s first book, and the theme runs through this one as well. In the author’s world, female friendships are not just supplementary, but essential and hugely rewarding.

In a character-driven book, the author’s biggest strength is her writing. Devoid of clich├ęs or artifice, Devapriya masterfully brings scenes to life. Small, trivial things become interesting in her hands as she crafts a delightful crochet of ideas. Indulge by all means!

28 February 2015

Swimming in the Monsoon Sea

Author: Shyam Selvadurai
Penguin Books
Year of Publishing: 2005

When a writer is part of two worlds – Sri Lanka and Canada – with a readership in both countries, his instinct often is to combine these worlds so as to help his readers relate better. That seems to be one of the ideas behind his third novel, ‘Swimming In The Monsoon Sea’  - a forgettable title that I’m never able to remember without looking at the cover again. 

Shyam Selvadurai, who is now a citizen of Canada, and has been residing in Toronto for years, is a Sri Lankan by birth. He was among the thousands of refugees who fled his home country during the Tamil-Sinhalese riots in the 80s. His first book, ‘Funny Boy’ was an exceptional one in many ways. Sparkling with compassion, the novel instantly brought Selvadurai in the limelight.  The fact that he is now long settled in Canada has enabled his wonderful work to be appreciated by the western world as well.
 The book’s 14-year-old protagonist, Amrith comes face to face with his Canadian cousin, Niresh after years of not knowing him. This introduction of a foreigner into an affluent Sri Lankan family of affable parents and plucky teenagers turns the story into a cultural exchange of sorts.

Young Amrith who is at the threshold of puberty has much to be content about, but many things to mull over as well. His parents are no more, and he has no blood relatives to call his own. However, he has a solid support system and protective guardians in the form of Aunt Bundle and Uncle Lucky. The couple has two girls, Maya and Selvi, who treat Amrith as one of their own, even if the three are bickering for most part.

As children experience so often when they step into young adulthood, a strange sense of loneliness takes over, a self-consciousness creeps in, and new emotions find home in the heart.  The only interesting aspect of Amrith’s life at this time is a play he’s participating in. Being a boys’ school, the female parts are also essayed by the boys. Instinctively, Amrith is drawn to the female roles. In this case, he sets his mind on playing Desdemona from Othello.  The Shakespearean drama about intense jealousy and injustice serves as a backdrop to Amrith’s story, as he is faced with uncomfortable truths about himself.  His cousin's sudden entry into his life literally throws him into a deluge of discovery about his sexual orientation. Till now, Amrith only has a small idea about what such a thing means. He knows ‘such people’ are made fun of, and he dreads what its consequences could be.

The novel’s pace is languorous, in tandem with Amrith’s own uneventful life.  But Selvadurai has a gift for description and his prose is unfailingly elegant.  Also, the world the author recreates – upper-class Sri Lankan society of the 80s is charming and a precious piece of period history.
Selvadurai also manages to effectively capture the anguish of a young boy, as he comes face to face with his real sexual desires. The discovery saddens him, as he realises that nothing would go back to being the same again. This aspect of homosexual love is autobiographical and expectedly, the author beautifully brings forth the character’s inner struggle.

Yet, the novel is not a patch on ‘Funny Boy’ or even ‘Cinnamon Gardens’.  The earlier novels were far more accomplished in their writing and plot. A reason why this novel feels a bit watered down is also because it borrows many themes from the previous two books. Homosexual love is a recurring theme, so is the period setting and other elements like bickering cousins etc.  Selvadurai also gets bolder and incorporates several homoerotic scenes. This takes the novel precariously close to being an out and out candidate for queer literature. Now, this is a trap Selvadurai might well want to avoid. The universality of the story and emotions in the author's books succeed as long as the visceral aspects of homosexuality don't take over.

Many dialogues and scenes are awkward, even mawkish. With ‘Funny Boy’ every emotion carried a ring of sincerity. That aspect is not consistent in his third novel.
Yet, even when not at his absolute best, Selvadurai is never dismissable. He seems to enjoy the domestic atmospherics around the upper classes - a bit like Edwardian writer Edith Wharton or even Jane Austen, and it’s hard not get sucked into a world he so lovingly creates. Many descriptions are the work of a miniaturist.

But put together, ‘Swimming In The Monsoon Sea’ is only a little above a workaday novel.