The Hungry Ghosts is a compelling story of family set in Sri Lanka and Canada, the story of a family in which, like all other families, there is love, conflict, sacrifice, resentment. The plot is set against the civil war in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese and Tamils, with all its hostilities, cruelty, violence and danger.
The plot is engaging and moves at a good pace so the book is a very good read. It forced me to look up some of the details of the civil war in Sri Lanka so I would classify the book as historical fiction as well. Selvadurai’s prose is immaculate as in his other novels. The characters are rich, authentic and well drawn and evoke the reader’s empathy.
There are several themes to the novel…love and family is a theme that runs throughout the novel. Love can be possessive and destructive, it can be supportive and nourishing, it can unite, it can divide, it can hurt, it can heal, it can be accepting or conditional…… we see it all in this poignant story of family.
The immigrant experience is definitely one of the themes in the novel. The struggle to belong, the conflict between the culture of the immigrant parent and the Canada-raised children, the economic struggles, the disappointments, humiliations and finally the gradual building of a meaningful life which takes years to build….again we see all this in the course of the story.
Karma is a repeated theme in the novel. The fruits of past karma play out in our lives, there is not much we can do about that; Hema, blanking out during her High School exam “it was as if some element of karma was at play…some bad effect from a previous life reaching itself in this one”. The grandmother is convinced she will not find happiness in this life due to her karma and in the end of the novel, Shivan feels a calm when he has given up struggling against karma, he feels “the inner stillness of someone who has finally given up, who has stopped clinging to the ridiculous notion that he, or any of us really, can avoid our fate”.
Race relations and discrimination, the coming of age of a gay man are other themes explored…. but what stood out to me as the main theme of the novel was the idea of the past and its place in the future of our lives. “Like a leopard stalking its prey through tall grass, a man’s past life pursues him, waiting for the right moment to pounce”. Was the author suggesting that it is our choice to either allow the past to colour our future or to let the past go free so we may enjoy a peaceful and fruitful future? All main characters in the book allow the past to affect their lives. The grandmother’s aggressive ways may have their foundation in an incident that shapes her childhood, or in her bitterness about her marriage, her disappointment in her daughter. Shivan struggles with his past, unable to forgive his grandmother as does his mother Hema. As the novel progresses Hema and Shivan understand better that one must acknowledge the past, come to terms with it, forgive oneself and others to find peace and happiness for the future. Love plays a large part in this transition, love which is “like rain soaking a parched land”. Individuals must forgive each other; races must forgive each other, only then is harmony possible.
Each reader may interpret the end of the novel differently. In making the choice he did at the end of the novel, I felt Shivan chose forgiveness over vengeance and love over hostility. His decision was one of compassion rather than anger.
The book is interspersed with Buddhist lore. I did not always make the connection between the lore and the tale. Some stories resonated with me, like the story of the hawk with meat in its mouth that is being pursued by predators and flies away in peace when it has dropped the meat which causes it so much suffering. So also, our attachment to and desire for love, money, power causes our suffering in life. The Hungry Ghost from which the book gets its title, is one who is born as a perethaya, a hungry ghost because, during his human life, he desired too much – hence the large stomach that can never be filled through the tiny mouth. “My grandmother saw herself as the naked peréthi, marooned on an island, surrounded by so much that is good in life but unable to enjoy it. Everything she touched, everything she loved, disintegrated in her hands.” Shivan also is a Hungry Ghost. His desire for the love of Mili is so great that he does not heed Sriyani’s warnings and destroys the very thing he loves. Shivan realizes, “By placing my happiness first, I, too, had destroyed the thing I cherished.” Inordinate desire is at the root cause of all suffering as in the case of the grandmother. One must drop not only excessive desire but also the thoughts and events of the past that cause us suffering so we may fly away in peace like the hawk which dropped its meat.
I recommend this book for its solid plot, authentic characters, historical background and for its well developed themes. It leaves the reader with a great deal to think and talk about. If you have not read his earlier books Funny Boy and Cinnamon Gardens I highly recommend them as well.
Geetha`s love of books began when she was a child. She later turned that love into formal education with a Masters in English Literature and then again into a career for a few years, teaching English at Ethiraj and Fergusson Colleges in India. Though her career took her into the computer industry, Geetha has continued to read both individually as well as part of a book club in Newmarket, Canada where she lives.