The story – about an English school teacher who arrives in Sri Lanka, falls in love with a local beauty and finds himself spending the best years of his life pleasing his fearsome father-in-law and looking after his daughter – draws from Tenduf-La’s own experience. There are hot curries, hotter women, mosquitoes, mobs, bad roads and cheating wives, but what makes The Amazing Racist stand out is in the handling of the clichés and the tropes. The toughest, cruellest and most awkward situations are dealt with a smile and a lightness of touch while characters are saved from being mere caricatures because of the empathy the writer feels for them.
At the end, as the author tells us, it is best if we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Excerpts from an interview:
What is it really like to be half British, half Tibetan, raised in different parts of the world, to be in Sri Lanka? Is there any place in the world you would rather be?
In a bar a few years ago, I saw this friendly thug speaking to my brother. Later, the same thug came up to me and asked where I was from, and when I told him I was half English, half Tibetan he said, “No way,” and pointed at my brother. “That’s exactly the same as that guy there.”
You don’t get many of us around these parts, so I can safely say I am the most successful half-Tibetan, half-British writer in Sri Lankan history.
There are so many benefits to being mixed raced, not least in Sri Lanka where there is superb reverse racism. They take me in first at the doctors, and open new counters for me at the supermarket. In fact, if given a choice between opening the car door for me, or for my Sri Lankan wife, they more often than not choose me. I’m treated like a pregnant woman and it’s not just because of my rice belly.
I guess it is all part of the magnificent hospitality here. I remember being invited into a very poor house once and I asked for tea with no sugar. “But we have lots of sugar,” they said. “Please have. You need more than us.”
People here are incredibly generous in general, but in particular with foreigners. There is no place I would rather be.
Your book deals with some rather dark themes - racism, death, political turmoil and adultery. As a writer you have used humour to negotiate this potential minefield. Does a sense of humour come in handy in real life for you too?
Absolutely. I feel a little uncomfortable in places where humour is not encouraged. I just wonder if people are taking themselves, and what they do, too seriously sometimes. My humour is often misplaced, however. If I say something to my wife, which she thinks is sweet, I always have to ruin it by following it up with a joke.
Much of the racism I have experienced here is not malicious in intent. Being oriental, people joke about the size of my eyes, but that doesn’t bother me at all.
Uncle Thilak blocked the exit and looked at Menaka. ‘If you’re ready to settle down there are many proposals for you.’
‘I’m not that desperate.’
‘There is a lawyer who lives in Sydney. Has a 3D television and a sari-wearing mother.’
Menaka ambled towards me and sat on my lap. Was she trying to get me killed?
‘A doctor from LA, with two SUVs and an exceptional horoscope. An engineer who studied at Cambridge and has perfect vision. All Kandyans. Fair-skinned.’ He pointed at me. ‘I mean, not like chalk-fair, but fair.’
‘Eddie’s a teacher.’
‘And you think a teacher can support your lifestyle?’
‘He doesn’t always intend to be a teacher.’
‘Does he always intend to be white?’
‘I tan easily,’ I said.
Death is obviously not very humorous, but I would want people to crack jokes at my funeral. My father was the same, so the day he died, we recalled all the amusing things he had done in his life. I can even look back on that horrible day and laugh now. Just moments after he died, I got a phone call from one of his friends asking, “Is it true? Is he dead, or is this just one of his jokes?” This was a typically Sri Lankan question. This person had to be the first to know.
I hear more stories about adultery here than I would like to, and I often wonder why that is. Do people get married before they are ready or for the wrong reasons? I don’t know.
‘So Thilini sleeps in a different room, and…?’ Uncle Thilak asks.
‘And she gets her...’ Harshi looks around, probably more for effect than need, as no one else is there.
‘She told me about this ring of cops who sleep with old society ladies for money. And guess what? She’s started using them.’
Uncle Thilak spits out laughter. ‘That’s just too bloody good.’
‘She complains about Gehan visiting the Yellow Pussy karaoke bar. You know the one with the Chinese prostitutes?’
Politics here is, by and large, its own comedy, its own audience. Some things are just too comical to take seriously. The cabinet has been cut now, but we used to have the most ridiculous number of ministries.
‘His father’s the Deputy Minister of Space Programmes.’
‘Sri Lanka has a space programme?’ I asked.
‘Not that he’s aware of,’ Jimmy said.
The use of certain stereotypes – the terror of a father-in-law, a vivacious local beauty, the hot curries, bad roads, dengue – was all this by design or default? Is that always the first impression of a foreigner in Sri Lanka?
The roads are getting much better here, but they are often dug up just after they have been re-laid.
The roads looked like they had been thrown on top of each other, the odd train track too -- a rich kid’s messy playroom -- as if the cars had been hurled away in a tantrum, pointing in any direction, in any condition. The street signs hung at weird angles, some tilted by tropical winds, some faded by the sun. Behind them, the green and yellow of the most beautiful landscape imaginable.
We bounced along past super-centre shops and mud-huts, McDonald’s and one-legged beggars, Buddhist monks and heavily armed commandos. The driver only stopped at zebra crossings if the pedestrians bothered to hold up their hands to signal that he should. If they failed to do so, it appeared that they were fair game to oncoming traffic.
When I first arrived here, aged 8, I remember a Sri Lankan lady laughing when I tried to serve myself the curry they were eating. “We have made a special one for you foreigners,” she said. So I assumed it would be mild, but it was like a million firecrackers going off in my mouth, and I remember wanting to drink water from the dog’s bowl, it was that hot.
They had made a special ‘mild’ chicken curry for the white man. It seemed they had run out of chicken and subbed it with more red chilli. Even my nipples began to weep.
Dengue, just plain and simple, terrifies me. I am not worried about getting it myself, but I just can’t handle the thought of my two-year-old daughter getting it. We all know of people who have lost a child to dengue, so basically I am a little eccentric when it comes to mosquitoes. This comes out in Eddie’s character.
Uncle Thilak shows me his hand. The mosquito is squashed in blood, meaning it must have had a few bites of people. I use my fingers to pick the mosquito up by the legs. ‘They’re black,’ I say.
‘Thank God,’ Uncle Thilak says.
Samantha asks, ‘What does that mean?’
‘Mosquitoes that can carry dengue have striped legs.’
‘Oh, wow,’ Samantha says. ‘Didn’t know that.’
‘God, becoming parents makes us boring, no?’ I say.
‘Can’t remember you ever being interesting,’ Uncle Thilak says.
Despite what I wrote, I would say fathers-in-law here aren’t that much of a problem. They just like someone new to have a drink with. Mothers-in-law are known to be much more difficult. I get the feeling there are more mummy’s boys here than you would get in the west. I have friends whose mothers simply can’t blame them for anything. Also, mothers seem to compete with their daughters quite a lot. My mother-in-law often tries on my wife’s clothes and says, ‘I got into these easily, and I’ve had two kids.’
I have always thought South Asian girls to be the most beautiful in the world. I remember when I was about 22 and living in London, I asked an Indian friend for a good place to meet a nice Indian girl. He told me to try India.
She wore a green bikini top, a lighter shade of her eyes, which looked like small sails stretched across giant masts. As she lifted her blue and orange beach wrap, it fanned out in the wind like a peacock’s tail. Bending forward, the line of muscle on her thighs rippled, a clear separation from her hamstrings; not too much muscle, just enough. Her bikini bottoms showed more bum than I thought suitable amongst people who didn’t try to hide that they were staring, but I stared too. Her abs, almost a six pack, maybe a four pack, but again just right.
Calculated, devised, the perfect body.
I stood next to her, the frangipani extended in front of me, but everything I had planned to say was lost like the crab without its home.
Because this was Menaka.
Against the backdrop of palm trees and cloudless blue skies, she looked spectacular, like a monument to a god I had begun to wonder if I should believe in. Should worship.
You have acknowledged Sri Lankans as the 'funniest' people in the world and admitted to have taken certain artistic liberties. What has been their response to those 'liberties?'
Sri Lankans are very good at laughing at themselves. They make fun of their own accents and pronunciation. A van is a wan here, a waiter is a vaiter. I am too much of a coward to attribute any vaguely racist jokes in the book to myself. Instead, they are all jokes I have heard Sri Lankans make about each other.
The feedback, thus far, has been exceptional in that everyone has said they know someone like Uncle Thilak. I have been told I have Sri Lanka exactly right, and that means, I think, that they were happy that my view of Sri Lanka, as a foreigner, matches theirs. It’s a country where people don’t take themselves too seriously, in the same way as I have not taken this book so seriously that I am precious about it.
My artistic liberties were less to do with Sri Lankans and more to do with me making up events such as a violent protest outside the British High Commission:
They pull me out and pass me over their heads like a rock star at a concert. I can see the clouds; they are low enough to open up soon, and maybe wash this scum away.
I’m on the pavement, slippered feet kicking me in my ribs, a man squatting on my chest pummelling me with a bloody fist.
I picture Kiki and I cry. I cry and plead. ‘I have a baby.’
‘He’s one of us,’ Uncle Thilak says. ‘Get off him.’
He is next to me on the pavement. They punch and kick him. I’m not sure he can take this.
‘He’s an old man,’ I shout. ‘You’ll kill him.’ But I can’t breathe. Too many bodies on me now. Their sweat drips into my mouth. My eyes are swollen shut. I am howling.
There is no answer.
Whistles. Whistles and belts being swung like whips.
The sounds of walkie talkies. The buzz of sirens.
Thunder and the drumming of rain, scattering those around us.
‘I’ll get a head-cold,’ a thug says.
‘Amma told me not to stay in the rain,’ says another.
Silence but for the rain. Rain in my mouth, up my nose.
Someone props me up. I force one eye open.
Policemen with batons and belts chase the thugs.
The Head Cop holds an umbrella above me, apologises. Says this isn’t what his country is about.
There is no sign of Uncle Thilak. I ask where he is.
No one knows.
Aatish Taseer (whose mother is an Indian and father, a Pakistani politician who was assassinated, and who was brought up in India, London and now lives in the US), says that his relationship with a country is not determined by anyone’s agenda of nation building, and that his sense of identity is bound to the soil and runs deeper than flags or political boundaries. Given your lineage, your footprints around the world, is your sense of identity tied to any country, culture or civilisation? Where do you feel at home? What is home for Eddie Trusted?
I am a great fan of Aastish Taseer’s and agree with this. I don’t quite get being a nationalist, because in a Sri Lankan context it often equates to racism. You are a nationalist if you believe in Sinhalese Buddhism. It is bizarre that we can all get so worked up about boundaries and flags; I think you have to do this in sports, or some of the enjoyment and stress of it goes. In real life what does it mean to say one country is better than another? I feel at home absolutely anywhere
Both my parents were born in India and I am applying to become an OCI. I am a British citizen married to a Sri Lankan Australian and my daughter could have four different passports. I don’t want her to think she is a particular nationality, nor do I want to brainwash her into following a religion. I want that to be her choice, and like me, I want her to be comfortable anywhere.
Eddie Trusted is a reasonably nice guy and he doesn’t patronise locals like some foreigners here do, so yes, I think he could fit into any country too.
Who are your literary influences?
Just whoever I am reading at the time of writing. For this particular book, I don’t think anyone inspired the way I wrote it although Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman encouraged me to write for a South Asian audience without slowing down to explain things to people unfamiliar with this part of the world. For my second book, since it has war scenes, which the lead character wants to disassociate himself from, I write in the second person, which I got from Mohsin Hamid.
Tell us the one thing about the Sri Lankan elite that the world does not know. How similar or different is the community from their Indian counterpart?
In Sri Lanka you get high-society married couples who hate each other, turning up to events together, holding hands.
Like the elite in most parts of the world, they are obsessed with what people think about them. I have an ex student, from India, who did history at LSE but her parents didn’t want to lose face so told everyone she did economics.
This was my cue to go downstairs to pour Red Label into a Black Label bottle. I passed Thilini and the other gem merchants’ wives who were not allowed entry onto the roof terrace because the discussion about discrimination was deemed to be above them. The wives openly flaunted their newfound wealth, each of them too fair in skin tone to have married the men upstairs without some financial gain.
Tell us a bit more about the title.
The Amazing Race used to be quite big over here, and one night over a beer, my brother came up with an alternative game show called the Amazing Racist. So I stole that as a title because I think it really matched Uncle Thilak – an incredible man who is also ridiculously colour conscious.
Thilak leaned forward and said, ‘Nangi, he’s white. What will people think?’
‘That he uses Fair and Lovely?’ Menaka asked.
You are friends with Bear Grylls. Has he read the book? Have you been on any adventure with him?
It would probably be more accurate to say that I was friends with Bear Grylls at Eton. We used to go to the gym together, but after a workout I would then lie down, while he would go off to do tae kwon do or climb walls with weights on his back. In the cricket team picture I still have, we look like we are in similar shape. Now if you lined up a picture of him next to a picture of me, both with our shirts off, you may notice the similarities but it is far more likely you would notice the differences. He probably has 4% body fat to my 40%. I remember he first became vaguely famous when he wrote a book about climbing Everest, but he wasn’t famous enough to reject my Facebook friend requests. Now he is.
Do you think if you were to pick Eddie Trusted from the Sri Lankan setting and plant him in Delhi or Rajasthan, his story would have been the same?
I actually thought about this. I got massively ahead of myself and wondered whether The Amazing Racist could be adapted into a film in an Indian setting, so I picture Eddie getting married in a turban, and dancing behind trees. I think, except for the issues of war, this is as much an Indian story as it is a Sri Lankan one. Actually, my mother’s sister married into an Indian family so I have a bit of insight. If Eddie Trusted did arrive in India, I think it would be the same story, just on a grander scale, and with better moustaches.
The cover of your book has been designed by an eight-year-old, How did that happen?
Neither my editor nor I knew about this until a few days ago. The first cover image we had was deemed to make the book look too literary and hardcore so we asked for another option. The designer called upon Samar Juggy, an eight-year-old family friend and we ended up with this. To me it really stands out in the bookshops.
There are bits of your life in this book. Your father suffered from cancer. So does Eddie’s father-in-law. Their relationship begins on a very wrong note, but changes once life throws them together in the most challenging situations. Is that an author-son’s hat-tip to a father-son relationship?
Not really, as being the youngest, I always got favourable treatment from my father. So it was never like we had a difficult relationship, but if anything it is more a hat-tip to my brother’s relationship with my father, which was very strong. My brother is in the Hall of Fame of Laziness; he is comfortably one of the laziest people in the world, if not the whole universe, yet nothing was too much for him when my father got sick. He would sit with him in hospital, playing cards for so long that by the end of the day they would have unsettled debts with each other for a few billion dollars. His patience was immense. So, this was very much part of this book. Like my brother, Eddie Trusted wouldn’t have expected himself to look after Thilak as well as he did. Also, some of the scenes in the book are exactly as happened to me and my brother at the hands of my father’s cheeky cancer-stricken humour.
Uncle Thilak is sprawled across the cut cement floor, his sarong bunched up around his waist.
I check if he’s breathing. ‘Let’s get him to bed.’
Aiya grabs Uncle Thilak by the wrists and I wrap my hands around his ankles. Literally, wrap. My
fingers overlap my thumb.
Talk about dead-weight. For a man that looks like he has zero fat and zero muscle on him, Uncle Thilak proves difficult to shift. Halfway up the stairs, I have to insist that we put him down and then Aiya asks if we can swap positions so that he doesn’t have to walk backwards up the last few steps.
‘Do you think we can drag him?’ I ask. Half-joking, but also hopeful.
Aiya looks like he wants to agree but can’t.
I take in three deep breaths. ‘Ready.’
‘One, two, three and step,’ I say, again and again, till we get him on the landing upstairs, at which point Aiya and I collapse onto our backs.
Uncle Thilak is up on his feet before I open my eyes again. ‘Thanks for that,’ he says behind his crooked smile. ‘Couldn’t be bothered walking up the stairs myself.’
Your mother, Elizabeth Moir, is an educationist. Tell us a bit about the work she has been doing and your role in the project.
My mother founded three international schools in Sri Lanka. The first one, I was a student at, before going to boarding school in England, and the last one, Elizabeth Moir School, I helped set up and I currently work at. In the late 80s she ran an island-wide English language programme at the request of the President at the time.
She also helped set up the Trivandrum International School. Recently, she was awarded an MBE for her services to English language and British education in Sri Lanka.
I continue to work with her, but have not been awarded an MBE. I used to teach economics and sports, but now focus on management, and as a hobby, I help out with university applications, which is great fun.
So Eddie has a job similar to mine, but he is probably better at it.
You have said that you moved to Sri Lanka because your father wanted to retire in a Buddhist country. Did he ever regret the decision? What was it like to settle down in the country?
I think we all could have regretted the decision when the riots of 1983 started a year after we got here. Yet, we didn’t, I am not sure why. We felt at home very quickly, which was not hard for us as kids as we had always moved around a lot. We had arrived from Delhi, actually, so nothing was incredibly new to us, except the curries were much hotter. Over the years we have been near bomb blasts and watched our neighbours being assassinated, but still we have never thought about leaving. I honestly don’t know why. We must love it here I guess.
What is your second book about? How different will it be from The Amazing Racist?
It is very different except that there is attempted humour in there as well, albeit in a darker setting. Panther, which comes out in July, is about a former child soldier winning a cricket scholarship to an elite international school. He has to battle with issues of fitting in, first love, abusive coaches, racism and troubled friendships, whilst also trying to forget about his past in the war. I did some research on this, and former child soldiers, quite understandably, can have anger management issues. So the lead, in Panther, tries to fight this by attributing his memories to someone else. Strangely enough, now that The Amazing Racist is out there, I feel like this. That it is someone else’s story, that someone else wrote. Now it just seems to be a book that I discuss a lot.