Book review

This intriguing, edgy collection of stories could well have been called ‘Humans of Sri Lanka’

People who represent passion, obsession, shame, neglect, greed, compassion, and, of course selfless love.

Writing about the island nation and its people, Sri Lanka-based author Chhimi Tenduf-La steers clear of tracing the contours of the conflict and the rancour between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils. His previous two novels, The Amazing Racist and Panther, which were published in 2015 one after another, were portraits of people as fathers and sons, daughters and mothers, students and soldiers. Set in Sri Lanka, both stood out for their lightness of touch, for the delicate intermingling of humour with the vignettes from the lives of people – caught in a web of race, caste and religion – negotiating the everyday trials and tribulations.

Tenduf-La’s canvas is like a kaleidoscope, with relationships and emotions as its surfaces, its sequence of elements. In his two novels, he tackles various themes – from family and fidelity to love and betrayal – through an interesting cast of characters. But while he writes about people coming to terms with the ripple effects of the war, he doesn’t dwell on the complexities of either the war or the attempt at reconciliation. He merely chooses to make oblique references – a sentence here, a paragraph there.

The island within

Tenduf-La’s characters are mostly drawn from his real-life experiences. Half-British and half-Tibetan, he grew up in Hong Kong, London, New Delhi and Colombo. His cross-cultural influences have seeped into his work, lending his prose richness of expression.

Loyal Stalkers, Tenduf-La’s collection of 15 interlinked short stories, delves into the lives of the islanders, giving out nuggets of information about their day-to-day, often strange, experiences. Inventive and funny, these stories serve as strokes of compassion, passion, obsession, shame, neglect, greed and selfless love on Tenduf-La’s fictional landscape, interspersed with the author’s trademark humour.

Sri Lanka bristles with life in these stories, with Tenduf-La picking on its people’s specific traits, their mannerisms, their ways of being and seeing. These descriptions are pointers to the country’s unique vibe: so while there is universality to the rich tapestry of relationships and emotions the author deftly weaves, the setting of these stories remains singularly Sri Lankan.

The collection opens with “Sending A Night Breeze”, the story of a 17- year-old unmarried mother, who gives birth to a child as a consequence of being raped by a relative. The girl is accused of bringing shame to the rich family by getting raped, and the family decides to separate their only daughter from her new-born by giving away the child to Buddhist monks. Her gynaecologist father, who terminates pregnancies for others for money, considers it a “sin” when it comes to doing it for his own daughter. The story takes the lid off hypocrisy in the society and people’s distorted sense of principles.

“Pot Holiness”, the third story, is about a young budding cricketer, Gayan, in the under-15 category and his abuse, torture and sexual harassment by his coach in lieu of his selection for England tour.

“Loveable Idiot” is the story of a security guard who pretends to be a police officer for his little son and struggles to buy him a bicycle.

In “Tuk Tuk Bang”, a VIP driving a red jeep tries to be a good human being in a road rage case, but ends up killing some innocents.

“Old Boys’ Nuts” is the story of closet homosexuals and highlights love, passion, jealousy and domestic violence among same-sex couples.

The title story, “Loyal Stalkers”, is about the obsession of a dark-skinned gym instructor with his fair-complexioned woman client. Hilarious and strangely amusing, it details the extent to which the instructor goes in this tale of unrequited love. The instructor becomes a manic stalker, following the newly-divorced woman everywhere – from sneaking into her house, taking care of her infant at night, polishing away biryani made by her mother, to chasing her when she is on a holiday in Thailand.

Many themes, many wonders

In the other wondrous stories, there are other delightful and funny forays into the lives of people across class and gender. There are stories of peer pressures and rivalry, of class divide.

In one of the stories, the friends of a young homosexual student ostracise him, making fun of him on social media. In another story, the parents find it difficult to accept that their child suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. The story captures their reluctance and shame that drive them to abandon the child in need of more love and care. Another story shows how the rich tend to be patronising towards their maids and treat them as slaves.

Tenduf-La interlinks these stories through a variety of methods. The reader finds the thread of a particular story in another story in the form of a climax or a repetition of certain characters briefly making an appearance or finding a mention in stories that follow.

Sri Lanka finds a mention in random observations across stories:

“In Colombo, everyone knows everyone and no one can hide.”

“Colombo’s most popular social events such as fashion shows and funerals…”

“Sri Lankans have skinny legs. In fact, we store all our fats around our bellies.”

“Rich people in this country think that if you pay poor people well you are spoiling them.”

“There is something about this country – people don’t talk about caste, snobbery, or hierarchy...”

“We are lovely people but we are islanders and we gossip.”

“Our people worry too much about what the neighbours think”

“Sri Lankans normally ask more personal questions”

Some of these observations, of course, find parallels in South Asia and will resonate with readers in the region.

Like Tenduf-La’s two novels, Loyal Stalkers highlights dark themes – poverty, adultery, homosexuality and death – but its humour remains intact, finding expression in one pithy one-liner after another. By using humour in the dark setting, Tenduf-La lightens up the aura of these stories, reflecting on the realities of life where despondency and laughter go hand in hand.

In these meticulously crafted stories, Tenduf-La explores the nuances in relationships and the dynamics of human emotions of the island dwellers. They mirror the modern Sri Lankan life and its complexities – class distinction, patriarchy, social prejudices. Tenduf-La, the chronicler of contemporary Sri Lanka, however, wears his hat lightly. And so, while he writes about grimness, he ensures they are interwoven in a narrative crackling with terse energy. Some of these stories are unsettling and agitating, but the author succeeds in taking the reader on an unusual journey into the island.

Loyal Stalkers, Chhimi Tenduf-La, Pan Macmillan India

Shireen Quadri is a marketing and communications professional who has worked with several publishing houses. She is founder and publisher, The Punch Magazine. On Twitter and Instagram, her handle is @shireenquadri.

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