Stretching from Colombo in Sri Lanka to Vancouver and Toronto in Canada, Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts is about a mixed Tamil and Sinhalese boy named Shivan Rassiah. Hanging over a story that is deeply entrenched in control over power and land, migration, and desire and belonging, is the Buddhist concept of hungry ghosts. The belief is that the dead become ghosts, and hunger if they have desired too much during their lifetime, or if their living relatives do not free them through good karma.
We begin with a thirteen-year-old Shivan, who begins to understand the extent and reach of his grandmother’s wealth and properties, and the expectation that he is to continue her legacy. Shivan’s relationship with his grandmother orbits around survival, which drives the decisions he makes throughout his life, even as he finally leaves for Canada and eventually attempts to bring her there. This all happens against a backdrop of political turmoil and migration, as Shivan and his mother and sister eventually move to Canada. In a new country, Shivan comes to terms with his sexuality, his sister’s dive into feminism and academia, and his mother’s struggles to assimilate and thrive in a new country. Although they are an ocean apart from his grandmother in Colombo, her presence is a constant heavy weight, as hungry ghosts arise also through ancestral neglect or desertion.
I saw my own family in Shivan’s complicated relationships. Selvadurai writes in a way that reminds readers of what it feels like to leave home, and to find traces of home in new bodies, and finally in oneself. The Hungry Ghosts is in many ways about intergenerational debt and our duties to our elders, ourselves, and those who come after us.
Title: The Hungry Ghosts
Author: Shyam Selvadurai
Published: 2012 by Doubleday Canada
ISBN: 0385670664 (ISBN13: 9780385670661)
Reviewer: Karen Ng