The Hungry Ghosts is Sri Lankan-Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai’s third novel, a book which tells the story of Shivan’s childhood in his originary nation and subsequent life in Canada, as well as his return(s) to Sri Lanka in his adolescence and adulthood. Told retroactively by a drunken present-day Shivan, The Hungry Ghosts deals not only with questions surrounding departure from and the possibility and potentiality of return to one’s home nation, but also with the intersection of these questions in conjunction with the protagonist’s homosexuality. Half Tamil on his deceased father’s side, Shivan’s childhood in Sri Lanka is less than idyllic. From an early age, Shivan remarks that he must act as a bargaining chip between his Amma (mother), and his Aachi (grandmother), a status that he both comes to love – due to the gifts and adoration bestowed unto him from his grandmother – and despise – largely due to the feeling of objectification that inevitably comes with such a position. As such, Shivan’s relationships with both his Amma and Aachi are strained, resulting in a feeling of isolation: an inability to fully connect on an emotional level with either woman. While Shivan is unable to sustain positive relations with the maternal figures in his life, his Aachi dotes on the young boy, which Shivan uses to his advantage in the form of gifts from his – extremely wealthy – Amma. Amma’s adoration for Shivan stems not from any grandmotherly affection for her grandson but from the fact of his masculinity, evidenced by her all but ignoring Shivan’s younger sister, Renu.
Although Shivan greatly benefits from his grandmother’s adoration, it is not long after anti-Tamil violence spreads throughout Sri Lanka that the young boy convinces his mother to apply for immigration to Canada, effectively severing his relationship with his grandmother. Once their application is accepted, Shivan, his mother, and his sister immigrate to Canada, where they each struggle in their own way to find their place in the supposed mosaic that is Canadian culture. While all three certainly have their own struggles, Shivan is convinced that he struggles the most of the three. Although not entirely unfounded – Shivan struggles to come to terms with his sexuality – this belief blinds him to the reality of the issues facing his mother and sister, allowing him to dwell on his own problems rather than creating intimate relations with his family members. It is in this way that the reader first begins to see that Shivan is, ultimately, a self-centered, unlikable character. This being said, it is near impossible to have some kind of sympathetic reaction to the manner in which Shivan is e(x/r)oticized by many of the white Canadians he encounters.
It is these encounters with white Canadians during which Shivan experiences sentiments of dehumanization and exotic essentialization which act as catalyst for his first return to Sri Lanka. This return spurs not only renewed interest in Shivan by his grandmother – who promises to leave Shivan with her lucrative, if exploitative business – but in Shivan’s first real romantic – although not his first sexual – relationship with a man. The significance of this relationship is twofold: firstly, it is Shivan’s first indication that his experiences as a gay man are not universal. Upon returning to Sri Lanka, Shivan must hide his sexuality and perform as a heterosexual man, even amongst those who otherwise become his closest relations in the country besides his grandmother. Secondly, this relationship reveals to the reader that Shivan must locate himself in the periphery of belonging in Sri Lanka; his time in Canada has sentenced Shivan to live simultaneously on the inside and outside of Sri Lankan culture. This is most clearly demonstrated when Shivan takes his partner to a brothel intended for male tourists to have sex with young Sri Lankan men: “’This guest house is only for foreigners,’” they are told by the doorman of the brothel. “’I am a foreigner,’ [Shivan] said, switching to English” (221). It is thus made clear that Shivan is comfortable utilizing his dual status as insider and outsider of Sri Lankan culture to his benefit, switching between feigning belonging and proudly declaring his outside status.
The Hungry Ghosts perfectly demonstrates Selvadurai’s literary mastery and his grasp on a range of human emotions. By writing Shivan as an unlikable yet sympathetic character, Selvadurai forces the reader to question the legitimacy of the narrative they have just devoured. As such, there are no easy conclusions to be reached through the novel. Instead, the reader must work towards their own reading of this masterwork of literary fiction.