Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Memorable ghost haunts gay story

  • Print

ACCORDING to Buddhist myth, the dead are reborn as "hungry ghosts" -- spirits with stomachs so huge they are never full -- if they have desired too much during their lives.

In his first novel in more than a decade, Toronto literary writer Shyam Selvadurai creates a memorable ghost, a fierce matriarch, whose longing for power and property blinds her to the needs of both her family and her country, Sri Lanka.

This is the fourth book from Sri Lankan-born Selvadurai and his first novel since 1998's Cinnamon Gardens He is still best known for his 1994 debut, the Giller Prize-nominated short-story collection Funny Boy.

In The Hungry Ghosts, the central character, Shivan, looks back at his struggle to determine his own fate notwithstanding his grandmother's ongoing need to control it.

When we meet his "daya," we learn that she, unlike other Sri Lankan women, does not carry a purse. "My grandmother was a woman who had other people carry things for her," says Shivan, in a nifty bit of foreshadowing.

The novel is against the backdrop of the seven-year-long conflict that erupted in 1983 between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Hindu Tamil minority, where Shivan soon realizes that he is his grandmother's chosen one.

This proves both a blessing and a curse. While she showers the young man with gifts, her ongoing favouritism makes his sister incredibly jealous, as Shivan is being mentored to take care of his grandmother's growing list of properties.

When Shivan becomes an adult, he begins a romance with his old high school crush, Mili, and the battle turns increasingly nasty. In the showdown to decide who will ultimately win the young man's affection, it is revealed how bloodthirsty his grandmother is.

This young romance, like something out of an Edmund White novel, is beautifully and powerfully imagined, as the protagonist realizes all of his fantasies with this high school friend. Selvadurai's depiction of Shivan and Mili's fledgling romance provides clear evidence that gay love is no different than straight love.

Calling to mind the work of Indo-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri, Selvadurai does an excellent job contrasting Sri Lanka and Canada. On his native island, he sees "people at trestle tables with banana leaves piled with idli, rhosai, or string hoppers, onto which bare-chested little boys in soiled shorts dolloped soupy sambar out of metal buckets." But "the Coca-Cola, the KFC, the billboards, the white shag carpet" greet him upon his family's arrival in Canada.

The story loses some steam as it enters its second half. As Shivan puts more distance between himself and his grandmother, the narrative suffers from her absence. She has developed into an archetypical villain.

In this section Shivan lives in Vancouver with a new boyfriend, Michael, who is not as well drawn as Mili, who sometimes appears to be little more than a convenient foil for Shivan's problems.

The overall theme of The Hungry Ghosts is how people's pasts haunt them. "Like a leopard stalking its prey through tall grass, a man's past life pursues him, waiting for the right moment to pounce," writes Selvadurai, quoting one of his grandmother's many Buddhist tales.

Some ghosts do not go away until they are assuaged. Shivan's grandmother is such a ghost. Selvadurai suggests that karma cannot be altered and that one cannot use vengeance to cleanse a past wrong. You'll either pay in this life or in the next one.

Greg Klassen is a Winnipeg writer, publicist and arts marketer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2013 J8

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Lawless in the Morning: Gary answers your questions (March 25)

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A one day old piglet glances up from his morning feeding at Cedar Lane Farm near Altona.    Standup photo Ruth Bonneville Winnipeg Free Press
  • JOE BRYKSA/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Local- A large osprey lands in it's nest in a hydro pole on Hyw 59  near the Hillside Beach turnoff turn off. Osprey a large narrow winged hawk which can have a wingspan of over 54 inches are making a incredible recovery since pesticide use of the 1950's and  1960's- For the last two decades these fish hawks have been reappearing in the Lake Winnipeg area- Aug 03, 2005

View More Gallery Photos


Are you planning to go visit the new polar bear, Humphrey, at the Assiniboine Park Zoo?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google