Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Beyond good and evil on Colombo streets

Loyal Stalkers
Chhimi Tenduf-la
Pages 232
Price 499

This being a short story collection, I started with the last story, titled ‘Balls’, finished it in one sitting and was blown away. A ‘coming out’ story of a high school kid, Tenduf-la handles the narrative with such light touches and with such humour that it must be read to be believed. There are usual bigotry and homophobia, coupled with peer pressure and twitter-bullying. Yet, Tenduf-la’s young protagonist remains confident about his sexuality and of course, he is rewarded for his tenacity in one of the most heart-warming ending I have read in a long time. Tenduf-la’s take here is modern and pragmatic, as opposed to, say, Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, a queer coming-of-age story steeped in trauma.

So I started reading Loyal Stalkers, a collection of 15 short stories by Sri Lanka-based author Chhimi Tenduf-la, with extra-excitement. Set in Colombo suburbs, the stories are loosely connected in the sense that the narrator of one story may appear as a minor character in another. This conceit itself is not new, but how Tenduf-la uses it to add depth of his characters is extraordinary.

Take, for example, the title story, where Chin-up Channa, a buff gym instructor with severe speech impediments as regards to opposite sex, falls in love with a young divorcee with a child. He talks to her in his imagination and come to accept all her reactions as consent to his overtures. Soon he invades her home, sleeping under her bed, taking care of her baby and cleaning up the leftover biryani. The story ends with a terrifying implication and a looming threat, and it is likely to gross out an average politically correct reader. However, Tenduf-la undercuts the morality of it by making Chin-up Channa a first-person narrator and as a result despite his unethical actions, we remain largely empathetic towards him. If this was not enough, the author gives us a back story for his protagonist in another story involving a religious leader cum local gangster.

I was looking for a series of idealised narratives on individual identity, but Tenduf-la gives me something more, a series of complex characters beyond the confines of good and evil, living their life the only way they can, not always happy but always without regret. And suddenly the oxymoronic title of the book begins to make sense. In Tenduf-la’s Colombo, two polar opposites can cohabit and make up a colourful narrative.

This tenuous thread that runs though all the 15 stories of the collection, some absolutely macabre, like the story of a 17-year-old mother and the story of a woman chased by man with devil mask tattoo after a one night stand and some absolutely heartbreaking, like the story titled ‘Loveable Idiot.’

If you thought this wide variety would make the book tonally inconsistent, Tenduf-la makes up for it with his informal, chatty and often brazen storytelling, which is at once real and funny. He is not afraid to peer into the darkest of human experiences and always returns with a witty quip. This clear-eyed look at the complexity of human experience makes Chhimi Tenduf-la’s Loyal Stalkers a book to be read and remembered.

(First Published in Sakal Times, Pune)

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