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A rum punch from the Emerald Isle

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on January 11, 2018
Golden sunsets: Two boys on a beach in Bapatla, Sri Lanka. Adolescent friendship is a recurring theme in Chhimi Tenduf-La’s books. Photo: T Vijaya Kumar

Golden sunsets: Two boys on a beach in Bapatla, Sri Lanka. Adolescent friendship is a recurring theme in Chhimi Tenduf-La’s books. Photo: T Vijaya Kumar

Loyal Stalkers; Chhimi Tenduf-La; Fiction; Pan Macmillan India; ₹499

Loyal Stalkers; Chhimi Tenduf-La; Fiction; Pan Macmillan India; ₹499

Chhimi Tenduf-La’s first short story collection is a delightful bouquet of noir thrills, whacky humour and some truly unforgettable characters

For as long as I can remember now, I have read two or sometimes three books at the same time. This is not intended as a boast, I swear: my mind just finds it faster and easier to process books this way. The nine-to-five labour cycle makes it a matter of simple compartmentalisation: non-fiction at home, where I can make longhand notes or look up stuff on the internet if I so choose. Fiction (often comics) or poetry is for the 90 minutes or so spent commuting every day, plus the hour before I sleep (or first thing in the morning). These last four weeks, my commute has been blissful despite the heat and humidity of Delhi, for I have read and re-read Loyal Stalkers, the first short story collection (and third book overall) by the Colombo-based author Chhimi Tenduf-La.

Loyal Stalkers is an interconnected story cycle, after the fashion of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, perhaps the single greatest book written in this subgenre. Several stories have overlapping characters. Very often, one story ends on a cliffhanger that is only resolved deep into the book, at the hands of a different (but also familiar) character. Sometimes, two or even three stories feature the same incident (for this book, a traffic accident) as plot point.

Tenduf-La begins with ‘Sending a Night Breeze’, a poignant and understandably bitter story told in the voice of a teenager whose surgeon father delivers her baby, a product of rape. Her father is a fairly straightforward prude devoted to his job and little else, while her mother is a high society queen bee. Neither can stomach the prospect of their daughter being a teen mom or, indeed, a rape survivor. After a round of victim blaming (she must have tempted her uncle, a red-blooded man, after all), her parents make arrangements for the baby. He is whisked off to monks who’ve promised to find a good home for him. After a number of striking and morbidly funny images (after delivery, the mother breaks wind uncontrollably, courtesy the surgery), the ending lines of this story pack an emotional wallop: “You are 8,778 kilometres away. It feels like more. But it also feels like less, because I can smell you. My nipples pinch when I think of you. I hear you cry. I love you.”

For me, this story represents a wonderful new weapon in Tenduf-La’s repertoire. He could always do slapstick and social satire: both of his previous books, Panther and The Amazing Racist are primarily funny novels that also work as revelatory cross-sections of modern-day Sri Lankan life, warts and all. However, he has never (apart from maybe two chapters in Panther) quite played the naked, wildly miscellaneous emotional notes that he hits here. This is high-risk, high-reward writing.

From this point on, the author is in his element. ‘Pot Holiness’ is a nifty little master class in noir writing. It has, as its name indicates, drugs, alcohol, a bloodied kidnapping victim tied to a chair, a video camera, and a larger-than-life godman (Cecil Conrad) who’s actually a gangster and extortionist extraordinaire. Need I say more?

‘Loyal Stalker’ is devoted to the kidnapping victim from ‘Pot Holiness’, a short, mostly silent personal trainer called Chin-up Channa, the best quads man in Colombo. If you think Channa’s name is whimsical, these are his fellow trainers — Bicep Badula, Ab-crunch Asoka and Deadlift Dilshan (the “Hard Body Crew”). Channa is a very lonely man whose infatuation with a young, unrealistically pretty mother leads him down a dangerous path. Humanising stalkers is tricky business, especially in the subcontinent, which is why ‘Loyal Stalker’ is all the more impressive.

Some of the themes from Tenduf-La’s earlier books resurface in a couple of stories — cricket, prodigies, and less-than-perfect father figures. The fictional Australian cricketer Steven Matthews turns up again here, this time even less likeable than he was in Panther. ‘My Fair and Lovely Lady’, featuring two talented schoolboy cricketers, is a near-perfect account of monomaniacal adolescent ambition and the heartlessness that it leads to more often than we’d like. And in ‘Suspiciously Brown’, one of the last stories here, the protagonist’s name is Nimal Warnakulasuriya Patabendige Ushantha Dias — the second, third and fourth names are after WPUJ Chaminda Vaas, former cricketer and the most successful Sri Lankan fast bowler of all time.

Taken together, these stories offer a dizzying ensemble of memorable characters and irresistible set-pieces. There’s a smuggling heist involving a fake leg, a serial killer story with an O Henry-esque twist, two contrasting but equally satisfactory father-and-son moments, a sweet sexual awakening tale that climaxes with a very public kiss — and an airport reunion accompanied by audible farts (if you’ve been paying attention to this review, you’ll know who I am talking about).

Why should you read Loyal Stalkers? Above everything else, I believe it should be read because it masterfully combines the strengths of both literary and commercial fiction. It is both expertly plotted and sensitively written — and that is an increasingly rare combination to come across in fiction from the subcontinent. KR Meera, Rajorshi Chakraborti, Mohammad Hanif, Anees Salim and Annie Zaidi are some of the other contemporary writers that I feel do this with a high success rate. When on song, Tenduf-La is as funny and as viscerally effective as any of them. Loyal Stalkers is definitely his best book so far. And I get the feeling that he’s only just warming up.

Published on July 21, 2017

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