Meet Thilak Rupasinghe who could be just like any other Sri Lankan father – ubiquitous and there all the time, with you unable to live with him and unable to live without him. He is nothing if not garrulous, issuing a whole gamut of instructions to his son. “Don’t enter a girl’s room. Don’t speak to strangers. Don’t
drag your feet when you walk. Don’t cross the railway line. Don’t swim in the ocean. Or the pool. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Don’t do drugs. Don’t wear short shorts. Don’t buy those silly bangles you did last time you went to Unawatuna. Don’t jump out of a boat. Don’t jump into a boat. Don’t go in anyone else’s car if they have been drinking. Don’t even look at a motorcycle.” At the receiving end of this barrage is a middle-aged man.
The Amazing Racist is Chhimi Tenduf-La’s debut novel. Although the tale is narrated by Eddie Trusted, an English schoolteacher who moves to Colombo, it is Thilak whose persona dominates a chunk of the novel and grows on the reader. Meanwhile, with his book fresh off the press and another one about to go under an editor’s expert knife, the man who wrote Thilak into existence is still settling into his newfound skin as an author and worries out aloud that he may be annoying his friends on social media with latest updates.
From composing comical schoolboy poems to read on the bus; dispatching photocopied letters to all and sundry (“we didn’t have email in those days”) and surreptitiously writing in-between balancing budgets at work in London – writing, Chhimi Tenduf-La explains, has always been entwined with his life. Half-English and half-Tibetan, growing up between London, Hong Kong, Delhi and Colombo, Chhimi is a product of many places. His family moved to Sri Lanka because his father wanted to retire in a Buddhist country and his mother, the well-known educationist Elizabeth Moir, was setting up some of Colombo’s key international schools.
The Amazing Racist is essentially the story of Eddie who falls in love with Sri Lanka and a Sri Lankan girl but then he has to confront and woo a formidable father-in-law who isn’t thrilled about the ‘alien’ addition to the family. Told from the perspective of an interested even if subdued outsider newly submerged in Sri Lanka’s idiosyncratic brand of hedonism, the book uses humour as a platform to move mountains and tackle cerebral issues.In the context, what the author told a periodical when the book happened is crucial: “I’ve always liked dark comedy and messages coming through with a bit of humour,” he said. The narrative seriously explores social life in the Emerald Island in all its complexities with a touch of seriousness that runs through the story , with the ethnic war and its ripple effects indirectly constituting the fulcrum of the book.
Of course, if it was left to him, the author would have neatly avoided the bloodshed altogether. But the Sri Lankan tale has to have references to the ethnic breach which acts as some kind of shadow over the narrative and leaves a deep imprint on people and places.Racism is a given, which is actually inherent in the island’s social fabric and is too overwhelming to sidestep.
There are characters who stand out as examples of the racial divide and the irreverence employed by the author in a remarkable first novel is endearing indeed. As sharply pointed out, “Chhimi also doesn’t make the blurring between fact and faction any easier by irreverently transposing flesh and blood people to paper and ink” The story is most probably not autobiographical but one can never say for certain. Chhimi anchors elements of his novel to reality. The descriptions of a character’s battle with cancer, for instance, are rooted in Chhimi’s own experiences of watching his father combat the disease. Thilak, he assures us, couldn’t be further away from his own father-in-law who is very quiet and very nice.
Whatever it may be, the plot is absorbing and the text riveting enough to retain interest.It is an encouraging sign that fresh, alert minds like the author are putting their perspectives in the public domain.