Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Amazing Racist by Chhimi Tenduf-La

The Amazing Racist by Chhimi Tenduf-La

--reviewed by Divya Dubey (publisher, Earthen Lamp Journal)
Publisher: Hachette India
ISBN: 978-93-5009-912-4
Extent: 232 pp
Price: US $ 12.99

[Published in Asia Literary Review]

Chhimi Tenduf-la
The opening pages of Chhimi Tanduf-La’s debut novel, The Amazing Racist, put a smile on the reader’s face instantly. The novel begins with the witty white narrator, Edward Trusted, a schoolteacher in Colombo, tickling the reader with his hilarious witticisms as he recounts his adventures in Colombo courtesy his Sri Lankan girlfriend, Menaka Rupasinghe. The situations he finds himself in echo the hilarity.  As the plot progresses, it acquires greater flesh and substance.
It is difficult not to find parallels with Two States, a similar novel by the p
opular Indian author, Chetan Bhagat. In the first part of this book all character archetypes come together: the Irresistible Heroine, the Madly-in-Love Hero from a different race/religion/country, the Formidable (prospective) Father-in-Law.  The beautiful Menaka Rupasinghe has a long comet-tail of boyfriends behind her – a fact Thilak Rupasinghe tries to rub in constantly to dissuade Eddie from marrying her. As the blurb mentions, for their marriage to happen it is Thilak Rupasinghe, ‘her orthodox terror of a father, whom he must woo and whose farts he must kiss.…’

Like the majority of Asian fathers, Thilak Rupasinghe – the ‘amazing racist’ of the title – wants to maintain his family pedigree, so he is – naturally – against his daughter’s decision to marry a white man with blond hair and blue eyes. 

The battle of wits is played out in Part I. Eddie tries his best to win the favour of his soon-to-be father-in-law, while Thilak Rupasinghe leaves no stone unturned to put Eddie into trouble at every opportunity – to the extent that he offers him employment in his organization that Eddie cannot accept legally, and then reports him to the authorities in a bid to get him deported.

Just when the reader begins to feel the plot is familiar and hackneyed, a twist in the tale changes the scenario. Part II of the book transforms an ordinary romance novel into something completely different and rarely written about in literature: an evolving relationship between father-in-law and son-in-law, both the men brought together by a child. As Menaka slowly loses interest in her husband post marriage and involves herself more and more in the politics of the country, Kiki, her daughter finds her mother’s love being supplanted by her father’s and grandfather’s – her grandfather turning into a de facto parent.         

It is indeed Thilak Rupasinghe’s personality that rules the novel. In the initial pages of the book he is introduced as ‘the great litigation lawyer and former President’s Counsel. A man so feared that it was said you had to look over your shoulder if you thought about him.’

Soon after, Eddie hears him giving instructions to his son before a trip in another room:
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 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….

When Menaka’s brother finally steps out, the reader realizes he is ‘a man with short greying hair and a w
hite beard’, probably in his mid-thirties.

Unlike Romesh Gunesekera’s Noon Tide Toll or Minoli Salgado’s A Little Dust on the Eyes, the Sri Lankan Civil War or the tsunami – two life-changing events for the Sri Lankans – are not central to the action in the novel, though the writer does mention them fleetingly.

Being Half-English and half-Tibetan and having lived in London, Hong Kong, Delhi and Colombo, the author has multiple homes and can maintain an objective perspective. In an interview with Adilah Ismail he reveals that ‘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 character of Thilak Rupasinghe draws much from his real-life late father, Kesang, in that he battled cancer too. Chhimi, therefore, is familiar with all the stages of the disease and the impact it has on the patient, which makes the portrayal authentic in every detail.

In spite of the love-hate relationship Thilak and Eddie share, Thilak has a better understanding of his daughter as well as his son-in-law and cares for them in spite of himself. He is the one who anticipates and forestalls his daughter’s moves. The character sketches are strong and realistic. Menaka seems to share her basic characteristics with Scarlet O’Hara of Gone With the Wind, though she is somewhat redeemed when the author reveals the reason behind her fear of commitment (`a la Maggie Carpenter of The Runaway Bride) – her own abandonment by her father at a very young age before he accepted her again.

Chhimi sticks to his light-hearted narrative style and even the most serious scenes are broken by sporadic yet subtle humorous passages. In the same interview with Ismail, Chhimi comments, ‘One of the dangers of writing comedy is that you can get carried away and that’s why I stuck to characters I knew.’ Though the characters borrow recognizable traits from real-life people, he insists that the novel is not autobiographical.

The numerous amusing episodes in the former half of the book can, at times, appear contrived, but the latter half is tremendous – the doses of humour being just right. Chhimi raises certain important issues with much sensitivity. The ‘amazing racist’ though he remains racist till the end, inadvertently discloses a soft spot for his victim, which is responsible for many poignant moments as well as surprises in the book and marks it as distinct from others in the same genre.

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