Book Review: ‘Panther’ by Chhimi Tenduf-La

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Chhimi Tenduf-La’s latest novel, ‘Panther’, is a gripping tale set in a hostile environment where communal tensions, bloodlust and vengeance rules. He has set it in Sri Lanka…but honestly speaking, it could be any country: from the war-ravaged East to the civilized West, where they don’t speak of it. In the end, it’s a tale about human nature and the fight of humanity against evil forces that often may exist in your own mind. It reads like a poem and reminded me of these lines from ‘The Second Coming’ by W.B. Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre,

The falcon cannot hear the falconer:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

A haunting tale that will inevitably remind you of all your troubles back in high school. The novel traces the journey of Prabhu, a young Tamil boy and a cricket protégé growing up in Sri Lanka, who is admitted to an elite school of rich boys. But Prabhu has a past that his classmates who have lived comfortable lives guarded against all harm cannot imagine: he is a former child soldier and had been once closely associated with the fictional terror group of ‘Panthers’. With a past that refuses to be silenced and memories that abruptly rear their ugly heads, Prabhu has to learn to overcome the onerous burdens of high school.

What is noteworthy about the author is his incredible talent to poignantly pen on paper the angst of adolescence, for all boys, rich or poor. Some problems like finding a perfect date, scoring good marks in your examination, gaining popularity among your peer circle, impressing your crush and living up to your parents expectations, or more pertinently, them living up to yours, are universal themes all adolescents can connect with. But at the same time, the novel deals with darker themes like the plight of child soldiers, or simply of children growing up in a war-ravaged nation. Children growing up in an environment where tensions are high are forced to make impossible choices between right and wrong, good and bad; sometimes with no proper guidance. More often than not, they end up emulating their parents and other elders around, but the real question is: what happens when the elders are prejudiced and misguided? The vicious cycle of hate pervasively present in so many South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Western nations has been pain strikingly taken apart by the author and presented to us in vivid detail.

From paedophiles who rape orphaned boys, to terrorist leaders who brainwash child soldiers to fight wars they don’t understand, to army soldiers who shoot and torture even those who surrender, to families forced to sacrifice one child to the ‘cause’ to save another: this book (some may find it disturbing) expostulates on the worst side of human nature. It talks about everything society would rather push under the rug. Yet, as is atypical of this author, the serious is peppered with moments of hilarity. This extract, for instance, is one of my personal favourites:

…the letter ‘A’ pendant cost six thousand rupees, but they had a discount on the letter ‘I’ pendants. He deliberated for a while. Since Achala’s name began with ‘A’, the ‘A’ pendant might have been the more appropriate, but he knew he couldn’t ask Indika, whose name began with an ‘I’, for more money. So the ‘I’ would have to do.

Indika and Prabhu’s friendship is one of the most humane bonds of friendship that I have ever read in a novel. The characters of both boys is so well-developed that you would feel you know them personally. In many ways the novel is also a ‘coming of age’ story, as different characters evolve and grow in different ways as the novel progresses. The concluding chapters especially have a beautiful point of climactic twist in certain protagonists’ personalities, but saying more would be giving out spoilers, and for a book as captivating as this, it would be a cardinal sin.

The only minor point of contention for me would be the excessive use of abuses in the text, but I guess it does help set the mood, and my prudish love for ‘proper’ language would probably be judged by most to be orthodox. We all do have our points of squeamishness, don’t we? The style otherwise is unique: the narrator, who is incidentally also the protagonist, shifts from second person, to third person and even to first person narrative. Sometimes it feels like he is narrating a story to us, while at other points the readers are standing next to him, watching an event unfold. The style is such that all passing thoughts and sudden observations are noted down in vivid details, for example a page devoted only to a cockroach on a cricket pitch. Yet the details aren’t random or arbitrary. In many ways this book has a firm foundation in psychology and these seemingly random details, in the end reveal a lot more than one could imagine. The language is simple and easy to understand, but hard to gauge. You might just find yourself turning the pages for one more read.

The Sweater (A Short Story)

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The bell rang slowly as she walked into the shop. The assistant rushed forward her winning smile plastered over her face, and enquired how she might help. I want to see some balls of wool please. The lady smiled and led her through the many aisles to the furthest corner of the shop, beside the window, where they kept all sorts of sewing materials. She would get everything she wanted here, the assistant assured her.

Sarah looked at the different colour threads hanging as samples on the window, glittering in the winter sunlight. She stared at the various colours, mesmerized. It seemed to her as if someone had collected all the colours of the world and arranged them here for her perusal. And why not? Her Teddy deserved only the best. Again, she remembered his last letter. She had read it so many times, that she could by now recite it word to word. It is so cold here, darling. At night, when the snow falls, we feel as if we would freeze to death.

It was at that very moment that she had decided to knit a sweater for him. Now, again she glanced at the rainbow in front of her – the reds, the blues and the greens. All of them were so beautiful, which one should she buy. The dark red one, like the roses he used to give her everyday; the light blue one, which reminded her of the colour of the sky of the day when he proposed to her, the light yellow like the honeysuckles under which he had first kissed her, the dark emerald of her eyes in whose depths she could see the reflection of her face; the choices were endless like her memories, each a treasured jewel within her chest. Three months, was all that they had spent together. Three months of infinite joy, of tender love and wild passion. Three months before this infernal war started, before he left her. Her lips still tingled from his last kiss; his parting words echoed in her ear, Wait for me, my dear. I will come back soon.

In the end, she chose the white wool. White like the fluffy clouds they used to watch together, and imagine shapes in; white like her wedding dress; white like the rose he wore in his buttonhole on their wedding; white like his teeth, when he smiled; and white like the snow-flakes which fell around her, the day he left.

She knitted the sweater every day, patiently weaving all her love and care with the wool. If she made any blunder, she would go back, undo it and knit again, until the pattern was perfect. She would accept nothing but the best for him. At each stitch, she would imagine his face, his delight when he would see the sweater. He would swing her in his arms, so fast that the wind would race by her hair, and then they would fall down together on the lawn, laughing so loudly, that the sound would carry to the seven heavens.

Finally, after a fortnight, the sweater was ready. Only the last few stitches remained. In her enthusiasm, she pricked her hand with the knitting needle, and watched with growing dismay, as her blood seeped on the sweater, staining it a bright ugly red. Oh, she cried to herself aghast, Teddy’s sweater is spoiled. Unspeakable grief overwhelmed her heart. She could not help the tears running down her face, and she cried, burying her face in the sweater.

The doorbell rang, harshly, discordantly. Hastily, she wiped her face, and dusted down her skirt. She walked with composed steps to the door, and opened it. Two soldiers in uniform stood outside. Her heart fluttered wildly, like a trapped bird and even before they spoke, she knew, and the terrible knowledge, made her knees go weak. She collapsed on the floor, even as the soldier started to speak, We are sorry to inform you………….