If you like the kind of stories with stumbling starts and unsteady turns, Chhimi Tenduf-La’s Loyal Stalkers is the journey for you.
Loyal Stalkers ensnares Sri Lanka, the island of disjunctions and contradictions. A narration of the ironies and subtleties of everyday life, this novel of 15 interlinked stories begins with an unmarried teenager giving birth to a baby boy. After the first few lines you realise the author’s dexterity in teasing the reader. The first story narrated in an almost epistolatory form provokes question after question, most of which remain unanswered throughout the novel’s assortment of episodes.
The author’s ability to mislead the reader for a slight second, only to be thrust back to even more misleading riddles of average Sri Lankans and their mysterious tales, is underscored. I haven’t come across a writer as inventive as Tenduf-La with a remarkable ability to unsettle readers with each twist and yet keep them captivated until the end.
Though discomfort reigns during the first few stories, you eventually anticipate revelations that you hope will connect one story to the other. However, greater portions of many stories remain hidden. In spite of this mystery, it doesn’t disgruntle the plot or make these island tales any less colourful. The author makes up for these jolts with an array of interesting and mind boggling characters. He portrays how different characters take up motherhood, how some perceive the journey to adulthood and several others lost in between.
Loyal Stalkers has it all; painted in contradictions. Poverty and power, boyhood and adultery, prejudices and sexualities, all represented through an assortment of truly Sri Lankan characters. They take us through journeys which are sometimes predictable but also diverse and astounding.
I’ve always believed that a writer’s formative years reflect in their stories. But this was both true and false in Tenduf-La’s case. Authors foreign to this strange island, who fail to capture the essence of Sri Lankanisms used offend me. However as I read flipped through the pages of Loyal Stalkers, I told myself; “This is about that strange man I see at the bus terminal and the old lady across the street. This is about my brother’s friend saving street dogs and this is about the children I used to teach. This is undeniably Sri Lanka!” While the writer’s cross cultural experiences have found its way to Loyal Stalkers, Tenduf-La does not turn a blind eye to the idiosyncrasies we island dwellers often fail to see in ourselves. And that for me was undoubtedly the best trait of his writing.
The author’s powers of observation are precise and perceptive. “In Colombo, everyone knows everyone and no one can hide.” He justifies this statement with how carefully his characters have been crafted and connected. Tenduf-La understands the confined space islanders live in. Therefore his characters are forced to interact with each other in seemingly insignificant ways, but reveal depth and meaning towards the end of the book. Tenduf-La’s style is unlike any I’ve seen before for he has a distinct voice. The narrative is at times strange, unnerving yet indulging.
The author’s certain observations are humorous yet accurate and full of surprising twists at every corner. His tales are weaved of unrequited love, crises of identity and an insatiable need for stalking. Each story is packed with crisp energy whether the reader likes it or not. Multi-faceted stories are woven together tactfully in this collection. Tenduf-La doesn’t dwell too long on background. With sporadic references to the conflict period, he does not attempt to shed light on the characters’ collective histories, and that’s something I loved about this book. Amidst the confusion, what purpose these tales serve and how exactly they are imbued with stalking, is a point to ponder.