How often do you come across a book that appeals to you at several levels? Not too often, I assume. When I picked up Panther by Chhimi Tenduf-La from Harper Collins’ office I definitely expected to read a good book, but not one that would leave me spellbound for days and one that I would think about over and over again.
The book is set in a war-torn Srilanka, recovering from a long conflict between a Tamil terrorist group called the Panthers and the Sinhalese. It is a story about the challenges of rehabilitation, about postwar trauma, about the conflicts that exist even after the war has ended. Prabu, a young Tamil who has spent several years training at a Panther camp, is now trying to get his life back. Having lost his family, he seeks a sense of belonging with his friend Indika’s family. A gifted cricketer, Prabhu manages to find a place in one of the best schools possible. But has he really been accepted? By everyone? And has he really left his past behind? These questions will haunt you till the very end. And perhaps even beyond.
Two separate narratives run in parallel in the book, and the author expertly uses different voices and different narrators to set the two narratives apart. While the story of Prabhu in the terrorist camp is told using a strong second person narrator, that of his attempts at reintegrating with the society is told using a guileless, naive third person limited narrator. And the fact that the author manages to give each character a unique voice speaks volumes about his skills. Consider the following dialogue, for example:
Indika extended his arms out by his side. ‘How’d you know I’d be here?’
‘Did I? Honestly can’t remember.’
‘I think maybe you have been take the many alcohols. You told to me also and Gayan, Rajiv and Gish.’
‘Yeah I told them, but…’ Indika closed his eyes. ‘Okay, okay, now you’re here, sit, sit.’
A girl with wet hair, tan highlighted by a white bikini top, skipped up to Indika. ‘Oh. My. God.’ She grabbed his wrists. ‘It’s been too long.’
Laughing, Indika pointed at Prabu. ‘Fiona, meet my new, what would I call him, friend?’
Prabu offered his hand. ‘Pleased to be meeting you.’
Resting her hands on Prabu’s shoulders, Fiona leaned forward to kiss him on either cheek.
Prabu froze, feet stuck in the grass, jaw locked. He’d heard foreign girls were forward, but kissing him before she knew his name? Wow. He straightened his back, combed his hair down into a side parting, deepened his voice. ‘My name is called the Prabu.’
‘Pleasure,’ she said.
Even without the speech tags you can easily make out who is speaking what.
With his wide-eyed observations of his new life, Prabu comes across as a very convincing unreliable narrator – we look at the world through his eyes and are able to make out that his friends are making fun of him, even though he himself remains blissfully unaware of it. The characters, with their positive traits and flaws, are delightfully round and realistic. For someone who teaches creative writing, this book is pure delight.
The storyline is full of unexpected twists and turns and you can never be sure of what is going to happen next. At times you may feel that you have deciphered the book, but rest assured that you will be proven wrong. And in keeping with the plot, the storytelling itself is surprising – you will find humour where you least expect and profound wisdom when you are least prepared for it.
It is very clear that this is an intelligent book written with the intent to keep you hooked till the very end. But will the book let you go even at the end? Well, you will need to read the book to find out.