“The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly.
And ordered their estate.”
From All Things Bright and Beautiful, Cecil Frances Alexander, 1848
[Verse removed from the Anglican Hymnal in 1963]
Hungry Ghosts is one of the UK’s most anticipated books of the year and I have had the privilege of reading a loaned advanced reader’s copy. Whilst reading the book, the most anticipated book of the year, indeed the holder of the record for non-fiction sales, Harry Windsor’s Spare, was being liberally splashed across international media.
I was unable to escape the leaked social media onslaught of Harry’s grievances, his imperial “first-world problems.” The contrast between those spoilers and Kevin’s characters has been nothing short of surreal. The former is steeped in disappointed entitlement that a birthright confers when it establishes socio-political superiority, but just misses primogeniture’s highest estate (Pa is the firstborn legitimate male, but Harold is not.) By contrast, Hungry Ghosts is steeped in the harrowing abjection of birthrights that establish poverty and degradation.
Comparing the two narratives may appear random, but they are the fruits of the same hierarchical world order based on DNA-determined office and colonial administration. Spare is contemporary, so it reads as innocuous, perhaps a little rarified and quaint. Hungry Ghosts occurs in the aftermath of World War II, so there is (misleadingly) enough historical distance to not immediately connect the two narratives.
Enough has been said about Harry’s fisticuffs with his big brother, their squabbling over Africa, his loss of virginity behind a pub with a horse-loving cougar, and his frostbite alleviated by Elizabeth Arden cream. So, no need for further regurgitation here. Contrast, though, this petulant umbrage with the unyielding demoralisation of Kevin’s characters.
Kevin Jared Hosein is an award-winning writer from Trinidad and Tobago. He was named overall winner of the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for his story, Passage, and was the Caribbean regional winner in 2015.
If traditional Trinidadian working-class narratives take place in the East Dry River yard (The Dragon Can’t Dance and Moon on a Rainbow Shawl come immediately to mind), Hungry Ghosts takes place in the shared space of the Caroni Plain barrack room. The emerging themes are similar: hunger, desire, ambition and the complete absence of privacy. But the exposed Central landscape lays humanity poignantly bare:
“Here, the snakes’ calls blurred with the primaeval hiss of wind through the plants. Picture en plein air, all shades of green with vermillion soaked with red and purple and ochre. Picture what the good people call fever grass, wild caraille, shining bush, timaries, tecomarias, bois gris, bois canot, christophene, chenet, moko, moinga, pommerac, pommecythere, barbadine, barthar. Humanity as ants on the Savannah.”
One is immediately reminded of the Orson Wells addition to the movie of Graham Greene’s The Third Man. The Harry Lime character sits at the top of a ferris wheel and looks down at all the people at the fair below and posits that one of those “twenty thousand moving dots” could easily be disposed of for a sum of tax-free money.
The faint sound of the “snakes’ calls” introduces the threat of lurking poison. For the readers from the Abrahamic tradition, the snake immediately confers evil, the natural enemy of the descendants of Eve (though I am told that the snake sometimes symbolises wisdom and knowledge in Islam).
By contrast, in Hindu ritual and spiritual tradition the snake is divinity representing eternity as well as materiality, life as well as death, and time as well as timelessness. It symbolises creation, preservation and destruction. The highest form of perception, the opening of the third eye in Lord Shiva’s forehead, is punctuated by the presence of the snake.
This potpourri of moral nuances, contradictions and complexities in the face of human vulnerability colours the entire novel. From the onset, the reader dreads the arbitrary fatalism of divine sport played in a Trini-styled “Aeschylean Phrase”.
Shame and abjection are routine; none of the wide cast is exempt. Krishna, our emerging hero, resists from the onset. In Salloum’s Bazaar he implores his father to respond to the racist accusations of the store assistant: “Call him a jackass.” But is silenced and forced out of the store with an obsequious apology from his supplicant father. Outside he observes, “Visible in the distance was the church, a monolith so tall that it was visible from any walk. The rictus of Christ more like an adjudicating scowl than a pained grimace.” No passion, no compassion; just judgment.
Danger averted early in the novel inexorably reaches its inevitable conclusion. There is always thwarted self-determination. The accidental circumstances of birth are generally immutable. The exceptions, as we see in the self-reinvented Marlee, come at tremendous personal cost and eventual rot. Resignation beats comfort, beauty and even future survival:
“Once, when he was a child, Krishna spotted a butterfly that had fallen from a hibiscus bract. One of its wings had dislocated on a leaf. It didn’t bemoan its amputated wing, wondering what life would be now only single-winged. Didn’t waste time wondering how it could now escape the toads. No, its goal remained the same. Tried its lumbering best to scale the hibiscus stalk and reach that bethesda of nectar.”
Rikki Driver is an Illustration major at Parsons School of Design in NYC.
Illustration by Rikki Driver
No religion offers spiritual respite. Christianity has Krishna’s parents as irreligiously living in sin, making him “a bastard”. The young Lata is sexually assaulted and barely escapes whilst the effigy of Ravana burns at the Ramayana enactment. She then notes the young schoolboy dressed as Shiva crying against his mother: “While everyone else was looking at the Ravana burning, Lata was fixed on the sight of that boy. There stood the God of Destruction, like a schoolboy after a caning. There stood the God of Destruction, trembling with fear.” In the face of incessant pain and divine violence, fighting evil with evil becomes compelling; proving oneself “worthy of demons” is as aspirational as escaping the barrack room.
Kevin’s Hungry Ghosts has joined the canon of novels of colonial abasement where the scorpion is the ever-emerging, but not the final threat. In Steinbeck’s The Pearl, the indigenous baby, Coyotito, survives its sting, but must die at the hands of Spanish greed in the paradoxically-named Mexican settlement of La Paz. In Ladoo’s No Pain Like This Body (Hungry Ghost’s more direct antecedent), the threat of scorpions is unabating, but not the terminal agent of violence.
There is no easy didacticism emerging out of Hungry Ghosts. The enemy is embodied locally, not in the bodies of white colonials (who remain far above the fray), but in similarly brown-skinned petty officials and entrepreneurs who have gained some small comparative privilege over the barrack room.
Though there is no sense of crossing to safety, there is a glimmer of light in Niala surviving her pregnancy. The father remains unknown, but the infant engenders a Wordsworthian hope with forward-looking thoughts and without a shadow of shame.
And the scorpion emerges as a dark power that can be wrestled from the enemy. Shiva ultimately triumphs. Isn’t it likely that a scorpion is the mystery stinger of Shweta (Krishna’s mother), nearly causing death or amputation in her deference to her husband, Hansraj, and initial refusal to obtain medical care? But, like Shiva, she prevails and overrides Hansraj in the tragic end. In so doing, she allows him to regain himself and his (residual) family. Perhaps, here the personal redemption begins.