Chhimi Tenduf-La’s Panther is a book about life, cricket and the survivors of war. Highly recommended!
Reading an author for the first time is not dissimilar to an adventure. At it’s worst, you end the book feeling discombobulated like after a bad roller coaster ride- lost in painful metaphors and prickly half-etched characters that you just couldn’t relate to. But at its very best, there is the promise of a new friend for life, whose future (and back) catalogue you will savour for years to come. Chhimi Tenduf-la’s Panther is one of those books that left me riveted, itching to find out more, and excited for whatever he chooses to write next.
I have always wondered why more subcontinental writers don’t use cricket as a backdrop to their stories, and was pleasantly surprised to find the sport play a large part in Panther. When Prabu, a Tamil war survivor who hasn’t been to school in years gets a chance to study in a posh private school (called Mother Nelson Mahatma International College- how’s that for subtlety) in Colombo, it is in large parts due to his expertise at cricket. A season of the local school championship signals the passage of time as he makes new friends, grapples with the horrors of his past, and struggles to fit in as just one of the boys. And what an apt choice cricket is for a book that questions our meaning of ‘fairness';- the sport with its unflinching emphasis on a gentlemanly code, and with a Sri Lankan ambassador like Kumara Sangakkara- who represent everything that’s honest and forward thinking.
I don’t want to relate too much of the plot in this review, because one of the chief pleasures of the book is to watch things unfold in wildly unpredictable directions. But I can’t help overstating how much I enjoyed the flashes of humour, which kept an otherwise bleak book from getting too dark. Whether it is Prabu’s misunderstanding of the word “snog” (and how telling is it that the well-off Sri Lankans could fit just as well in an Eton or a Harrow as they do here), or in the author’s cheery description of a television’s speakers-.
…each the approximate height and girth of Sri Lankan spin bowler Rangana Herath
The other aspect of the book I can’t recommend highly enough is its understanding of the unique insularity of teenage friendship. Somehow, when you are fifteen (and whichever part of the world you may be from) the only thing that seems to matter is whether the person you like likes you back, or what the cool kids in the class think of you. For Prabu, all that matters is ‘snogging’ the hot women, and winning the approval of the Golden boy in his class Indika Jayanetti. Here is a young boy who has been through nightmares few of us can fathom, but in the throes of adolescence, all he really seems to care about is being liked.
In Indika and his family, the author paints a vicious pen sketch of the genial cluelessness of upper middle-class liberals, generous with their money, but stingier with their affection. They remain always aware of the chasm between them and those they patronise and extremely uncomfortable at the idea of that status quo getting disturbed. Witness this scene, after Prabu defeats Indika in a track and field event.
‘Bugger off, you monkey,’ Indika said. ‘Don’t take the bloody piss.’
The crowd mobbed Prabu, which was when he realized he had won.
Prabu had broken another school record.
Indika lay on the ground clutching at his leg.
Thathi bent over him. ‘Knee playing up again?’
‘Yes, Thathi, yes, and it hurts like hell.’
‘So unlucky,’ Thathi said.
Prabu felt guilty. He knew he had won only because Indika got injured. He saw how much it upset Ammi and Thathi.
Lastly, Panther casts a harrowing light on just how dangerous the world is for young people- in both times of war and peace. Prabu is put through devastating ordeals, first in a battle that’s not of his own making , and then just because of the assumption of silence the world casts on those it considers weak.
For a few days after reading the book, I was lost in an Internet wormhole- reading as much as I could find about the events of Black July, or the child soldiers of Sri Lanka and elsewhere. But of late, I have begun to distrust the written word, and am not sure if the history I am reading is from the vantage point of victors or from those who were in the thick of it. And really, how can we bemoan the fate of child soldiers and Aylan Kurdi, and at the same time watch our next-door neighbour employ a fourteen year old ‘helper’? If there’s one thing I wish we could all take away from this book it is that children deserve to be protected- irrespective of the disagreements and wars between the adults of the world.
Yes, there are things that don’t work too. I didn’t think much of the last paragraph ‘twist’ after the comparative warmth provided by the final chapter, and also wish that at least one of the women characters (the girls at the school, Indika’s mother) had a little more nuance to them. In fact, I wouldn’t mind reading a sequel some day told from the point of view of Prabu’s sister- who survived the war in her own uniquely different way, just because wars often ignore the mothers and sisters of soldiers left behind.
One last thing. Despite some of the graphic sequences in the book, I think Panther would make a great read for anyone above 13 who is up for a book that both entertains and forces you to think. It is not quite a YA read, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to a smart teenager.