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‘I am drawn to terrifying things’, says the novelist who feels squeamish seeing his name on his book


Chhimi Tenduf-La was anxious about dengue even before the current epidemic in Sri Lanka reached its height this June. With 80,000 cases so far, and hospital wards overflowing, he felt his heart sink when his paediatrician reported they were turning away children simply for a lack of beds.

Tenduf-La’s concern is overwhelmingly for his kids. At four-closer-to-five, Tara is the older one, while Jett is just a year old. He and his wife Samantha have heard about other parents who lost a child to dengue, and Tenduf-La freely admits the thought sends cold tendrils of dread curling around his heart.

In fact, his new collection of short stories, Loyal Stalkers, could easily be a catalogue of what keeps Tenduf-La awake at night. Deluded perverts hiding in the closet, abusive coaches, the psychopath in the red jeep idling next to you; pointed malice, untrammelled rage, the sudden, sharp twist of the knife by an uncaring fate.

“I am naturally a chicken,” he says, seeming to discount the evidence of his not inconsiderable height and broad shoulders. “I am drawn to terrifying things, and rather than not write about them, I write about them. Often I scare myself.”

But it is somewhere here, at the peak of his anxiety, that this father also finds the humour that elevates his writing. He sees himself very clearly, his attitude one of irreverent humility. Admitting his obsession with dengue, he mimics slapping at the air, diving around; in essence, a man driven crazy in pursuit of a minute, maddening enemy. He has even caricatured himself in this role in his 2015 debut The Amazing Racist, where he has a character carefully inspect a freshly murdered mosquito for the tell-tale white stripes on its legs.

We meet in Colombo, where Tenduf-La lives and works. He is an administrator by day, employed at the school his English mother, the well-known educator Elizabeth Moir, founded. His father, Kesang Rinzing was of Tibetan descent, and Tenduf-La counts among his distinguished ancestors a “much feared” warlord from Khum in Eastern Tibet and a man so beloved by the 13th Dalai Lama that family legend has it that he was instrumental in the latter’s flight from Tibet.

Tenduf-La himself has had a very different, but perhaps no less exciting kind of life. He has called many places home, having lived at various points in Hong Kong, London and even New Delhi. Today, Tenduf-La’s children have their choice of four nationalities. Yet despite being something of a citizen of the world, Tenduf-La feels most comfortable in Sri Lanka. It is certainly at the heart of his literary life.

They first came to live on this island in 1982 because his father – a well-travelled man himself – wanted to live in a Buddhist country. Having left to study abroad at Eton, Tenduf-La says he decided to return as Kesang Rinzing’s struggled with cancer – it would claim his father’s life in 2000.

Tenduf-La has not thought twice about the decision to come home, and speaks often about what it meant to be here during that heartbreaking time. The memories he chooses to share of those last days are mostly good ones. Tenduf-La is particularly fond of the stories where his father, an incorrigible prankster, made his children laugh. It is Kensang’s enduring legacy. “To date, it is impossible to have a serious conversation in our home,” says Tenduf-La.

It was also from his father, who was himself an aspiring writer, that Tenduf-La received some of his earliest lessons in craft. Kesang was a keen observer of life, and he taught his sons to pay attention to detail. As a result, to Tenduf-La the world is filled with things that distract and delight; it is one reason he is more comfortable with the short-story format than the novel.

It’s true that he may not have found a publisher to take a risk on Loyal Stalkers, if The Amazing Racist and Panther had not been the successes they were. But now, with one collection under his belt, Tenduf-La says he may like to write more short stories; he can let his mind wander, pick-up and drop a character on a whim, write a simple vignette that has no ambitions to novel-dom. He particularly loves developing a twist in the tale and more often than not knows what it will be before he ever sets pen to paper. However, while it might have come more easily, it doesn’t mean that this book didn’t challenge him.

He wanted the stories in Loyal Stalkers to be woven together, each bringing in characters from other narrative arcs. Drawing on films like Pulp Fiction for inspiration, this allowed Tenduf-La to experiment in interesting ways with perspectives and chronology even as he gave the reader a thread to lead her straight through from the first page to the last.

Tenduf-La is frank about many things in his book – in particular, class conflicts – and he brings that same awareness to his own literary career. He set out to write stories that didn’t take themselves too seriously and were responsive to what his readers told him they enjoyed, but today he feels the pressure, both internal and external, to produce stories with a more literary bent.

“I am very easily swayed,” he admits ruefully, describing being torn sometimes between divided feedback from readers. “Clearly, it is impossible to please everyone.” He knows that Loyal Stalkers will leave some fans happier than others, but in acknowledging that he is also clear that he wouldn’t change a thing. While he loves sharing his work, actually seeing his name on the cover of his book in a shop leaves him feeling faintly squeamish. “I am more embarrassed than proud, for some reason.”

Tenduf-La is also unusual in that he sees writing almost as a self-improvement project, the intellectual equivalent of going to the gym. He was once an enthusiastic athlete but knew it was all downhill from age 25. Writing is different. “I like to know I am improving,” he says. “With writing, I am absolutely certain I will get better at it.”

Published in Scroll on August 13, 2017. By Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Chhimi.