In January, Hachette India released a book called “the Amazing Racist”, by new author Chhimi Tenduf-La, who has been described as an extraordinary talent in the South Asian literary scene. The book tells the story of an english school teacher who arrives in Colombo and falls in love with the beautiful Menaka Rupasinghe, but the acceptance of her father Thilak Rupasinghe will be very hard to get. Amish Raj Mulmi of Hachette India said, “Chhimi’s book, The Amazing Racist, is a delightful debut that was a pleasure to read and work on: a superbly human story that takes the reader on a journey of ups and downs, peppered with memorable characters and extraordinary moments”.
I had the pleasure to interview him for WIB.
Where were you born?
I was born in Oxford to an English mother and a Tibetan father. We then moved to Hong Kong, aged one, back to London at five and then to Delhi for a year.
Does your name have a special meaning?
Funnily enough I never knew until I went to Shillong for a Lit Fest and a Bhutanese gentleman said that my name means immortal. If he’s right, I better up my pension contributions.
My surname, I could be wrong about this, but he suggested it meant something like if we set out to do something we get it done.
How long have you been living in SL?
A: We landed in Sri Lanka in 1982 and it is amazing how much it has changed since then. I went to school and university in the UK and also worked there for few years, but I have never been away from Sri Lanka for more than four months at a time. It is very much home for me even though my time keeping is a little too good to be able to call myself a Sri Lankan.
Is your wife from here?
Yes, Samantha is Sri Lankan although she was born in Australia. She moved back here for a year or two for a change from working as a criminal lawyer in Sydney with the idea of doing some charity work and then she met me (she did not marry me to be charitable – I think she wanted to).
What do you do?
I help run a school with my family. It’s the best job around as there is enormous satisfaction in seeing children flourish in life. For example, this year our students have got offers from places like Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Cornell, Berkley and Chicago as well as the top UK universities.
How did the idea for The Amazing Racist start?
It started simply as a way of looking at the quirks and humour of Sri Lanka through an expat’s eyes. There is so much that is unique about this country, and Sri Lankans love a good laugh, so I wanted to reflect that. So I developed the character of Thilak, almost by chance, and I loved writing about him. He is supposed to be the South Asian uncle everyone has; an alpha male, a know-it-all, a bigot, but also a good-hearted loyal friend.
How long did it take you to get the final draft?
I was writing this and my second book at the same time. When I got a bit concerned about one I would switch to the other. The first drafts of the two books took four months, so I guess two months for this. Then I found a super agent, Kanishka Gupta, who has a super consultant, Neelini Sarkar, who made some suggestions for changes which took me a few weeks. Then my publisher, Hachette, gave me a few minor edits which didn’t take too long. Maybe all told, four months from start to finish.
Why did you select that title?
It’s a pun on the Amazing Race – my brother and I used to con people into believing that there was such a show in the States. It was really just a working title I expected my publisher to change, but they liked it because it summed up Thilak pretty well. There is more acceptance of racism from South Asians to Brits than the other way around, because of the colonial past. So Thilak gets away with his racism, and it is almost part of who he is and what he thinks he is expected to be.
Why publishing in India ?
At first I had thought of writing specifically for a Western market, but then I would have had to hold the reader’s hand a little more through the story – by that I mean I may have had to slow things down to explain the country, the war, the culture and I thought this might lose some of the humour. So, I directed it more at a South Asian market. I would love to be published in other parts of the world too, even if that requires editing. India also happened by chance in some ways. I simply googled agents there and Kanishka replied so fast and then got things happening in double-quick time.
Do you feel related to any of the characters-the main character (the groom) in your book?
Not so much because he is someone fresh in Sri Lanka but I have been here, on and off, for over thirty years so I know how to wobble my head at the right time, and how to use the word Machan when I forget someone’s name. Because I work at a school, I see lots of English teachers arriving here for the first time so it is probably based more on them. There is a school owner in the book who looks like Keanu Reeves. I was hoping people would think that was me but they don’t because I look nothing like him.
Do you want to convey any message through your book or is this just a funny/light story?
I am always reluctant to give messages in my writing because it feels, to me, to be a little patronising to do so. What do I know? Having said that, I just wanted to explore characters doing bad things, often though they are good people, almost as a defence mechanism. Essentially it is meant to be a funny, light read, but I do tackle things like parents telling their kids to marry people of certain races etc. I am a product of a mixed marriage and am in one myself, as I know you are, and there is nothing better.
The female characters are independent women who take decisions on their own even against certain society expectations. Is it done with a certain purpose or do you think the SL society is changing? Your relationship with your daughter, for example.
Amongst the people I meet, the women here are exceptionally strong and independent. I guess, in some ways, they are going against society’s expectations but that is the way it is going now. Ten years ago I used to have parents of my students saying that they would not send their daughter to university because they wanted to save the money for their son. I don’t see that happening anymore.
In the book Menaka goes a little bit too far though; although she is very strong and independent she buckles to society’s pressure to get married and have a child when she really didn’t want to. So yes, that is intentional because that is all too common, not just here, but anywhere. I had my daughter (well strictly speaking my wife did) when I was 38 years old. I live a very different life to how I did when I was 30 so I am so pleased with how things have worked out. My relationship with my daughter is incredible and, she is my motivation for everything. I think much less about myself now, which is very relaxing indeed.
You are writing a new novel. Do you take a different direction or is it more or less the same style?
It’s already done and I have just received my author copies of Panther from HarperCollins. I think it is a better book but I am not sure who it will appeal to most. I have still attempted to be funny, but it is more hard-hitting and thought-provoking that my first book. It touches on war, albeit concerning a fictional terrorist group, and it touches on physical abuse, so it may be a harder read. But at its core it is about friendship, loyalty, betrayal and trust between school boys. I love it now but I am sure the night before it is released I will start hating it!
Do you think there is a need-or not- to move on to other topics?
Very good question, I really made an effort to avoid the war; it is a crucial part of history but there is so much more to this country than that, and especially internationally, they expect Sri Lankan fiction to be about war. This is so much so that my publisher for the Amazing Racist said to get this book into more markets I should think about adding in bits about the war. At the same time, he found it very refreshing that the book was not about the war.
In terms of Panther, my first draft had no mention of the war except that the main character had memories he was hiding from. So while it turns out he was a former child soldier, I did not delve into that. The story is more about how his past is used against him and opens him up to physical abuse.
It was suggested that I add in war scenes, and when I started writing them I really enjoyed them but in my eyes I was not writing about the war in Sri Lanka, but just generically about any war, like the war movies I have seen. I really do not want it to look like it is a book about the war as I am no expert. I just want it to be part of the story and more an exploration of how different people’s upbringings can be and how we should respect out privilege. I cannot even pretend to say I know how traumatic the war was for other people. I lived in Colombo and whilst my neighbours were assassinated in front of us, for the most part we lived very normal lives and it would be attention-seeking to pretend otherwise. It is a tricky one though, but personally I would love to read Sri Lankan fiction that delves into other aspects of life here. Yet again, I must stress that I am not an intellectual writer, so there are others out there who might do this better.
Tenduf-La’s second novel, ‘Panther’, will be published by Harper Collins India in July and is about a former child soldier of a fictional terrorist group gaining a cricket scholarship to an international school in Colombo.