Author: Chhimi Tenduf-La
Pages: 263 pages
Price: Rs 300
You don’t stand a chance when you are introduced to Prabu Ramanathan, the 17-year-old cricket prodigy in Panther, Chhimi Tenduf-La’s second novel. Like everybody else in Colombo’s Mother Nelson Mahatma International College, how can you possibly ignore that dark-skinned wiry boy who is a beast on the field, whose bat makes short work of any opponent, who races faster than any contender, whose hair can’t be ruffled because it has been oiled to his scalp?
Oh, his English might skip consonants and conjunctions but when “the Prabu” is talking to you, you better listen.
It is 2010 and it has been a year since the civil war in Sri Lanka has ended, and as an orphaned Tamil boy from the north, Prabu knows that no matter where you go, it’s a jungle out there. There’s always a king and his court — at the Panther rehabilitation camp for those who fought against the Sri Lankan army, where Prabu lived, one will find the Supreme Leader and his merry band of terrorists/freedom fighters (depending on which side you’re on) who name themselves after characters in Charles Bronson movies. In the posh Colombo college, it is Sinhalese school star Indika Jayanetti and his mates who ride around in Range Rovers and go up against teenage thugs who wear “ice” around their necks and speak like Tupac. An Internally Displaced Person, Prabu has won a place at the school and must keep it by decimating the opposition on the field. It is a far cry from the camp he grew up in, where he played cricket under the watchful, unwavering gaze of a machine gun.
How do you write about a war witnessed by a young orphan? How do you make sense of the horrors that befall a people who have taken sides against each other? How do you know what is right when nothing is left? With a language that taps into the colloquialisms of the island nation and razor-sharp humour that cuts through every page, every horrific memory, Tenduf-La arms his protagonist with the most powerful weapon in the world: hope. And for that reason alone, Panther is a triumph. It is not without its imperfections: the resolution appears to be rushed, the narrative voices that are so clearly marked out in the beginning tangle up towards the end, and some readers might even argue that it is not realistic enough given how the premise is based on a real and recent war.
But make no mistake, Prabu is very real. Tenduf-la has created an unforgettable character and while Prabu may seem naïve in the beginning, he is no fool to think that he will win every battle. But if he gets to live another day, then there’s a little more time to think of girls and snogging, practice new English phrases with Indika, and even a chance to play cricket at the international level. If the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting, then Panther and Prabu both will remind you not to dismiss forgiveness.
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