Chhimi Tenduf-la remembers the first time he heard about the Tamil Tigers. “When I was eight years old, I heard that Tigers had stormed the golf course. I assumed that they had escaped from the zoo, and I was fascinated,” says the Colombo-based writer. Born to a British mother and a Tibetan father, Tenduf-la, 41, lived in Delhi before the family moved to Sri Lanka. “My father had never been to Tibet and he wanted to live in a Buddhist country for a while,” he says, in an email interview. A year later, on July 23, 1983, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would ambush the Lankan army patrol at Thirunelveli, Jaffna. The event lead to the Black July, now considered the start of the Sri Lankan civil war between the Tamil militants and the Sri Lankan government.
It’s been six years since peace was declared on the island nation and steadily, narratives about the war have emerged. Tenduf-la’s second novel touches upon the war too, but not quite in the way one would expect. Set in 2009, Panther is the story of Prabu Ramanathan, the 17-year-old cricket prodigy in Colombo’s Mother Nelson Mahatma International College, who demolishes the opposing team, is loyal to a fault and will give an arm for his friend, school star Indika Jayanetti. The former Tamil child soldier has a chance at a new life, if only he can leave the past behind. “A lot of people only know of Sri Lanka because of the war, the tsunami and cricket. I wanted to show a lighter side. The war just seemed like a way of life at the time and though the odd bomb went off, there was still great humour, warmth and generosity,” says Tenduf-la whose first novel, The Amazing Racist, also set in Sri Lanka, was published early this year to favourable reviews.
Tenduf-la works in a school established by his mother, handling the business side of things, and initially planned to write Panther as a story about young people at a school. “Every day I am reminded of how serious life is for a teenager. Prabu is based on a friend I had in school, who was so naïve, he was beautifully unaffected. Like Prabu, he genuinely thought that when a girl kissed him on the cheeks, it meant she loved him,” he says.
Even as Prabu navigates school life, girls, matches and new friendships, the shadow of the war continues to loom over him. He remembers the years spent at a Panther rehabilitation camp where he played cricket in the midst of men with machine guns, not quite sure if safety and freedom meant the same thing. “I quizzed guest speakers who visited our school and who had worked at camps. I researched the psychology of child soldiers and how they try to forget their memories. I don’t want to say the story is real because I would hate to misrepresent the real situation, but a lawyer who works in the field of rehabilitation read the book and told me how close I had got to the reality,” says Tenduf-la, who wrote Panther as a “story of hope for the future”.
“Our school works with Sri Lanka Unites, a youth initiative set up to reconcile school children across the divide. Among this new generation there is greater understanding and compassion. There is honesty, more willingness to talk about something rather than brushing it under the carpet, like we do in this part of the world because we don’t want to shame ourselves,” he says.
Tenduf-la is now working on this third novel while juggling a day job, a pregnant wife, a young daughter and house renovations. “It’s about a Sri Lankan put up for adoption returning as an adult to meet his slightly odd birth mother,” he says.