Tenduf-La, Chhimi. Panther. India: Harper, 2015. Print.
The young adult novel Panther portrays Sri Lanka's rich multicultural history and tragic civil war. It will particularly appeal to Sri Lankan teenagers and this is to be welcomed because, after all, one day they will be responsible for maintaining their country's fragile 2002 ceasefire agreement.
How does one write about political conflicts in a way which attracts today's Asian children? Increasingly, writers based in Asia but writing in English do not parachute a Western character into the plot. In Panther, for example, Tenduf-La, a half-English, half-Tibetan Sri Lankan resident, has Prabu, a Tamil child soldier with an outstanding talent for cricket as his main protagonist. The title Panther refers to a fictional group of rebels who train Prabu to win a sports scholarship and blow up his Sinhalese classmates at a school dance. But Prabu is a sensitive, impressionable, lustful boy who squirms at even squashing a cockroach.
Tenduf-La transports readers to Prabu's life in both the military camp and the elite secondary school in Colombo. Rather than focus on Prabu's psychological state and emotional arc, he provides readers with accounts of Prabu's dramatic encounters with a colorful panoply of people, from the chilling Supreme Leader; a psychotic trainer; and a sinister schoolmaster; to the good guys: a pair ofTamil sisters who are brutally assassinated; a Sinhalese classmate called Indika who takes Prabu under his wing; and Indikar's father, a sympathizer to the Tamil cause. It is a surprise late encounter with his long-lost father that finally dissuades Prabu from the terrorist act for which he has been prepared.
This book follows hot on the heels of Tenduf-La's first published novel, The Amazing Racist, an interracial romance set in Sri Lanka between an English expatriate and a Sri Lankan beauty. In Panther, the author is more adventurous with his use of narrative structure. The opening chapters are told using alternating narrative strands. Unusually, the narrative present is told in the past tense, and Prabu's past namely, his experiences in the military camp is told in the present. This literary device risks leaving readers occasionally chronologically confused.
Once the plot settles into Prabu's life at school, the storyline is driven by his desire to acculturate. Cozying up to The Papadum King a Sinhalese classmate and captain of the cricket team accentuates Prabu's poor command of English, his clumsiness with girls, and his lack of education. Humorous accounts of teenage antics inebriation, gang fights and snogging become the throughline of the plot.
Much of the humor is created by misunderstandings between characters who have to use English as a common language.
"Pizza hut, sir," driver Ranjith said.
"Why here?" Indika asked. "Are we lost?"
"No, sir, you tell to me to bring you to Pizza Hut."
"No, no, no." Indika looked at his watch. "I asked you to take us to P.Sara. As in P.Sara Stadium."
As a consequence, Indika and Prabu are late for an important cricket match.
Prabu's poor command of English is a constant feature of his reported speech and the reason for numerous disputations:
"What time you pick me?" (Prabu)
"What for, dude?" Indika asked.
"Dinner tonight at the wonk for the anniversary of your mother and also your father."
"The Wok, machan, not the wonk. I think it's just a family dinner, dude."
"Oh, but I thought ..."
At the dinner, rather surprisingly given no previous hint of his innate musicality, Prabu composes a rap and moonwalks to it, which Indika films on his mobile phone. Tenduf-La may well have added these Western activities to endear local readers to his characters.
Interestingly for a contemporary young adult novel, the narrative present sections of the story are told using an omniscient third point of view with an occasionally-prying adult authorial voice. Maybe more focus on the inner workings of Prabu's mind would have provided readers with a deeper insight into his dilemmas and motivations. But a novel which adds to the corpus of Asian children's literature is to be commended. Like the story of the young Sri Lankan protagonist Triton in Romesh Gunesekera's novel Reef, Prabu's antics will add value to this burgeoning fictional genre.
This review was published in the Asian Review of Books in June, 2015.