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Panther – Chhimi Tenduf-La Book Review

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By chance or circumstance I recently encountered Chhimi Tenduf-La’s second novel Panther at the book store. Despite being new to his work and having other genre preferences, Chhimi’s book made me curious. As I had already gone through internet articles about Panther, I was intrigued upon finding the novel and hoped to know more. Very soon I began to feel quite connected to the story.

Panther revolves around a boy called Prabhu, a boy who lives perilously close to the war zone in northern Sri Lanka.  He lives comfortably at home with his parents and sister.  The real action in the story begins when his ‘bastard’ father leaves the family for the “greater good”. With no money for food, the mother reaches out to a Tamil serving community. The results are not as they expect. They are taken to a base camp called the ‘panther base’ to act as human shields.

“The Panthers? They’re a breakaway group of separatists fighting for their own land.”

During their stay, his sister is hit by shrapnel and has to see a doctor elsewhere. Their mother accompanies her. While he awaits their return he focuses on surviving the harsh camp activities on his own. His talent at cricket catches the attention of the leaders of the party. He is then groomed to be an exceptional student and is sent off to an elite international school in Colombo on a cricket scholarship for the reconciliation of the Tamils into Sri Lankan Society. The excited boy has no idea what awaits him on his journey in an unknown town where expensive shirts and dating are the trend.

Prabhu however struggles during his journey in terms of cricket, women and friendship but his worries lessen as he spends his time with his new best friend, a rich Sinhalese boy named Indika. He is the school cricket captain, also known as the papadum king or the Prom king. Prabhu finds himself focused thoroughly on cricket. He also makes an effort to study so as not to fail in school and return to the camp.

Even though he is comfortable in his skin to be accomplishing his dreams, he goes through a period of hazing and uncomfortable situations at the hands of the coaches in the school cricket team and made fun of his skin color and ethnicity. Prabhu is forced to question whom to have faith in. He becomes stronger with his brotherly bond with Indika. We see the protagonist grow stronger toward the middle of the story when he starts to take matters into his own hands. The friendship with Indika thus serves as a proper stepping-stone to Prabhu’s personal growth as an adult.

Panther is not for the light-hearted as it discusses mature themes despite being a young adult novel.  As I read further I discovered that this merely shows the true human nature.

The story revolves around the Sri Lankan Civil War between the Sinhalese and the Tamil. The author brings out the challenges and hardships faced by both sides during the time rather than focusing on the details of the war itself. In my opinion it must have been the author’s intention to bring back the lost voices of the ones who were caught in the war as child soldiers. The chapters alternate between the past and the present in an exciting narrative.  Each chapter unravels a part of Prabhu’s story as you read. While the pace is manageable, being neither too fast nor slow, Panther is a gripping tale that keeps you hanging on tight.

The story constantly deals with racism. Prabhu goes through trust issues and betrayal as a result. The story shows us the true meaning of the simple things we crave like love and affection, desire, friendship and family. In addition it tells us how crude and frustrating life is and I think that is the natural beauty of the book. There were moments when I was amazed at how the author knew the Sri Lankan culture so well given that he is only partly a Sri Lankan citizen. He has captured Sri Lankan-isms and the local attitude perfectly.

“And you’re scared of jumping into water?”

“Astrologer told to my mother that maybe I would meet my death in water. Result, I remain committed to a fear of swimming.”

Although the story is at times tearful, Tenduf-La has enlivened his narrative with occasional bouts of humor.

“I am also join Facebook. Maybe I’ll pork you tonight.”

“Hope you mean poke.”  She jabbed his shoulder.

This story is heartwarming and I was able to empathize with the boy quite often. Tenduf-La also brings the minor characters to life in a way that few other authors do. To me, the story felt realistic and I wished for a second that I could be there to hug the boy and say, “Prabhu, it’s going to be alright”. With that I can only add that I highly recommend it to booklovers.

By Kaviru Samarawickrama

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