‘The State will Come After the Defenceless’

Shehan Karunatilaka

The reason I chose 1989 was because I was a bit of a coward. I wanted to write about 2009 and the end of the war, with the basic premise of what if the dead could speak. But I wasn’t brave enough to engage there.

by Pasan Jayasinghe, The Hindu’s Frontline, Chennai, September 7, 2022

Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (published internationally by Sort Of Books in August 2022) is the follow-up to his acclaimed debut Chinaman:The Legend of Pradeep Mathew (2011). Originally published in the Indian subcontinent in 2020 under the title Chats with the Dead, the novel is a darkly comedic ghost story set in the Sri Lanka of 1989. Its ghosts and humans are caught between both raging ethnic conflict and insurrection and subjected to overwhelming violence and carnage.

Shehan Karunatilaka

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida was longlisted, and shortlisted on September 6, for the Booker Prize 2022 . This recognition that comes at a time when Sri Lanka has been making international headlines with far less reason to cheer, thanks to a devastating economic crisis and numerous socio-political upheavals that have drowned Sri Lankans in immense suffering

In a conversation with Frontline, Shehan shared thoughts on his writing process, as also how Chats With The Dead became The Seven Moons Of Maali Almeida. This led to a longer reflection about writing and engaging with the perpetual violence and dysfunction of Sri Lanka, and the literary and personal weight this moment of crisis and protest brings to bear. Excerpts:

The Seven Moons Of Maali Almeida is intended to be a revised version of Chats with the Dead. How did the revision come about?
I’ve spent a long time writing this book in various versions. It was Devil Dance when it was shortlisted for the Gratian Prize in 2015. Then after it came out as Chats With The Dead in the subcontinent, it struggled to find an international publisher. A lot of them passed it on, saying that Sri Lankan politics was quite esoteric and confusing. Some said that the mythology and worldbuilding was impenetrable, and difficult for Western readers.
Finally, Sort of Books agreed to take it on, but they also said they would need to make it familiar to Western readers. The goal when editing Chinaman was that if someone had never heard of cricket, they should be able to follow it. That’s why it has all these snippets early on, giving you the basics of cricket. So, the brief for this book became that someone who knows nothing about Sri Lanka and eastern mythology should be able to follow the story.
Of course, what happened was that the pandemic kept pushing back our timeline and we ended up tinkering with it for two years. I’d say it’s the same book, but it benefits from two years of tightening and is much more accessible. It is a bit confusing to have the same book with two different titles, but I think the eventual play is that The Seven Moons Of Maali Almeida will become the definitive title and text.
Something that is striking about the book in the context of everything happening in Sri Lanka right now is that there are so many reminders of the book’s setting in the late 1980s. How has it been for you to see these reminders popping up?
The reason I chose 1989 was because I was a bit of a coward. I wanted to write about 2009 and the end of the war, with the basic premise of what if the dead could speak. But I wasn’t brave enough to engage there. 1989 seemed like a “safe” period because most of the protagonists and antagonists from that time were dead. I thought it had no relation to what was happening when I was writing it. I was hoping it would be a curiosity about how bad things can get and act as a cautionary tale.
But I would like to downplay the parallels a bit. We are facing a serious economic crisis, and things could get grim very quickly, but we are not in that era where people go missing and there’s dead bodies everywhere, not yet. We are nowhere near that level of carnage and violence. Even though I was 14 at the time it happened, and I wasn’t aware of the politics, I could see the fear in my parents and my relatives. So, I don’t think we are quite in 1989, and I hope we don’t have to contemplate that comparison.
Having written two novels which talk about the country’s dysfunction and its violence, do you now have a better sense of engaging with the country, its past and the way history moves here?
I am personally in a profound state of disgust with the country, and have been for some time. You have to remember the hope we had. Our generation, we grew up with war and curfews and bombs. Even though we were sheltered in Colombo, the refrain always was that if we end this damn war, this country would be unstoppable. And it happened, in our lifetime. Yet here we are 12 years later. Basically, we still haven’t learnt a thing from our past.
The minority-baiting, abduction of journalists and all that happened during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency disillusioned a lot of us. Then there was this moment of hope when we could democratically vote [Rajapaksa] out. But it turned out that every leader since still continues to bumble. When the Easter Attacks happened, I really fell out of love with the country. I could see the play that would take place afterwards, and who would get in and what would happen to the country.
If you want to look at the bright side, I don’t think novelists are going to be starved of stories because Sri Lankan dysfunction and absurdity will be a constant source of them. But personally, that’s why I escape into writing these stories sitting in my room, because I don’t feel like engaging with the country. I don’t believe we learn from our mistakes. The only hope is that you write this stuff and maybe a generation later someone reads it.

Mass movements in Sri Lanka

Did the aragalaya [the Sinhala word for “struggle”, denoting the mass anti-government protests since April] change some of these preconceptions about Sri Lanka? It is perhaps a break from the past, in that people came together at such a mass scale.
I was there on July 9—at a safe distance, I’m no activist and I’m not brave—but being a part of that you couldn’t help but be moved. Everyone who was there knows there was something in the air those few days. But I don’t think history is kind on these movements. Even those we romanticise didn’t end well. The French Revolution gave way to Napoleon. The Arab Spring gave way to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. When I look at that, it makes me fearful to be hopeful.
For now, we have to grit our teeth and live with what we have. I don’t know when the next election will be or whether we can afford them even, but I think the whole electorate would like to see some new options with clear plans and policies rather than just voting for a team. I was heartened by the Centenary Movement—it’s at least refreshing to see an inclusive party of young people who are engaging with the issues and offering solutions. Currently it seems like we’re shuffling decks, borrowing from more people and there’s no long-term thinking. It wouldn’t surprise me if we just ground on like this for another generation.

“When the Easter Attacks happened, I really fell out of love with the country. I could see the play that would take place afterwards, and who would get in and what would happen to the country. ”

Something that subtly comes through in the book is how efficiently state propaganda works. The aragalaya is currently being framed along very similar lines to how the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the LTTE were constructed, as this violent, dystopian force. By the end you realise the state has won.
One of the many not-very-subtle metaphors in The Seven Moons is The Gambler. He doesn’t believe in any gods; he just believes in chance and plays those games of chance. We all know the house always wins, even The Gambler. Yet he still turns up and put his money down and hopes that tonight’s the night. Maybe there’s a similar parallel. The state will always win but we keep trying because what we achieved is phenomenal.
With the demonisation of the aragalaya, our class divisions are coming through very clearly, too. Richard de Zoysa was the starting point for the character of Maali in The Seven Moons. His death is still spoken about because he was one of us, unlike the boys that died in the villages, the kids up in Jaffna. But suddenly the state comes after one of us and it’s still written and talked about. I feel the state knows these rules. They will come after the defenceless.

The Sri Lankan smile

Is it a Sri Lankan cultural thing that you try and laugh it off, because if not you’ll have to cry?
It does seem to be the case, in a few ways. Recently, we had these terrible petrol queues, but they were interesting places. There was a lot of tension, frustration and anger, obviously, but there were also people playing cards, cracking jokes, making friendships. I also consumed the aragalaya through the memes, the jokes being cracked online and shared on WhatsApp. Some of it was pretty lame but this idea that we can generate a meme within a news cycle, that’s a relatively recent phenomenon.
And then there’s the Sri Lankan smile. I’ve often been suspicious that we smile for everything, and tourists mistake it for us being a happy, friendly and welcoming nation. But I think we also smile when we’re confused or angry and don’t want to lose face. We don’t like confrontation, so we smile it off even though we’re seething inside.
Personally, I also enjoy and gravitate towards literature that has a bawdy sense of humour to it, like Carl Muller. I guess the choice of narrator in these two novels informed that, too. The first one was a drunk uncle and the second has a closet queen, both known for their sense of humour and catty wit. Maybe that’s my sensibility as well. Even when I write an article, I’m not going to write a piece of pure journalism. I’ll find some absurd thing to poke fun at or make a wisecrack about, otherwise Sri Lanka makes for very grim reading.

“The state will always win but we keep trying because what we achieved is phenomenal.”

What is on your plate right now? What will we see from you soon?
With the Booker longlisting, suddenly agents and publishers are returning my calls. When Chats With The Dead came out, there was a pandemic and I didn’t hear from anyone.
I have a short story collection, Birth Lottery, coming out in the subcontinent in October and elsewhere next year. I’m working on a third novel, though at my rate I don’t want to make any promises. 800, the film about Muttiah Muralitharan, was shot recently after being stalled for so long. I wrote the script but wasn’t involved in the production so hope it turns out well. And children’s books, that’s been my side hustle. I do a couple every year.
What I learnt after Chinaman is that you shouldn’t write the book and wait for the cheques to roll in because that doesn’t happen. You just need to move onto the next one, keep busy and hopefully one of them sticks. But I’m enjoying the ride now. There’s a real possibility that the ride ends in September and I don’t make the shortlist. If, as a gambler, I roll another six that’s fine, but I’m happy and grateful for what I have.

The winner of the Booker Prize 2022 will be announced on October 17.

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