Booker Prize, Chattel Slavery, Sugar, its Politics and Sri Lanka
Posted on October 30th, 2022

By Sena Thoradeniya

a pile of crooked nonsense” with the winner determined by who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn is”. That is how A.L. (Alison Louise) Kennedy, a Scottish writer and Booker Prize judge in 1996 described the Booker Prize in 2001.


I have just started reading the 2022 Booker Prize winning novel, Seven Moons of Maali Almeida”. This novel which was not in my reading list received my attention because of Booker. A detailed critique will have to wait.

In Sri Lanka many English columnists were elated quoting nothing more than winner’s acceptance speech and comments made by the chief evaluator, former curator of the British Museum, a symbol of plunder of artifacts of British colonies. So far, I have not read any piece written by a person who had read this novel. Pathetically Sinhala scribes who were overjoyed as they have found a priceless gemstone repeat as unmatched imitators the same words in vulgarised translations (using same words as an afterlife noir”, roller-coaster”, unicorn” etc.), that the award has brought fame to Sri Lanka. Slavish mindset does not allow them to analyse what the winner said in his acceptance speech.

How nice had the winner in front of Queen Consort(after hugging her) asked for reparation for the families of the victims of Uva-Wellassa (1817-1818) and Matale (1848) massacres and devastations, for the inhuman land grab of the Kandyan peasantry under Waste Lands Ordinance (1848) and the eviction of Kandyan peasants from their traditional landholdings who faced starvation, famine  and death for default of obnoxious Grain Tax (1878) and land grab by the speculators. And also return of our stolen artifacts and hundreds of ola books deposited in the British Museum. Instead the winner railed against racism; said that the ideas of corruption, race baiting and cronyism have not worked and will never work.” He forgot to add that Britain’s annexation of overseas territories, murder, expropriation, plunder, racism, divide and rule had worked to create an Empire known as the British Empire. 

How nice had the winner said that 1983 pogrom was instigated and carried out  by UNP, not by ordinary Sinhalayas, that more than 70% of Sri Lankan ethnic minorities live among the majority Sinhalayas, that LTTE was a criminal, ruthless terrorist organisation that threatened the lives of majority Sri Lankans including Tamils, that men and women who provided financial and material support to LTTE  who live safely and happily in UK  are accountable for LTTE crimes, including Adele Balasingham who garlanded” LTTE child soldiers with cyanide capsules. 

How nice if the winner had said something on Pelwatta/ Buttala (in Moneragala District) land grab by Booker Tate for sugar cultivation during JRJ’s regime, protests by Moneragala farmers led by farmer organisations and elimination of some of those protesters during the height of the second JVP insurrection. By a willful design photo of these real happenings were not captured by the Nikon 3ST camera of Maali Almeida, the protagonist of the novel. Was its lens smashed”? You look through the viewfinder and all see you is mud”. Yes, you see only mud! 

Massacres of civilians at, Dollar and Kent Farms, Arantalawa, Gonagala, Habarana, Kattankudy, Palliyagodella, Dehiwela, Central Bank etc. etc. all done by Tamil Tiger terrorists are a grim reminder to the writer who claims that he is studying the recent history of Sri Lanka. Did his Nikon jammed?”mud in the aperture”? The lens cracked”?  The writer knows very well that had the protagonist kept photographs of these massacres in a shoe box under a bed that your Amma’s cook shares with your Dad’s driver”, no Booker, no praises from the imperialists, NGO academia, Colombo glitterati and Colombo cocktail scribes.

I have read a newspaper article that this novel was shortlisted for the Gratian Award in 2015 under the title Devil Dance” and published in an earlier form as Chats with the Dead” in 2020. For us who are well-informed about the Sri Lankan literary scene this is a peculiar thing. For the Swarna Pusthaka Award presented by the Sri Lanka Book Publishers Association with the biggest cash award awarded in Sri Lanka (Rs. 750,000), even a novel serialised in a newspaper before publishing it in book form is not accepted for evaluation. If a novelist or a publishing house submits such a book that act is treated as cheating and the novel and the author become disqualified. I did not venture into study the rules and selection criteria of Booker.  But I think that Sri Lanka depicted as a ‘Killing Field’ in Seven Moons” overruns the Booker selection criteria.

Who is Booker?

Booker company was founded by George and Richard Booker in 1835. Starting from the Booker Line the company diversified into different businesses and operated Caribbean slave sugar plantations. Their company controlled 80% of the sugar output in then British Guiana (Guyana after independence in 1966). Guyana is the home of some fine writers and a multitude of outstanding cricketers and cricket captains that formed a formidable part of West Indies Cricket.

Until the abolition of slave labour sugar plantations were dependent on slave labour. Booker exploited the sugar workers through the chattel (indentured) labour system after the abolition of slavery, but Booker as slave owners received compensation” for their post 1815 Guiana slave holdings. Human degradation continued as in the times of slave labour. British Guiana (BG) was referred to as Booker’s Guiana” (BG) because of its immense power in controlling the economy of Guiana becoming its largest landlord, manufacturer of sugar, rum and sugar machinery, retailer and employer. This reminds us how the then Ceylon was referred to as Lipton’s Tea Estate”.

Caribbean islands were subjected to a long, cruel and an ignominious history of slavery, domination and plunder by colonialism and imperialism and exploitation by neocolonialism. Chattel slaves struggled both individually and collectively to establish informal contract terms for their labour. When West Indian slaves were freed, sugar planters replaced them with indentured Indian and Chinse labour. Thus, slavery was replaced by new forms of servitude that brought poverty and isolation to the emerging peasantry and proto-peasantry. Due to its legacy of slavery and plantation economy, Caribbean Islands still remain as one of the most underdeveloped areas of the world. Its history is tied to economics of sugar.

Under these conditions the Caribbean Region had produced a rich literature, commonly identified as Caribbean Literature, another type of literature identified according to a geo-political region.  There are writers who show displeasure and scorn towards the cane cultivation by the colonisers. Cane was the root cause of poverty, underdevelopment, starvation, illiteracy, ignorance, exploitative relations and sexual abuse.

Some novels depict social and psychic tensions of cane workers and their struggle to free themselves from the physical and psychological indentureship to cane. Cane was the controlling factor of their lives. Cane humiliated and exploited them. White overseers sexually abused young girls. Workers were not paid well. Not to work was to starve.  Cane was a killer and destroyer of dreams and hopes. Sons were killed in the burning of cane before harvest and mothers went mad with grief and died. Trinidad-born writer Samuel Sevlon’s A Bright Sun” (1952) and Turn Again Tiger” (1958) magnificently portray the sufferings of cane workers. 

By 1978 Booker was trading as Booker McConnel Ltd. Founded in 1988 Booker Tate Ltd. was engaged in Sugar and Agribusiness Consultancy. From 1969-2001 the prize was sponsored by Booker McConnell Ltd. and from 2002 until 2019 by investment management firm Man Group a hedge fund that traded in plantation stocks, a fund that arose out of an English Agency that traded rum made using slave labour to British Navy for 200 years. The prize was known as Man-Booker Prize until Man terminated its sponsorship. Since 2019 Booker is funded by Crankstart Foundation owned by Sir Michael Moritz, a Silicon Valley billionaire venture capitalist and his wife.

When the prize was inaugurated only novels written by writers of the Commonwealth (colonies of the old British Empire) were eligible.  In 2014 it was widened to any English language novel published in UK. This has been much criticised by many as an exercise in global corporate branding”, showing the dominance of Anglo-American writers at the expense of others”.

Booker Prize and African Literature

Let us examine how the Booker Prize was awarded in its lifetime of 53 years since 1969; UK leading with 22 times; writers domiciled in UK (including Salman Rushdie, Naipaul and Ishiguro) won it 07 times making a total of 29. Australia- 05; South Africa -05; Canada-03: writers domiciled in Canada 02; India-03; US-02; Ireland-02; New Zealand, Germany, Jamaica and Sri Lanka 01 each. We have included Sri Lankan born writer Michael Ondaatje under domiciled in Canada. With apologies to Frantz Fanon we state that only about 10-12 dark (black) skin (White Masked) writers have won this Award which shows its racial bias.

In former British colonies in African Continent, labelled as Anglophone Africa, in countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda, Botswana, a rich literature written in English language firmly took roots with the emergence of hundreds of gifted Black writers. ( We omit African writers who write in French and Portuguese in former French and Portuguese colonies (so-called Francophone Africa and Lusophone Africa respectively), Except for a few writers in South Africa none of these including giants of African Literature such as Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Elechi Amadi, Ayi Kwei Armah, Cyprian Ekwensi, Buchi Emecheta, Bessie Head, just to name a few, have not won a single Booker.


Booker and Pelwatte in Sri Lanka

In 1978, with JRJ’s catchword, let the Robber Barons come”, Booker Tate was brought to Sri Lanka. The Minister for Agriculture who participated in a Wap Mangula” (Ploughing Festival) wearing Nikkei shoes said that we should kiss the whole body of the foreigners who bring money bags.

The company introduced sugarcane cultivation with a contingent of out grower farmers and established a sugar factory at Pelwatte (Pelwatte Sugar Co. Ltd.) in Moneragala District under the management of Booker Tate.  Booker Tate got 85,000 acres from Buttala while Indian Meta International got 65,000 acres from Siyabalanduwa. Some of these lands were traditional holdings of peasant cultivators. Land alienated in Buttala area extended up to Yala sanctuary. JRJ’s Government signed an agreement to purchase sugar produced by Pelwatte Sugar Co. above the market rate at the time.

A very interesting person associated with Pelwatte was Ranjan Wijeratne, the then UNP Chairman and later General Secretary becoming the Chairman of Pelwatte Sugar Co. Posthumously promoted as a General by Premadasa he was the State Minister for Defence. He was the key player in the eradication of JVP-DJV insurrection in 1988-1989. Maali Almeida mentions about a Minister Cyril Wijeratne, but shy to explore his multifaceted role.

Several leaders of Pelwatte protesters and trade unionists were among the abductees who ended their lives in tyre pyres. The Catholic priest Fr. Michael Rodrigo who supported protesters was gunned down by an unidentified gunman”. I suppose that the writer of Maali Almeida” was a kid during these turbulent times and studies history selectively.

The tragedy/history play Ukdandu Ginna” (1993) (Burning Cane) and the popular song Bimbarak Senaga Gevasunu Chndra Suryaya Ipadunu” were two significant artistic creations that arose from this struggle. The latter resonances the rape of Uva for the second time after 1817-1818.

It should be noted that the JVP did not support this struggle as the Janatha Sangamaya”, a breakaway group of JVP was in the forefront of this struggle. JVP killed nearly 20 Janatha Sangamaya” front liners most of them were associated with Moneragala Protests including a few born in Monaragala.

English Writings in Sri Lanka

For the 2021 Godage Literary Award 135 novels written in Sinhala were evaluated. The number of English novels evaluated was only 06. For Literary Awards books registered at the Sri Lanka National Archives (SLNA) in the preceding year are taken for evaluation. The Award for the best novel written in English was not awarded since the evaluators had not found a commendable novel.

Writers, internationally acclaimed academics and literary critics unanimously agree that the Sinhala novels are far superior than the novels written in English in Sri Lanka not only in quantitative terms but also qualitatively. English novels written in Sri Lanka have a very limited audience. We have a surfeit of national level male and female novelists who write excellent novels in Sinhala. Many of these novelists had recreated and interpreted the colonial past and the period after independence in different perspectives. Scholars had said that within a period of less than 50 years the Sinhala novel had achieved its maturity, whereas the English novel written in UK had taken nearly 200 years to firmly take root.

Unfortunately, what goes as Sri Lankan writings are mediocre works written in English by a Colombo-based anglicised minority, alienated from the majority of the people in every aspect, class, language, culture, values etc; by the Western media these writers are considered as Sri Lanka’s foremost authors”.  English Departments of Sri Lankan universities had failed to produce a single literary translator capable of translating at least a single work written in Sinhala into English.

A distinguished Professor in Sri Lanka conducting a research on English readers in Sri Lanka concluded that the percentage of our adults who reads English newspapers  (Reader” defined as a person who browses any one of the national newspapers at least twice a week and could recollect at least one news item that had received prominence during the week preceding the survey interview) was less than 3%. His survey data also indicated that among the readers who identified the least read category of news was Feature Articles. We can easily extrapolate this data to readers who read fiction written in English by Sri Lankan writers.

Our literary giants of the first and second generations who were first rate bilinguals never wrote in English except Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra (only 03). Dr. Gunadasa Amerasekera, the living legend of Sinhala Literature who had published more than 18 novels since 1955, some time ago gave some valid and thought-provoking reasons for why he did not write in English. The late Prof. Siri Gunasinghe who lived in Canada wrote in Sinhala. Prof. Wimal Dissanayake domiciled in Hawaii brilliantly writes in Sinhala, interpreting complex modern literary theories that can be understood easily even by a lay person; no other critic can rival him in this field.

First Moon” of Maali Almeida

The Cover: A black, red, green, blue, mauve, orange coloured mask, with round eyes, flat nose, five incisors (sharp teeth) in the upper jaw and four in the lower, two protruding teeth, symbolising killing fields” of Sri Lanka(?), which gives the impression to the Britisher of a Benin figurine (colored) stolen from Nigeria. 

Maali Almeida: photographer, gambler, closest gay; describes this man as a good-for-nothing bastard; two weeks of chess, a month in Cub Scouts, three minutes in rugger; religion none. Amma had left Dada. Amma, a burgher, her resolve steeled by years of marriage to a narcissist”. 

The protagonist’s gravestone says that he was Mahinda Albert Kabalana?  Why Kabalana? An uncommon name?  Why the protoganist of Seven Moons” was not named as Silva, Perera, Fernando, Pinto or Zoysa? Kabalana is a character in Martin Wickremasinghe’s classic Kaliyugaya”, Savimon Kabalana. Savimon Kabalana’s son is Malin Kabalana, protagonist in Wickremasingh’s Yuganthaya”. In its film version Malin’s role was played by Richard Zoysa, the slain journalist. Is it the reason for naming the protagonist as Kabalana?

Buddha sat under trees to discover. It is better not to be reborn”. Is it Lord Buddha or Siddhartha Gautama? Did he sit under many trees to attain Buddhahood?  He discovered not to be reborn”? A new interpretation to Benightment and The Four Noble Truths. Fine.

Your first shelling in Mullaitivu 1984 stuffed in a bunker of terrified parents and screaming children”. 

 Sri Lanka is a killing field: There’s a corpse every second. Sometimes two”. I take photos. I bear witness to crimes that no one else sees”.

Who killed Dr. Ranee Sridharan? (Rajani Thiranagama). Writer says by Mahatiya faction? ( Mahattaya). Why choose the name Sridharan? Sritharan of University of Jaffna? Rajani’s colleague who co-authored The Broken Palmyra” (1990), an active member of University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) (UTHR(J))? Living Through Jaffna’s Sultry Sunset(1998) says: Few knew Tigers so closely from within as Rajini Thiranagama did, and was at the same time possessed of such acute discernment to see clearly where they were going”.

LTTE suspected Mahattaya as a RAW agent and killed him. Rajini was killed by LTTE itself mainly for her co-authorship of Broken Palmyra” and incessantly criticising the LTTE. Warnings were given to her by the LTTE to stop such activities.    

Dumping of bodies” wrapped in rubbish bags” in Beira Lake at 4 a.m. When they dump corpses in the Beira Lake columns of stone Buddhas from the floating temple stare down at the buoyant dead with neither interest nor alarm”.

Since Lanka’s 1987 peace accord with India garbage men have been in high demand. The government forces, the eastern separatists, the southern anarchists and the northern peacekeepers are all prolific producers of corpses”. Why only eastern separatists? Were they Tamil or Muslim? Where were the northern LTTE terrorists?  Were they offering pujas at Nallur Kandasamy Kovil?

Men who burned Tamil homes”.

The goons work for the goon-master, who is hired by the cops on the instructions of the task force, which is funded by the Ministry, that answers to the Cabinet, that lives in the house that JR built”.

If you were politically inclined, the goons picked you up and handed you to an interrogator and depending on your session with him, to an executioner. They are usually ex-army sadists and most of them wear black-hoods with holes in them”.

This shows that the writer has only a modicum of knowledge how arrests, interrogations and executions were carried out. The writer has no idea about the men dressed in huge hoods with eye-holes or billas. Billas were none other than JVPers who betrayed their own men and women.  

Sena Pathirana. I was chief JVP organiser for Gampaha. My body was dumped in this filthy lake many moons ago”. The writer in the Preface says some politicians and others are mentioned by their real names.” If the writer mentions here Daya Pathirana, he should be reminded that Daya Pathirana, leader of Independent Students’ Union at University of Colombo was killed by JVP and dumped in a marsh.

The nation divides into races, the races into factions and the factions turn on each other. Whoever in the opposition will preach multiculturism and then enforce Sinhala-Buddhist dominance in exchange of power.”

or you do something radical, like have a girlfriend, live with her and sleep in the spare room with the landlord’s son”.

Killers transport human meat”. At the back of the van are boxes of meat that have begun to smell. Steaks, chops and offcuts that once belonged to you and two others. Some seem to have come out of the freezer”.

How Asians do more screwing despite having the smallest ones”.

it’s the rage in their subconscious from losing their foreskins as infants” Jews and Muslims wage war.

All warmongering nations are circumcised”.  Americans? Britishers? NATO allies?

Killers say: have to saw the fingers, smash the teeth, pulp the face. Then can’t identify also. After that can dump anywhere”.

We gut, we drain, we chop, we bury. Different place every time”.

 Killers discuss how to dispose the bodies: dump in the jungle and light a match, float in the Beira, feed them to cats.

For the past year, the City’s police stations have entertained wailing parents inquiring after sons and daughters who never came back”.

We do not deny this. We do not deny the existence of torture chambers, acid baths and the multitude of torture methods introduced during the crackdown. But the question is whose side you take when reporting these atrocities?

Protagonist’s Amma sits in a police station inquiring his whereabouts. She was given a form to fill. She looks at the four pages of mostly Sinhala script, a language that is not her first, despite living her entire life in country that claims it is their only”. 

In a multistoried building at Slave Island, its top floor is leased to the Ministry of Justice. Floor eight houses interrogation rooms. There is a room with more refrigeration units with high grade chemicals”. Garbage” brought here, limbs and flesh. Cops visit this place.

Maali Almeida had taken photographs for an NGO. Photos of burned houses, dead children, how people dying in the war zone, mothers holding photos of their missing sons, women tied to poles. The writer does not say who was responsible.

Maali’s girlfriend lives with her aunt. Aunt’s new husband comes into her room without knocking and how it creeped her out”.  

One day Malays will be killing Moors. And Burghers will be butchering Chetties. Nothing in this country will surprise me.”

What is the task of literature? To provide a profound explanation to this question we refer to the Talks at the Yanan Forum on Literature and Art” delivered by Mao in 1942. There is no harm in exposing the dark side of society. But the writer should discover bright side also. Bourgeois liberal writers love to expose only the dark side, preaching pessimism and world-weariness. The writer can expose shortcomings and portray negative characters, but this only serves as a contrast to bring about the brightness of the whole picture. The writer should solve the problem of whether to expose and at the same time extolling, what to expose and what to extol. Art and literature have never been devoted solely to exposure. The writer should decide who are his targets for exposure.

What is the motive of exposure? It should be to eradicate poisonous weeds of whatever kind and to help blossom fragrant flowers. Carefully distinguish between what is really a poisonous weed and what is really a fragrant flower.


Can the British evaluators understand these expressions: Amma’s redda”, silisili bag, Narada Yaka,  Ponnaya , Mahatiya, Balal, Kottu, drivermalli, bulathmalli, hamu, Aiyo putha, suddha, betel chewing Aiya, godaya, malli hamu, pretas, naraka yaka, maruwa, talk baila, nangi, mahakalu,  yako,  etc. without any footnotes or explanatory notes?


I do not want to add anything more to winner’s acceptance speech as it has been nicely interpreted by several English writers and Sinhala social media users.  The winner is not fitting to any forgiveness and compassion for demeaning his country of birth internationally. That was only the icing of the cake he had baked for the consumption of Sri Lanka bashers portraying his country of birth as a killing field.

(Sena Thoradeniya has won five National Literary Awards, 03 for the best original novel, 0I each for the best Research Work in Varied Subjects and for the best Translation respectively. He was also a finalist of Swarna Pusthaka Award.)

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