“SEVEN MOONS OF MAALI ALMEIDA” BY SHEHAN KARUNATILAKA.
Posted on November 12th, 2022

KAMALIKA PIERIS

The Booker Prize, formerly known as the Booker Prize for Fiction (1969–2001) and the Man Booker Prize (2002–2019), is a literary prize awarded each year for the best novel written in English and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland. The award is announced in London.

A five-person panel of authors, librarians, literary agents, publishers, and booksellers is appointed by the Booker Prize Foundation each year to choose the winning book. The Booker Prize is a high-profile literary award, it is greeted with much fanfare.  It is considered   a great honor  for authors to be nominated for the long list and selected for the  short list. The nomination   greatly helps the sale of the book as well.

Several  Sri Lanka born writers  have made it to the Booker list. Michael Ondaatje won the Booker Prize in 1992 for ‘The English Patient’, Romesh Gunasekera was shortlisted for his novel Reef in 1994. Anuk Arudpragasam   was shortlisted in 2021 for A Passage North and Shehan Karunatilaka won  in 2022 with Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.

Shehan Karunatilaka’s   skill in writing was recognized  early on. His manuscript, The Painter, was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize in 2000.In   2010  his debut novel Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew won the Commonwealth Book Prize, the DSC Prize, the Gratiaen Prize and was judged the second greatest cricket book of all time by Wisden.  

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (Sort of Books, 2022) is a rewritten version of Chats with the Dead,” revised for a global audience. For the global audience there are references to James Nachtwey, Cartier-Bresson,  Simon Wiesenthal and Elvis Presley. But there is local idiom as well, in  Drivermalli and the FujiKodak shop at Thimbirigasyaya.

I  set out to write a ghost story and a murder mystery, said Shehan. I wanted to write a ghost story where the many victims, the voices that had been silenced, could speak. I had several false starts and then when I returned to the manuscript, the character of Maali appealed to me and  I decided it would be a mystery where a murdered journalist solves his own murder. 

The artistic device of  dead people waking up and  speaking is not new. I do not know how many times this device was used  in fiction  and by whom, but  Sartre used it in theatre ( No Exit  1944)  and Wilfred Owen used it in poetry. (Strange meeting 1918) 1918 and 1944 mark the two World Wars.

Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is well written, readable. It follows the modern convention in fiction writing, which rate story above style and  opinion above content, with a breezy disregard for  description, explanation , sequence or development.

The  story is  set in Colombo, in 1990. Maali Almeida, war photographer, gambler,  closeted gay was  murdered. He now ‘wakes up’, in the afterworld   and observes what happens in the living world to those connected to him. Maali Almeida was killed for taking photos of the 1983 anti- Tamil riots. The  main action, a hunt for a  few negatives of the 1983 riots is, in my view, too flimsy  for such a lengthy story, but Booker judges have thought otherwise.

The book was described as a whodunit, a  thriller, a metaphysical thriller  and also as a  South Asian epic. The judges said what set the book apart was the ambition of its scope, and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques.”It was a serious romp that takes the reader to the murderous horrors of civil war in Sri Lanka,  they said.

Was it important for you that such a violent story should also be funny  interviewers asked. I don’t know if that was intentional, replied Shehan, speaking  after the Booker win. There’s a Sri Lankan gallows humor. Even today, despite the uncertainty there’s a lot of people cracking jokes. Personally, I  enjoy and gravitate towards literature that has a bawdy sense of humor, said Shehan.

The book draws fleeting  attention to  several  social and political  issues which are not directly connected to the dead  Maali’s  immediate  concerns. Why is Sri Lanka number one in suicides asked a ghost who had committed suicide China is mentioned  just once in a negative manner. It was observed that Chinese restaurants in Grandpass buy cats from vendors.Race, which is certainly important in the story,  is woven in. The  leading characters are , exactly as given in the text, Jacqueline Vairavanathan Tamil, Lakshmi Almeida Burgher, Malinda Kabalana Sinhalese.

There are oblique  references to the Sinhala Buddhist culture. The ledger used in the afterworld had a  Bo leaf design on the cover,  there was a low caste  yaka called Narada and blow jobs were available in Anuradhapura. One ghost had studied at Sri Bodhi College, another  had perched cross legged beside a stone Buddha. Two language groupings are provided. Pali, Sanskrit and Tamil  followed by Portuguese, Dutch and Sinhalese.  The  novel speaks of the  ‘Sinhala script which the country claims is their only language.

If Mahavamsa is to be believed Sinhala race was founded on kidnapping, rape, parricide and incest, said one ghost. I always had a problem with  our flag said another ghost. When did we have lions or tigers here. Look at our flag, what an achcharu. Horizontal lines, vertical lines, primary colors, secondary colors, animal, nature symbols, weapons, yellow, maroon, green and orange Bo leaves and sword. Minorities are held at knifepoint on the flag,  he observed.

Shehan wanted to write a novel which had a political orientation. I wanted to write about 2009 and the end of the war, what if the dead could speak. But I was reluctant to engage there. 1989 seemed like a safe” period. It was far back and .most of the protagonists and antagonists from that time were dead,  said Shehan.

Critics noted the political orientation of the book. One critic said the book was razor sharp indictment of  Sri Lanka politics and society , morbidly funny. Another said Shehan Karunatilaka’s epic novel is a powerful evocation of Sri Lanka’s dark and brutal past.’

The  JVP insurgencies of 1971 and 1989 are included in the book. I was chief JVP organizer for Gampaha,  when I was killed, said one ghost. JVP killed less than 300 in 1971, government killed more than 20,000 may be twice that, said Maali. Sooriyakanda mass grave is mentioned.  In Bheeshanaya time, (1989) the slaughter of suspected anarchists was not as prolific as in Indonesia, but there were deaths. Some say 5000, some say 20,000 some say 100,000, said the ghosts.  This is Sinhalese killing Sinhalese.

There is reference to torture and killing by the government  during the JVP insurgencies. An  engineering student from Moratuwa, and an  agriculture student from Jaffna  were rounded up, tortured and killed, reported the novel.  The eight floor of the Ministry of Justice housed interrogation rooms used in the 1971 insurgency, recalls the fictional  hero.  He floats into  this Interrogation Department and sees two men in masks  beating a boy with pipes in one room and in another, two boys hung upside down with bags on their heads.

The novel  is full of references to the Sinhala-Tamil clashes starting from 1977 which is mentioned by Maali in passing. Maali Almeida  was killed for taking photos of the 1983 anti-Tamil riots and as a ghost he had plenty to say about these riots. 1983 was an atrocity. 8000 homes, 5000 shops ,150,000 homeless, said Maali Almeida. Who will speak for the many victims of 1983,  of men who burned Tamil homes in 1983, of the  Tamil lawyer killed by Sinhala mob in 1983, he asked.

Maali had taken black and white prints of  the 1983 attack. He had photographed rioters setting  people on fire, Sinhala men in sarong dancing outside burning shops, cops watching Tamil women dragged out of buses. He had photographed a  naked Tamil kicked to death, and another naked Tamil man being taunted by boys with sticks. He had also photographed  a boy and his mother beaten with sticks,  a toddler with broken arm, and man with cleaver hacking an old man.

The novel then  drops 1983 and moves to  the Eelam wars in the north and east. The book has many references to the Eelam war. Eelam war ended  12 years ago but books like this will help to keep the   war  fresh in the minds of  gullible ,  ignorant  western readers.

The novel  fleetingly takes up  an   anti-Eelam   position.  Only Lankans will have beauty pageants and cricket matches while the country burns, said the ghosts. Partying after beauty contests while our soldiers die,  they said.

 Then the novel  changes focus. It speaks ofInnocent Tamils” ,  Vanni refugee camp   and the plight  air raid survivors trapped in  camps. It speaks of Minister Cyril Wijeratne later referred to a Minister Cyril  and to Major Raja Udugampola.There are negative references to the army. They say STF are dumping bodies left and right in Labugama forest reserve, said a ghost.  The ghost Sena” stationed his  ghostly army with a precision  our military never had, observed Maali.

Maali Almeida was a  war photographer, who  it appears, accepted commissions from all sides, from the government, the Tamils, the  NGOs. Maali had photographed scenes from the war zone for all of them.He had photographed the war in both north and  east. There are shots from Vavuniya, Batticaloa and Trincomalee.

In the novel Maali focuses on  the plight of  civilians caught in the war. The photographs showed how people are dying in the war zone, explained Maali.  Tigers and army were killing civilians.  77 Tamil civilians were killed in the Omanthai massacre, he said.

His  emphasis was on family and children, on  burned homes, dead children. There were  photographs  of mother and daughter buried under bricks in Kilinochchi, of family fleeing the shelling in Vavuniya ,   smoldering remains of an infant in Akkaraipattu.  Photos of women tied to poles,      children in bunkers, tiny heads tucked under tiny   elbows ,eyes wide and empty,  dead children displayed on mats  and  children bleeding in front of me.”  

Maali recalled  four bodies baking in the Jaffna dust, a dog, man, mother and child. Maali  was there when the army shelled in Mullaitivu. He photographed a bunker stuffed with terrified parents and screaming children. Readers will be treated to all this as they read The Seven moons of  Maali Almeida”.

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