The Caravan / Writers

Dead Men Walking

WHEN WE MEET MAALI ALMEIDA—an intrepid photojournalist and the protagonist of Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chats with the Dead, published earlier this year—he is recently dead. The novel is set in 1989, a time Karunatilaka chose because it was what he calls a “perfect storm of terrors.” The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Sri Lankan army, Indian peacekeepers, members of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party and the state’s death squads were all locked in conflict on Sri Lankan soil, running an obstacle course filled with curfews, bombs, assassinations and abductions.

The story is told from Maali’s perspective, as he tries to navigate the convoluted landscape of the afterlife, and reconcile with his own death. He does not remember who his killer is—and so, in fact, has been effectively disappeared, both from the world and from himself. “The details come to you in itches and aches,” he muses. “In the Sri Lanka of the ’80s, ‘disappeared’ was a passive verb, something the government or JVP anarchists or Tiger separatists or Indian Peace Keepers could do to you depending on which province you were in and who you looked like.”

Before this book, Karunatilaka was best known for Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, an acclaimed book that was ostensibly about cricket but derived some of its narrative momentum from a mystery. Its protagonist, WG Karunasena, is an alcoholic journalist—a fairly common Sri Lankan stereotype—determined to track down a once-legendary bowler, who appears to have disappeared without a trace. When I wrote to Karunatilaka, asking whether he had intended to write two books with mysteries at their heart, he said he had not. “I began both with the intent of writing a cricket story and a ghost story respectively,” he said. “A mystery is also a convenient device that allows you to go wherever you choose, while misdirecting the reader’s attention. In the end, WG’s quest for Pradeep or Maali’s quest to find his murderer weren’t really the point of either story, but they allowed me to go to interesting places and meet strange people.”

Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje, though published two decades before, occupies the same time period as Chats with the Dead: the 1980s in Sri Lanka, full of hidden violence and open tumult. Some of the seeds of the conflicts playing out in that decade can be traced back to Independence
and before, when the British rulers of Ceylon played favourites with various ethnicities and helped establish a legal framework and a constitution that would dog Sri Lanka for years to come. The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser is a novel set in that pre-Independence era, which
provides glimpses of 1930s Ceylon and an island in the long pause between two world wars.

While reading an academic paper on this book, I discovered the short stories of SWRD Bandaranaike, the influential and controversial man who served as the fourth prime minister of Ceylon. Bandaranaike’s preference is for classic detective fiction; he shares de Kretsers’ predilection for a colonial atmosphere and Karunatilaka’s interest in demons. This interest in demons in contemporary fiction about Sri Lanka brings us back to the present day, with Ruvanee Pietersz Villhauer’s The Mask Collectors, a novel published last year, which is littered with murders that are connected in some way to an ancient Sri Lankan ritual.

During this coronavirus pandemic, in the middle of a lockdown so rigid that that over sixty thousand people were arrested for violating curfew on the island where I live, I found myself craving a plot that sucked me in and trundled along at a steady clip, finally offering a satisfying conclusion in which villains are served their just desserts and offering plausible answers to previously impenetrable questions—all of which is to say, I wanted to read a good whodunit. To my initial disappointment, I found crime fiction and mysteries set in Sri Lanka did not make for a crowded bookshelf. Still, while looking at these books together does demand some leaps across time, they resonate with each other. They blur the borders between life and death, articulating how the dead come back to haunt the living, and immersing us in disquiet at the thought of that which does not rest.

Scientists in these novels attempt to tame and categorise the oddities, yet both detectives and victims become mired in complex, murky situations. Simultaneously, each novel raises broader social and political questions by placing their characters at the junctures of history. In their own ways, the books resist easy categorisation, confidently straddling shifting boundaries between fact and myth, the inexplicable and the explicable, literary fiction and social commentary.

Read the rest here.

First published in The Caravan, in November 2020. By Smriti Daniel. Illustrations by Mika Tennekoon.