Shehan Karunatilaka's new book is a murder mystery set around the Sri Lankan war

The author of the acclaimed novel ‘Chinaman’ talks about his new book ‘Chats With the Dead’, a dark comedy in which the ghost of a war photographer tries to find his murderer.
Shehan Karunatilaka's new book is a murder mystery set around the Sri Lankan war
Shehan Karunatilaka's new book is a murder mystery set around the Sri Lankan war
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Days and months after Chinaman came out, Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka was a little sick of cricket. For Chinaman, a novel about a fictional cricketer playing for Sri Lanka in the 1980s, he had done too much research on the sport. So Shehan found himself on panels with former cricketers like Sourav Ganguly, answering questions about match fixing. He’d get assignments to write cricket stories and people would stop him to ask questions about the game.

Shehan decided that his next book would have nothing to do with any sport. It will have ghosts instead. Chats With the Dead is just releasing in Sri Lanka so Shehan is not sure what the reception would be. But just to be safe, he has set it up way back in 1989, more than 30 years ago, and all the crucial people who might have taken offence about his book are dead.

“The idea was, why not write a ghost story, looking at the dead in Sri Lanka who didn’t have voices. What if we give them a voice?” Shehan says in an interview, on a visit to Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, as part of a literature festival.

Sri Lanka was engulfed in war for too many years. And too many people had gone missing or died. The war ended in 2009. Shehan watched with interest the accusations (on who did the killings) thrown at each other by the different forces – the government, the Tamil Tigers, the Marxist insurgents, and the Indian peacekeeping forces. He decided that the best way to figure it out ‘was by talking to the dead’.

But 2009 was too close. He could not make his setting so immediate. In 2014 when he began writing the first draft, it’d just been five years and he was still trying to make sense of the war. But 1989 was long back enough.

Shehan based his novel on the story of a war photographer called Malinda Almeida or Malinda Albert Kabalana, who dies at the age of 34. He is a ghost when we first meet him in the book, roaming about in the In-Between without a clue.

“I based it on a few journalists who were murdered in the late 1980s. Mostly on Richard de Zoysa, a Colombo-based journalist and activist, and Rajani Thiranagama, a moderate Tamil activist in Jaffna. Richard was abducted one day and his body was found the next day. It’s said the government death squads suspected he was a Marxist. Rajini had spoken out against the Tamil Tigers, accusing them of becoming a fascist force. She too was killed,” Shehan says.

His first draft had been closer to history. He wrote it for a year and decided it would not work. It is then that he invented Malinda. Malinda, fondly called Maali by friends, is not an easily likeable character. You see everything – the present and the past when he was alive – through his eyes, wherever the wind takes the ghost. He is a closeted gay man who lived in the Sri Lanka of the 1980s. DD or Dilan Dharmendran and Jaki or Jacqueline Vairavanathan were his friends and roommates.

“It is a murder mystery where the ghost is finding his murderer. But I could also bring in different strands. Malinda was employed by the government, the army, the BBC, foreign influencers and so on. He would also go behind lines and take photos of Tamil Tigers. It is a murder mystery with a lot of suspects (any of these people could have killed him). It allowed me to talk about the various people who were producing corpses,” Shehan says.

He was only using ghosts as a literary device, he says. But he has taken it pretty seriously, dividing the book into seven moons, when the spirits are believed to be roaming the In-Between according to Sri Lankan folklore. There is also a man who acts as the medium and can hear the ghosts and talk to them.

“It is only to explore this period, by talking to the dead. It is done in a black, comic way. The afterlife (as shown in the book) is a disorganised South Asian passport office and the spirits don’t know where they should go – heaven or hell or spy on the living. What does the ghost do during the day? That was the interest,” Shehan says.

He also has another interesting theory about a legend. Prince Vijaya, expelled from a north Indian kingdom, landed in Sri Lanka and became its first King. He and his men displaced the original inhabitants called Yakkhas with the help of a local woman called Kuveni. Kuveni became his queen and bore children but the King would marry another woman. Kuveni then cursed the King and the country.

“Some say the country is still cursed and that’s why we have always had violence. We just had 70 years of strife and last year we had the Easter attack. Another theory is that the ghosts of our past are whispering in people’s ears and making them do bad things. Ghosts were just my way of explaining why the country tends to get into all these messes,” he adds.

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