Home » Review: Karunatilaka's 'The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida' Brings … – Foreign Policy

Review: Karunatilaka's 'The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida' Brings … – Foreign Policy

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In July 1983, Sri Lanka’s capital of Colombo erupted in anti-Tamil pogroms effectively sanctioned by the state. The violence followed the deaths of 13 Sinhalese Sri Lankan Army soldiers at the hands of Tamil militants in the city of Jaffna. The night after the ambush, mobs from the country’s Sinhalese majority targeted and attacked Tamils—members of the country’s largest ethnic minority group—in Colombo. Tamils were murdered or displaced, Tamil houses and offices burned. The violence raged for days before then-President J.R. Jayewardene said anything. The death toll is estimated to have been in the thousands, although no official number was ever announced. What happened in Colombo echoed all over the country, and many Tamils fled, some leaving Sri Lanka forever. Although ethnic tensions preceded this event, known as Black July, by decades, it is often considered the beginning of the Sri Lankan civil war.

Black July lives on through communal memory, of course, but also in photographs. A famous picture by photojournalist Chandragupta Amarasinghe shows a naked Tamil man cowering on a bench while several laughing young Sinhalese men swing their feet in his direction. One is preparing to kick him. Over the years, this image has arguably circulated more than any other depiction of the violence—undeniable proof of the cruelty of those days. How does such evidence pass into fiction? In Shehan Karunatilaka’s novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, which won the 2022 Booker Prize, the photograph (or one strikingly like it) is taken by the eponymous character, who describes it as the “naked boy surrounded by dancing devils.” Rather than publishing it, Maali has tucked it away in a box—along with a number of other politically explosive shots—in anticipation of the day when harm might befall him, just as it has so many other Sri Lankan journalists.

Now it’s 1990 Colombo, that day has come, and Maali is dead. Unable to remember the circumstances of his demise and suspecting murder, he finds himself in an office building-like In Between, staffed by the civil servants of the afterlife. Like many bureaucratic buildings, this one is populated by signs that send one in circles, entities of dubious authority, shouting people, obfuscatory replies, and disorganized lines (“Lankans can’t queue”). The freshly deceased are handed ola leaf forms to fill out so that they can exit the In Between and reach something known as The Light. “What’s The Light?” Maali asks. “The short answer is Whatever You Need It To Be. The long answer is, I don’t have time for the long answer,” he is told.

In July 1983, Sri Lanka’s capital of Colombo erupted in anti-Tamil pogroms effectively sanctioned by the state. The violence followed the deaths of 13 Sinhalese Sri Lankan Army soldiers at the hands of Tamil militants in the city of Jaffna. The night after the ambush, mobs from the country’s Sinhalese majority targeted and attacked Tamils—members of the country’s largest ethnic minority group—in Colombo. Tamils were murdered or displaced, Tamil houses and offices burned. The violence raged for days before then-President J.R. Jayewardene said anything. The death toll is estimated to have been in the thousands, although no official number was ever announced. What happened in Colombo echoed all over the country, and many Tamils fled, some leaving Sri Lanka forever. Although ethnic tensions preceded this event, known as Black July, by decades, it is often considered the beginning of the Sri Lankan civil war.

Black July lives on through communal memory, of course, but also in photographs. A famous picture by photojournalist Chandragupta Amarasinghe shows a naked Tamil man cowering on a bench while several laughing young Sinhalese men swing their feet in his direction. One is preparing to kick him. Over the years, this image has arguably circulated more than any other depiction of the violence—undeniable proof of the cruelty of those days. How does such evidence pass into fiction? In Shehan Karunatilaka’s novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, which won the 2022 Booker Prize, the photograph (or one strikingly like it) is taken by the eponymous character, who describes it as the “naked boy surrounded by dancing devils.” Rather than publishing it, Maali has tucked it away in a box—along with a number of other politically explosive shots—in anticipation of the day when harm might befall him, just as it has so many other Sri Lankan journalists.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, Shehan Karunatilaka, W. W. Norton & Company, 400 pp., .95, November 2022

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, Shehan Karunatilaka, W. W. Norton & Company, 400 pp., $18.95, November 2022

Now it’s 1990 Colombo, that day has come, and Maali is dead. Unable to remember the circumstances of his demise and suspecting murder, he finds himself in an office building-like In Between, staffed by the civil servants of the afterlife. Like many bureaucratic buildings, this one is populated by signs that send one in circles, entities of dubious authority, shouting people, obfuscatory replies, and disorganized lines (“Lankans can’t queue”). The freshly deceased are handed ola leaf forms to fill out so that they can exit the In Between and reach something known as The Light. “What’s The Light?” Maali asks. “The short answer is Whatever You Need It To Be. The long answer is, I don’t have time for the long answer,” he is told.

This non-reply comes via the afterworld-weary but patient Helper, Dr. Ranee Sridharan, one of the In Between’s reigning bureaucrats. Dr. Ranee is based on Rajani Thiranagama, a doctor and professor of anatomy at the University of Jaffna’s medical school. Thiranagama was a dissident and critic of the militant separatist Tamil Tigers; in 1989, they assassinated her. (A character connected to her appears in my own forthcoming novel Brotherless Night, out in the United States this month.) The In Between is full of souls like Dr. Ranee—the ghosts of people murdered not only by the Tigers but also by the Sinhalese Marxist insurrection and the government. They are accompanied by the ghosts of car crash victims, those who died by suicide, and others, as well as a terrifying demon, the Mahakali, whose body pulses with those who have given her their souls and given up The Light in pursuit of vengeance.

Maali has seven moons—seven nights—to take care of the things that prevent him from getting to The Light, if he cares to reach it. But despite Dr. Ranee’s best efforts, Maali isn’t that interested in filling out the form, which includes assessing his sins. Instead, he is desperate to ensure that the work he has hidden gets into the right hands. In Karunatilaka’s merciless, madcap version of the afterlife, dead Maali can ride the wind to anywhere his body has gone. He can see all that is unfolding, but he has no power to interfere Down There, as the real world is known.

A demonstrator with his body painted takes part in a protest to observe the anniversary of anti-Tamil rioting that started in the year 1983 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. A demonstrator with his body painted takes part in a protest to observe the anniversary of anti-Tamil rioting that started in the year 1983 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. A demonstrator with his body painted takes part in a protest to observe the anniversary of anti-Tamil rioting that started in the year 1983 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

A demonstrator wearing body paint takes part in a protest to observe the anniversary of anti-Tamil rioting that started in 1983, also known as Black July, in Colombo on July 24, 2022. Arun SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images

Between the In Between and Maali’s view of Colombo, the afterlife is thick with argument and regret. Maali is not the only one who cannot let the photographs go; it turns out they’re of interest to plenty of other people, too. As people implicated by the violence in some shots jostle with people who commissioned pictures for propaganda, those who love Maali struggle to ensure that the photographs are used for justice.

The narrative really takes off when Maali’s charismatic flatmates, DD and Jaki, enter the scene. Like thousands of Sri Lankans who searched for disappeared family members and friends during the war, the two Tamil cousins hunt for their loved one and then, heartbreakingly, for his body and the box of photographs they know was precious to him.

The novel’s settings toggle between In Between amorphousness and intense specificity in Colombo, each thrown powerfully into relief by the other. With notable exceptions such as Black July, Colombo was not the center of the war, but with Maali’s story, Karunatilaka reminds us of the aspects of the conflict that did touch Sri Lanka’s capital, from buildings used for torture—in the novel, a building known as the Palace—to the abductions of journalists and meetings between unlikely political bedfellows.

The scenes in the city also offer a sly skewering of Colombo’s elite. Maali has seen too much violence, much more than most in his privileged “Colombo bubble.” Through flashbacks, we catch glimpses of the life Maali led: dipping in and out of Colombo to shoot photographs for whoever would pay him, no matter what side they were on: the Sri Lankan Army, the British Embassy, a Tamil nongovernmental organization. Maali recalls traveling to the Vanni, Kilinochchi, and Mullaitivu, as well as other locations where shelling and violence occurred; when he returned to Colombo, the cognitive dissonance seemed impossible to him. Even so, he participated in the vibrant queer life of Colombo’s high society. He was in a relationship with closeted DD, the privileged son of the lone Tamil cabinet minister, and serially unfaithful to him.

A city scene in Colombo, Sri Lanka, during a full day strike called by Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in 1989. A city scene in Colombo, Sri Lanka, during a full day strike called by Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in 1989. A city scene in Colombo, Sri Lanka, during a full day strike called by Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in 1989.

A city street is seen in Colombo during a full-day strike called by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna in 1989. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Maali’s life bears a more than coincidental similarity to that of the Sri Lankan journalist Richard de Zoysa, who was abducted and killed in Colombo in 1990. De Zoysa was gay, rumored to be connected to the Southern Marxist insurrection, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), and is generally believed to have been killed by a government death squad. He was Sinhalese and Tamil; Maali is Tamil, Burgher, and Sinhalese. De Zoysa’s life, too, has received multiple fictional treatments. (Seven Moons references him as though he and Maali occupy the same world.) Indeed, in the 1983 Sinhalese film Yuganthaya, de Zoysa, who was also an actor, played the character of leftist Malin Kabalana—whose name bears a striking resemblance to Maali’s birth name, Malinda Albert Kabalana (with Malin one of his many nicknames). A corrupt cop who appears in the novel also shares a name with one of the policemen indicted and subsequently acquitted of de Zoysa’s abduction and murder.

The book seems to invite us to look for such real-world correspondences. After all, as Karunatilaka writes, “The thing that makes you most Sri Lankan is not your father’s surname or the holy place where you kneel, nor the smile you plaster on your face to hide your fears. It is the knowing of other Lankans and the knowing of those Lankans’ Lankans. There are aunties, if given a surname and a school, who can pinpoint any Lankan to the nearest cousin. You have moved in circles that overlapped and many that stayed shut. You were cursed with the gift of never forgetting a name, a face, or a sequence of cards.” One can only imagine and hope those aunties are reading this book.

But even those less informed will sense the presence of ghostly doubles in Karunatilaka’s cast of characters. His dreamed worlds are haunted most powerfully by the ghosts of facts—facts that refuse to go away, despite some people’s best efforts. He reminds us that shadows can only be cast by what is there. Perhaps most satisfyingly for a depiction of a country racked by unresolved death, he gives those ghosts the chance to speak to us, which both we and they deserve.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida was originally titled Chats With the Dead and first published in the Indian subcontinent in 2020. It was reedited for an international audience. Still, the narrative is dense with references for those who either know Sri Lanka’s histories or are willing to plumb their depths. (Perhaps we might expect more of international audiences or at least Western ones.) While Karunatilaka’s story is set in 1990, he dances over the timeline of the country’s history lightly and with elegance, invoking everything from Sri Lanka’s year of independence (1948, when upper-crust Tamil and Sinhalese politicians shamefully joined hands to disenfranchise Tamil workers from the upcountry tea plantations) to the future, via a mention of a young parliamentarian named Rajapaksa. In one scene, two characters discuss a human rights-minded Rajapaksa holding up a leaflet on the “Mothers of the Disappeared” in parliament, advocating for the state to identify the “morgues full of our innocent dead.”

Members of a Sri Lankan peace support group hold candles at a vigil in Colombo in memory of those who died in the 1983 Black Friday anti-Tamil riots Members of a Sri Lankan peace support group hold candles at a vigil in Colombo in memory of those who died in the 1983 Black Friday anti-Tamil riots Members of a Sri Lankan peace support group hold candles at a vigil in Colombo in memory of those who died in the 1983 Black Friday anti-Tamil riots

Members of a Sri Lankan peace support group hold candles at a vigil in Colombo in memory of those who died in the 1983 anti-Tamil riots on July 31, 2003. SENA VIDANAGAMA/AFP via Getty Images

“It’s easy to shout when you’re in opposition,” one character says. “Let young Rajapaksa run a war and see what happens. If he had to deal with the JVP, what would he do?”

We know what happened: The Rajapaksa family, and specifically Mahinda, rose to power in 2005 on a promise to end the civil war. They made good on that vow, crushing the Tigers with a brutal military push—and many casualties among Tamil civilians. (Mahinda’s brother Gotabaya was recently president and during Mahinda’s term served as defense secretary. Mass protests over botched economic policies last year led to Gotabaya’s resignation and flight from Sri Lanka, though he has since returned to the country.) When facing international calls for accountability, the Rajapaksas and their allies have often proclaimed Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and decried interference from the United Nations. Yet in Seven Moons, we are haunted by the earlier version of Mahinda, in a world in which the “[U.N.] forensic team had been invited by Rajapaksa to train our local authorities on identifying bodies against the records of the missing.”

With callbacks like this, Karunatilaka underlines how we are haunted not just by the ghosts of lost others but by the ghosts of lost selves—the better people we might have been. His targets include historical and political wrongs, such as discrimination, homophobia, and impunity, but also intimate ones, such as infidelity and dishonesty. As Maali’s beloved DD and Jaki push the boundaries of their considerable privilege and head into peril on his behalf, he realizes that to make right the wrongs of his life, he may need to strike a dangerous bargain.

The story is as cannily plotted on earth as in heaven; paying attention to every demon, literal or figurative, yields rich rewards. In Karunatilaka’s hands, history is a hall of mirrors. As the narrative, which is full of wit and sharp social observations, gathers steam, one cannot help but enjoy hurtling through that hall and toward disaster alongside the surprisingly but convincingly moral Maali. He’s already dead, but, in the loves of his life, he still has something to save. His attempt is riotous, frank, and unsentimental—and while some people try to bury the evidence, he seeks to resurrect it.

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