Living the Afterlife
On his first moon in that eternal twilight zone, the In Between, Maali Almeida, photographer, gambler, fixer and closet homosexual, wakes up to the cynically decisive knowledge that, “Yes”, afterlife exists, and it is “Just Like Here But Worse”.
Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, the winner of the 2022 Booker prize, is a novel that defies categorization. An acerbically funny, macabre whodunit, it is set in the afterlife, against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s brutal 26-year civil war.
The novel begins with a tone that is apathetic, but beneath the veneer of boredom is a pervasive rage that comes bubbling up and brimming over; its essence, one of supreme tragedy characteristic of war zones which have seen years of strife.
Karunatilaka uses magic realism to make a profoundly political statement. Senseless killings and mass murders of innocents under the guise of protecting national interests are more the norm than an aberration in conflicts where there are too many factions and no quarter is given from any side. “Look at this crowd. Must be all the killing up north. Tigers and Army killing civilians. Indian peacekeepers starting wars,” Maali Almeida ponders aloud to anyone who cares to listen.
As Maali takes in the “swarm of souls” with “pallid faces, sunken eyes in broken heads, squinted in rage and pain and confusion”, he feels at ease with the familiar disorder, the chaos that is typical of Lankan government offices.
“The afterlife is a tax office and everyone wants their rebate”, he observes nonchalantly watching a mother, face caked in blood, balancing a child on her hip, enquiring if her other child has survived the carnage.
This juxtaposition of the tragic and the prosaic only serves to heighten the devastation and pathos of the situation. The contrast is as sharp and painful as a slash from a scalpel.
The eternal atheist and unbeliever, Maali, is shadowed by a figure cloaked in black garbage bags. Sena Pathirana, an agent for Mahakaali, the Goddess of Death, seeks out souls for his grand revenge scheme on the human oppressors in the real world; like Mephistopheles, he courts Maali and warns him to stay away from The Light.
Wafting on a breeze – the primary mode of transport for ghouls and souls alike – Maali follows his own mortal remains, watching fascinated as his body is chopped up into pieces, stuffed into garbage bags, weighed down by bricks and thrown into the Beira lake by drunken bouncers from a casino he used to frequent. The fact of his own death finally sinks in.
Sri Lankan Setting
Maali has photos of a government Minister “who looked on while the savages of ‘83 torched Tamil homes and slaughtered the occupants”, of “disappeared journalists and vanished activists, bound and gagged and dead in custody”, and of an army major, a Tiger colonel and a British arms dealer in a rendezvous in the jungles sharing a jug of King coconut. “These are photos that will bring down governments. Photos that could stop wars”, as he declares to murdered university professor, Dr. Ranee, who is in charge of organizing lost souls and directing them towards The Light. But are these also photos that got him killed?
Karunatilaka’s debut novel, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew (2010), won the Commonwealth Book Prize, the DSC Prize, and the Gratiaen Prize. Set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan cricketing world of the 1980s, it is narrated in first person by an alcoholic sports journalist who sets out in search of a renowned cricketer who disappeared; but as we see, in the context of the civil war, disappeared may well mean being dead.
In this, his second book, Karunatilaka, an advertising copywriter by day, revisits the subject of “disappeared” during the Sri Lankan civil war years. For his loved ones, Maali Almeida has disappeared; in actual fact he is dead. And while they run from pillar to post to learn if he is in hiding, has been abducted or arrested, Maali busies himself in his afterlife trying to find out who really did him in.
Karunatilaka uses the second person point-of-view in this novel, with the dual effects of distancing his protagonist from the narrative and at the same time transforming the reader into a character, and drawing them closer to the story.
So you travel with Maali on the wind, right into the killing fields of Sri Lanka, in the bloodiest years of its civil war, sometimes hurtling on roof-tops of buses along with other disembodied souls, and sometimes communing with suicides sitting on walls. You sit as a fly on the wall to watch interrogators terrorize young boys and girls squatting in torture chambers; you dodge the Mahakaali, the soul-sucking demon, who is just a step behind, waiting to swallow you up and send you to a permanent residence in the netherworld.
Karunatilaka takes you into the psyche of the irreverent gambler who was always calculating the odds; the fixer who went to war zones to take photographs for the highest bidder, and then secretly some more; of the occasional drunk who also dabbled in LSD and “silly pills”; and the lover who was ever so often unfaithful. The existence of his secret photographs rattles people in the highest echelons of politics, military intelligence, international peacekeeping missions and terrorists alike, all of whom scramble to get their hands on them.
Maali has only seven moons – or seven nights – to solve the mystery of his death, save his loved ones from the death squads, and ensure that his photographs see the light of day and tell the stories of the hundreds of innocent war victims to the world. But to do so he has to make the Faustian bargain. As the race heats up, you follow Maali with a frisson of excitement running up your spine.
Does Maali reach The Light? Does he unravel the mystery behind his own death?
Read the Seven Moons of Maali Almeida to find out!