The Sri Lankan Civil War, a murdered photographer and the after-life come together in Shehan Karunatilaka's latest

Shehan Karunatilaka on his new novel Chats with the Dead, writing about politics and finding hope amidst despair.

Aarushi Agrawal March 24, 2020 10:03:34 IST
The Sri Lankan Civil War, a murdered photographer and the after-life come together in Shehan Karunatilaka's latest

Sri Lanka has long seen war and violence, but 1989 was a particularly stormy year: In the midst of the Sri Lankan Civil War, the Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna), IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force), the UNP’s (United Nation Party) Special Task Force, the State’s death squads, and the army were all engaged in a fast-progressing bloodbath. It was a time of curfews, bombs, assassinations, abductions, and mass graves.

It is in this period of prolific unrest that Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka has set his second novel Chats with the Dead, whose protagonist is the ghost of 34-year-old war photographer Malinda Albert Kabalana, or Maali, who is on a mission to solve his own murder. “Sri Lanka is a beautiful, scary place full of strange stories,” says Karunatilaka in an email interview with Firstpost, “We have had times of great despair in our country but we carry on, usually with a smile and a joke. But many Sri Lankans who have lost and suffered cannot escape the ghosts of those dark days."

The Sri Lankan Civil War a murdered photographer and the afterlife come together in Shehan Karunatilakas latest

There’s always room for hope, even when things are at their most grim. But like almost everything else, hope isn’t evenly distributed, says Shehan Karunatilaka. Photo courtesy Penguin Random House India

His characters meditate on politics; the futility of war, the corruption of those in power, and the ensuing despair; societal inequality; death, religion, and the afterlife; and on the fact that there doesn’t seem to have been an era of peace in all of recorded history, as exemplified in these lines from the book:

History is people with ships and weapons wiping out those who forgot to invent them. Every civilisation begins with a genocide. It is the rule of the visvaya. The immutable law of the jungle, even this one made of concrete. You can see it in the movement of the stars, and in the dance of every atom. The rich will enslave the penniless. The strong will crush the weak.

While Karunatilaka thinks it is unlikely that there will ever be a time of peace in the world, he does concede it is a possibility. “For libtards like me, it seems simple. Take half your defence budget and put it into health and education. But that kind of thinking doesn’t get anyone elected these days,” he says. “A better idea might be to monetise peace, like Singapore does. Peace is good for business, so despite being multi-ethnic and densely populated, they don’t have racial conflicts. But they’re also a police state that’s armed to the teeth, so maybe not the best example.”

However, through this hopelessness of ever being able to eliminate evil, the protagonist Maali — even as he mocks himself for doing so — truly believes in the power of his photographs to change minds. Once the powerful saw just how bad things really are, he reasons, they would understand and consequently bring about an end to this violence. This belief is strong enough that as a ghost, when not solving his own murder, he’s arranging an exhibition with photos he had especially put aside, so people can see the full extent of the horrors of the war.

“There’s always room for hope, even when things are at their most grim. But like almost everything else, hope isn’t evenly distributed,” says Karunatilaka. Readers also glimpse the development of this belief as through flashbacks, one sees Maali on the bloody, war-torn field, processing the destruction and suffering all around him. “It was inspired by the war photography of Stephen Champion,” says Karunatilaka about Maali’s time on the field.

The Sri Lankan Civil War a murdered photographer and the afterlife come together in Shehan Karunatilakas latest

I think humour is just a reaction to absurdity, says Karunatilaka. Wikimedia Commons/Deshan Tennekoon

In Chats with the Dead, the reader's first glimpse of the afterlife, along with Maali, is that of a crowded waiting room. One learns that ghosts travel on the wind and influence the actions of the living. And most importantly, we discover that the afterlife is essentially a continuation of everything left behind on earth — memories intact, no blank slate, and no fresh start. “I borrowed freely from many sources. It’s a mishmash of Eastern and Western philosophy, religious traditions, horror movies, and near-death experiences,” says Karunatilaka about constructing this afterlife.

The book’s vivid third-person narration is often marked by wry humour and hidden messages for readers. “I think humour is just a reaction to absurdity. In Chats, it’s the absurdity of our multi-pronged conflicts and of a disorganised afterlife. In Chinaman, it was the absurdity of sport and the importance placed on it,” he says.

While Chats has a deeply political bent, his debut Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew revolved around an alcoholic journalist determined to track down a missing cricketer, commenting heavily on Sri Lankan society through cricket. “I’m guessing it was a reaction to all the cricket I was imbibing after Chinaman came out,” says Karunatilaka about this shift for his second novel. “People wanted to know which sport I’d write about next and I wanted to go as far from cricket and drunks as I could go. I began with the notion of writing a Colombo ghost story, and when I found out it had to be set in 1989, the political charging was inevitable,” he adds.

In 2010, when Chinaman came out, Karunatilaka wasn’t certain he’d be read. However, his debut went on to win the Commonwealth Book Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, among other awards. This time around, while working on Chats, the main difference was that the author knew he’d be read. “You always feel pressure when writing something. You want it to not be boring and to be better than your last and as good as the other guy’s,” he says.

He’s also aware that he has no say in whether his book will get short-listed or critically slammed. “So you have to get yourself to a point where you are satisfied that this is the book that you set out to write, regardless of whether everyone hates it. Easier said than done,” he adds. Finally, though, irrespective of critical response, he has a simple way of measuring success. “If you can write something that a total stranger can read and enjoy, I think that’s the real success. Everything else is marketing.”

This meticulousness reflects in Karunatilaka’s writing process with Chats. While now the book makes for an easy read with a fast-paced plot, he had an earlier draft titled Devil Dance, full of philosophy and politics, too many characters, and too little plot. “That ate up three years and when I finally had the courage to come back to it, I began by constructing a plot to make sure that I had a robust enough story to hang all the politics, philosophy, and jokes on,” he says. And even as Chats has been 10 years in the making, Karunatilaka now has a third novel planned, which he hopes won’t take as long.

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