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The startling originality of Shehan Karunatilaka

The 2022 Booker Prize winning author Shehan Karunatilaka's bitingly confident, yet funny and self-deprecating writing is just what literature from the subcontinent needs

Shehan Karunatilaka attends the Booker Prize 2022 shortlist photocall at Shaw Theatre on 14 October, in London..
Shehan Karunatilaka attends the Booker Prize 2022 shortlist photocall at Shaw Theatre on 14 October, in London.. (Getty Images)

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The most electrifying thing about Shehan Karunatilaka’s writing is its sheer chutzpah.

Let’s start at the very beginning of his second novel, The Seven Moons Of Maali Almeida, which recently won the Booker Prize 2022. The year’s literary newsmaker has one of the strongest opening pages in recent times. Readers and critics alike tend to find a second-person narration somewhat distancing, even confusing; we would rather have someone tell us “I saw this” and “I did that” than have a book that does not tell our personal stories liberally toss out “you-s” at us. But Karunatilaka is not here to play it safe. He understands that somewhere deep inside, we have all experienced discontentment and that we all identify, to differing degrees, as misfits.

As Maali and about Maali, he writes: “So you quit each game they made you play…. You left school with a hatred of teams and games and morons who valued them. You quit art class and insurance-selling and masters’ degrees. Each a game that you couldn’t be arsed playing.” Whether or not this applies exactly to every reader, Karunatilaka knows how to hold us by the shoulders, get us to turn our heads, and tell us that he knows us, knows the things we wouldn’t say out loud. Lest that part of the opening fool us into thinking the narrator is an empty and unempathetic contrarian, which none of us wants to be, the book also has this later: “You wish you had your camera, just as you wish you had somewhere to develop negatives and someone to show them to. Just like you wish you had more time and something to care about.”

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Maali does not have time, though, not really anyway, since he is dead, and he has only seven moons, or a week in the afterlife, to figure out the way forward. And he needs to do this while trying to uncover how and why he died, and who “disappeared” him (used, he notes, as a popular “passive verb” in Sri Lanka of the 1990s, the time in which the novel is set).

It’s easy, therefore, to categorise this novel as a whodunit. It is. But unlike most books of the genre, it isn’t the exciting elimination of suspects that drives the plot. The pulls, pushes, and priorities are, just as in life, multiple: Maali also needs to understand the ways of the specific stage of the afterlife he’s in and come to terms with the pointlessness inherent in the purpose of his life’s work. He has to also jog back through memory to understand the impact a broken home had on him, and in turn the impressions his brokenness left on the two great loves of his life, DD and Jaki. All of this, as he tries to drive some of their actions from the afterlife. His death opens up the various strands of conflict in Sri Lanka’s civil war too, but first, Maali has to tell himself his own story, recalling it in non-linear snatches.

The Seven Moons Of Maali Almeida: By Shehan Karunatilaka, Penguin Random House India,  400 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399.
The Seven Moons Of Maali Almeida: By Shehan Karunatilaka, Penguin Random House India, 400 pages, 399.

The other interesting thing about Karunatilaka’s work is that one can identify the ubiquity of certain tropes and themes, and how, despite this, the treatment does not slip into predictability or pretentiousness.

Just as Maali Almeida is about, and narrated by, a missing gay photojournalist who drinks, gambles compulsively and cheats helplessly and ceaselessly on his boyfriend, Karunatilaka’s debut novel from 2012, Chinaman: The Legend Of Pradeep Mathew, was narrated by an alcoholic journalist who tries to find a missing yesteryear cricketer. Most recently, even between Maali Almeida and The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises, his anthology of short fiction and vignettes that came out in September (Hachette India, 272 pages, Rs. 599), there is a clear recurrence of themes—the idea of breath and the significance of death. This repetition becomes particularly poignant if the books are read in close succession—it makes it seem as if Karunatilaka is an artist obsessed, someone who, with everything he creates and regardless of it, will keep digging till he reaches the kernel of the one thought, the one question, that is everywhere, yet teasingly out of reach.

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Any such intentionality will not be surprising given the startling originality of Maali Almeida, first published in 2020 as Chats With The Dead, before its UK publication in August—the book bubbles, line after line, into a concoction you rarely see being brewed with words. It is as weird as it is wonderful, as snarky and funny as it is terribly dark, as driven by a supernatural adventure as it is held tight by the knots of a very real, bloody and long-drawn civil war. The dialogue mimics banter sprinkled with local phrases but it is tight, sharp and witty, and sometimes, in the same breath, segues into the most heartbreaking scenes. Reading Birth Lottery, written over the span of two decades, it becomes clear how Karunatilaka embraces the strange and signature tonalities seen in Maali Almeida—he even employs the same slightly self-deprecating but bitingly confident tone when he introduces the anthology to his readers.

Over the last few decades, a few authors from Sri Lanka have successfully held the world’s attention. Michael Ondaatje is, of course, Karunatilaka’s only predecessor from the island-nation on the Booker’s list of winners. The country’s only other finalist, Romesh Gunesekara, had made the Prize’s shortlist in 1994 with Reef, about the life of a young chef as unrest begins in Sri Lanka. His other titles, like The Match in 2006 and Suncatcher in 2019, were also about young boys beginning to understand the ideas of love, friendship and home, with Sri Lanka’s conflict raging in the background. Shyam Selvadurai, too, became most known for his 1994 title Funny Boy, which follows a young, gay boy and his well-to-do Colombo-based Tamil family, whose lives and loves are affected by the Sinhalese-Tamil issue.

These are all good books—and, in the case of Funny Boy, a moving and important queer narrative from South Asia—written by masterful storytellers. But none of these have been able to do what Karunatilaka has done with technique, tone and imagination in Maali Almeida. Here is a book that conjures up a spirited yet dark afterlife, fills it with its own systems and characters even as it draws from ancient thoughts, and has it engage closely with the living; on this it dusts a good dose of debauchery, alongside conflict and corpses. By making its politically moderate protagonist the bridge between life and death, it ends up also being a philosophical deliberation on centrism, conflict and the very nature of life itself. Karunatilaka misses nothing.

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