Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chats With The Dead opens with the awakening of photographer Malinda Almeida in the afterlife. The year is 1989 and the place is Colombo, Sri Lanka – circumstances in which it is not unusual to die before one’s time. Known to everyone as Maali, the thirty-four-year old whose clients included the army, LTTE and the foreign press in Sri Lanka has no recollection of how he died.
The country’s civil war has been raging for six years at the time and Maali has photographed each gruesome aspect including government and LTTE atrocities, the role of the Indian army, the inefficacy and corruption of the foreign press and more. The list of people who might want him dead is lengthy and he must rely on the afterlife’s middle men and fixers to access the world he has left behind in search of answers.
The bureaucratic and chaotic afterlife in which he finds himself is filled with his city’s dead. Some faces are familiar to him – subjects in his photographs – but there is no idyllic community forged by death and waiting for him in this plane. These are people who shouldn’t have died, who would rather rejoin the living. As the novel glances back upon the protagonist’s childhood, love affairs, vices and work, Chats shows the incredible breadth of experience that thirty-four years can hold.
With a little help, Maali discovers that the walls between the dead and the living are temporarily thin in certain places and at certain times. The novel uses this frame to explore how historical and individual considerations merge in a death like Maali’s as he tries to make contact with his closest friends, unearth his unpublished photographs for a final exhibition and solve the mystery of how he died.
Chats With The Dead is an excellent addition to Sri Lanka’s political fiction and historical archive. Karunatilaka, whose first novel, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Matthew (2010), won the DSC Prize and the Commonwealth Prize, spoke to Scroll.in about this dense, enriching novel. Excerpts from the interview:
When did you begin writing Chats With The Dead? How did the idea for the novel come to you
The idea for Chinaman “came” to me, as it were. This one I had to hack through jungles with machetes to find. I started with a vague idea of a story about Colombo’s ghosts which evolved into a war photographer solving his own murder.
Back when I used to work on ad campaigns for Sri Lanka tourism, I always thought a ghost tour or bomb tour of Colombo would attract adventurous travellers. Of course, no one would buy that idea, but that didn’t stop me thinking on what a ghost tour of Colombo would look like.
The novel is set in 1980s Colombo. What did research for the novel involve?
Read a lot about the aftermath of ’83, the rise of the JVP, the Indian army’s tussles with the LTTE, the government death squads and the wave of assassinations that took out most of Sri Lanka’s leadership and an Indian Prime Minister.
The period details I just constructed from my memories of a pre-digital world. And how people functioned in a Colombo bubble while wars were raging around the country.
In a 2014 interview with New Asian Writing you said, “It took me two years to write a bad novel, eight years to get over it, and then three to write another one.” Would you talk a little a little about the long period of recovering, so to speak, from the bad novel? What helped you get over it?
I travelled and read more and played bass and vowed never to write again. And then in my 30s the idea of a forgotten left-arm spin bowler came to me and I felt qualified to attempt writing it.
Like Chinaman, this new novel is also in some ways a detective story. What attracts you to this genre?
Not sure that I know. Maybe it’s the challenge of setting up an unsolvable puzzle and then chipping away at a solution to it. It’s also a structure that allows you to go wherever you please and interview different suspects. In that case, it was drunks and cricketers. In this instance, it was ghosts and mercenaries.
The afterlife that Malinda encounters has many complex facets. There are no easy answers up there. Would you walk us through how you built that world?
It was tough. Watched horror movies, read philosophy, consulted religious texts, talked to clairvoyants and in the end realised that no one really knows anything about the afterlife. So I was free to make up my own version, provided it didn’t contradict theories that we were familiar with and its own logic.
The only afterlife that made sense to me was one that was as disorganised as real life. So I began with the premise that the universe was a bureaucracy and god was on indefinite leave. It seemed to offer the right amount of comedy and tragedy for me to play with.
One of the aspects that drew me in was Malinda’s differing equations with those still alive. He’s believably, compellingly human. Was he a challenging protagonist to write?
Yes, he was. Until I got to know him that is. And I only got to know him through his relationships and once I understood those, I was able to figure out how a nihilist, atheist, hedonist man would react to finding himself dead.
A recurring image in the novel is the “happy pill.” At one point, it’s even revealed that the “happy pill” is dispensed by a psychiatrist. I wonder if you could talk about how this particular image became a part of your story?
There’s a great sadness to all the characters and each has their own unique way to escape. For Maali it was sex, for his mother it was gin, for his boyfriend DD it was saving the planet, and for his girlfriend Jaki, it was the happy pill.
Even in the afterlife, there is the concept of a drink you take to forget your sins and forgive those who wronged you. I think as humans we like the idea of a quick, albeit temporary fix to all our problems. However unrealistic that fantasy.
I read that Chats went through many, many rounds of drafting and edits. Was there a significant moment at which you realised the manuscript was finally coming together?
I still don’t think it’s done. There are a few things I’d alter if they let me at it one more time.