Over the course of Shehan Karuntilaka’s sprawling new novel, his protagonist watches as his body is disposed of in bits and pieces. He looks on as an unsuccessful attempt is made to sink his corpse in Colombo’s Beira lake (eventually only his head is cut off, tied up in a bag and tossed into the water), as his limbs are consumed by feral cats in cages (“Seeing your corpse is a sobering experience. Watching cats devour it makes you want to never be sober”), and as his final remains are tossed into a fire with those of 70 others during a curfew ordered by the government for the covert mass funeral. It’s macabre, grotesquely violent, and somehow, impossibly, great fun.

Chats With The Dead comes a decade after the publication of Karunatilaka’s spectacular debut Chinaman. That novel, about an alcoholic sports journalist’s obsessive search for a forgotten cricketer, firmly embedded itself into South Asian literary canon (for those who believe in such things) and set hefty expectations from the Sri Lankan writer as the voice of a generation and a nation.

Freshly deceased

Both of Karunatilaka’s novels hold a mystery at the core of their layered, dizzying folds. But while Chinaman’s lead player is on a fast track, arrack-fuelled path to the grave, Chats With The Dead sets off with the star of the show well and truly deceased.

The 34-year-old war photographer Malinda “Maali” Almedia wakes up dead on November 4, 1989, disoriented and convinced he’s dreaming. He’s not, and the afterlife, in what is an all too familiar form of purgatory in the subcontinent, appears to be a government office, shackled by red tape. Forms have to be filled, departments shunt you from one floor to another, and the freshly deceased, quite literally mortified at their fates, are no more keen to form orderly lines than the living. Instead of processing paperwork, Maali skips out, and returns to Colombo as a ghost, devoid of many of his memories but determined to track down his killer.

Set during the peak of the bloody, 25-year-long Sri Lankan Civil War that killed tens of thousands, it seems inevitable that the novel’s central preoccupation would be death. By 1989, multiple factions and forces were involved in a complex web of gruesome and unthinkable cruelty, sometimes directed towards their own: the LTTE, the IPKF, the JVP and most crucially, the Sri Lankan government, which sanctioned infamous death squads that terrorised the country.

“In the Sri Lanka of the 80s,” Karunatilaka writes, “‘disappeared’ was a passive verb, something the government or JVP anarchists or Tiger separatists or Indian Peace Keepers could do to you depending on which province you were in and who you looked like.” It was only earlier in 2020 that Sri Lankan president Gotayabaya Rajapaksa – whose brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, makes an appearance in the the novel alongside many figures from real life in a blurring of fiction and non-fiction that Karuntilaka also excelled at in Chinaman – announced the government would be issuing death certificates to 24,000 Sri Lankans who went missing over the course of the civil war. “I can’t bring back the dead,” said the man who, along with his brothers, has been accused of a reign of ruthless brutality marked by extrajudicial disappearances and murders.

Purveyors of death

As a photographer who was employed for assignments across ideologies – “I’m not the best with a camera. But I always get to the place. Doesn’t matter which side it’s on” – Maali’s memories, as they slowly come back to him, include photographs taken in a landscape ravaged by violence. But when every hand is stained with blood, which one is marked by his?

Karunatilaka’s protagonist is an archetype found all too frequently in literature – hedonistic, nihilistic, reckless, armed with wisecracks, and unwilling to get attached to anyone and anything. In less capable hands, it would be an exercise in tedium but here the author moulds the template with great skill. And in his depiction of a sexually voracious but closeted gay man in the ’80s – “not queer, simply a handsome man who enjoyed beautiful boys,” as Maali thinks of himself – he excels.

The abundance of possible murderers and motives lets Karunatilaka zoom in, from the perspective of the invisible, disembodied photographer, on an array of Sri Lanka’s purveyors of death. Bloodthirsty politicians, corrupt cops, shady NGOs, garbage men (as the guys hired to deal with the country’s relentless supply of bodies are known), and a cultural attaché who will be all too familiar to readers of Chinaman all make an appearance.

Within this unsavoury web are Maali’s roommates – his lover Dilan, son of the only Tamil minister in parliament, and his not-really-girlfriend Jaki – fighting to discover the truth behind his death, and to track down and exhibit a box of his most incriminating and horrific photographs.

And I still haven’t got to the world of the non-living.

“Just like here but worse”

In her poem “The Fourth Sign of The Zodiac”, Mary Oliver considered the universal unknowable of what comes after we die:

“The question is
what will it be like?
after the last day?
Will I float
into the sky
or will I fray
within the earth or a river –
remembering nothing?”

If Chats With the Dead is anything to go by, the afterlife is no easy release. “You thought death was sweet oblivion and you were wrong on both counts,” Karunatilaka writes. Yes, there is life after death, and it is “Just Like Here But Worse”.

Maali, like all those who have died, is given seven moons to get his affairs in order and go into the Light (not quite heaven, but close) or stay forever in the In Between, wandering in the world of the living with others who refuse to leave. Colombo, in the novel, is a city far more crowded with the invisible dead than the living. In a country ravaged by violence, ghosts are in plenty, carrying their scars, burns, and wounds on them. They travel on winds (it’s like public transport for ghosts, a character helpfully explains to Maali) but can only go where their corpses have been or where someone alive says their name. And they’re usually in very cranky moods.

Drawing on elements of folklore while letting his imagination’s freak flag soar high, Karunatilaka populates this parallel invisible world with creatures more dangerous than discontented ghosts – ghouls, demons, yakas, maruwas and hell-creatures, like the terrifying Mahakali, which consumes the souls of the tortured. “Being a ghost isn’t that different to being a war photographer,” Maali realises, “Long periods of boredom interspersed with short bursts of terror.”

Big brash beast

Sometimes however, the two worlds can intersect. Ghosts can enter the dreams of the living and plant thoughts, whisper in their ears and convince them of what isn’t there, and if they gather enough power and come together in enough numbers, they can even cause a van carrying murderers and garbage men to crash and burn.

Some ghosts, as we’ve often been told, stay to exact revenge. Here they also seek to upend the hierarchies they always had to abide by when alive. Why go into the Light and forget, the ghost of a JVP comrade executed by the government’s death squad asks Maali “Now, we have the power and we can use it.”

If all this sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. Chats With the Dead is a big, brash beast of a novel, epic in scale and inventiveness. Shifting back and forth in tone from riotous to devastating, it is simultaneously a thrilling murder mystery, a razor-sharp indictment of Sri Lankan politics and society, and most intuitively, a morbidly funny yet perceptive rumination on mortality and what comes after death.

All of this is not to say that the author steers his novel with a consistent and steady hand. The novel can be circuitous, and the frenetic dash from one character to another disorienting, sometimes not leaving enough room for an investment of any real depth. A particular love od stylisation – the novel reads at moments like a noir screenplay – can also occasionally hand lines to characters that border on cheesy. Yet somehow it all works, held together by a mostly magnetic and dextrous handling of language and Karunatilaka’s undeniable charm as a storyteller.

The novel would be dark, depressing fare were it not for Karunatilaka’s sardonic excellence, an instinct for the right pitch that he displayed in his debut as well. In that, the Sri Lankan author is reminiscent of another South Asian writer who knew that the most effective way to make sense of how the moral rot and the reckless malevolence of power can waylay a country is to embrace the realness of its absurdity. Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes may differ in many ways from Chats With the Dead but both strike at the heart of how, when human beings are often just seen as bodies to be gotten out of the way, the casualness of cruelty is almost comical.

Perhaps, though, the novel’s most lasting meditation is one that is far removed from its cynical beating heart: a question not of what it means to die, but what it means to have lived. “It is something,” Maali thinks, as he finally decides on a path for himself in the afterlife, “And without a doubt, that is the kindest thing you can say about life. It’s not nothing.” Now more than ever, I held onto that simple fact with gratitude.