The questions of Malinda: Review of Shehan Karunatilaka’s ‘Chats with the Dead’

Amid its dark comedy, Karunatilaka’s second novel, set in Sri Lanka in 1989, also asks profound questions about death

Published - February 15, 2020 04:03 pm IST

Soldiers hoist the Sri Lankan flag in triumph after capturing the town of Mankulam from the LTTE in 2008.

Soldiers hoist the Sri Lankan flag in triumph after capturing the town of Mankulam from the LTTE in 2008.

Chats with the Dead , Shehan Karunatilaka’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut Chinaman , bills itself as a murder mystery with a twist. Malinda ‘Maali’ Albert Kabalana — self-proclaimed gambler, photographer and slut — finds that he has died and is now a ghost in the Colombo of 1989. To solve his own murder, Maali must now wade through fellow ghosts with contradictory advice and questionable motives, the memories of the life he lived flooding back, and a country in permanent turmoil. All the while, he must contend with the debris of debts, infidelities and highwire political wagers he has left behind that have ongoing repercussions, especially for Jaki and DD, his official girlfriend and unofficial boyfriend. The ensuing novel is an impressive accomplishment that manages to be a tighter expression of his distinctive prose and an even more glaring mirror of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is once again Karunatilaka’s setting and subject, this time much more directly. The Sri Lanka of 1989, moreover, is a special kind of anarchy. The government is officially at war with the Tamil Tigers, but the Indian Peace Keeping Force, in the country to help with the fight, is on a murderous rampage across the north, so much so that both the government and the Tigers are conspiring to have it gone. Meanwhile, the second youth-led neo-Marxist JVP insurrection in the south is being viciously put down by the government and its death squads. Assorted foreign mercenaries run amok as massacres, bombs, secret torture sites and mass burials have become frighteningly commonplace.

Maali’s backstory as a fixer and photographer for nearly all these players allows Karunatilaka to impressively paint the whole picture in quick strokes. There is a definite risk in such an exercise where the moralities of all the actors at play, and at war, could be collapsed into one. It could make it seem as if everyone is equally culpable, but Karunatilaka lucidly makes the relative moral positions of everyone involved clear. A number of cinematic sequences wrestle intricately with such calculations.

Dark absurdity

The weight of these matters is balanced by Karunatilaka’s prose, which is sardonic and knowingly vulgar, trading moments of both dark absurdity and lowbrow yet self-aware humour. This especially comes through in the keen observations of Colombo and Sri Lankan culture the book throws up, as well as in the sordid thrills Maali pursues as a closeted gay man in the country. There are also some charming nods to Chinaman , suggesting a shared universe.

Chats With The Dead turns out to be a leaner and more concentrated affair than that book, however; less disposed to drunken backtracking and more relentlessly focused on plot movement. Karunatilaka’s device of ghosts stuck in the in-between and the particulars of its worldbuilding, including the ghosts being able to ‘ride’ winds and go to where their names are uttered, allows the novel to quite literally breeze ahead at breakneck speed. The success of this more than offsets some other niggling concerns, such as the book’s living characters being more compelling than its ghosts; the somewhat piecemeal depiction of certain real life figures by name and others by allusion; and its imagery which at times may border on being gratuitously nihilistic.

The plot and the tone lend themselves to descriptions of the book being a “dark comedy” and while this isn’t inaccurate, it’s certainly not merely a comedy. There is a real heft to it, especially as more and more of Maali’s memories return and the horrors he has witnessed and has been party to come to light, all underpinning rather complex ethical reflections. At its deepest, Chats with the Dead grapples with the value of a life in the aftermath of death. Karunatilaka increasingly raises questions of what you’re remembered as you die; what your love meant for those you left behind; and if it was all worth it in the end, to frequently moving effect. Maali’s hard-wrangled love for Jaki and DD, built up progressively over drunken parties, quiet coffees and lost photos, displays this to moving effect.

Caustic queries

In the context of the flaming vortex that is Sri Lanka, these questions about the after-death are even more caustic — could you really say you had done any good in your life when the very notion of that is so horribly compromised on the island? This is not because what is right is not clear, but because no one who claims to do good has, or can have, their hands clean. That feels as true of the Sri Lanka of 1989 as it does of the Sri Lanka of 2020, making the book acutely contemporary in a sense.

These questions Karunatilaka raises on death, too, appear as adjuncts to the book’s frenzied velocity — not meditated upon for too long, before being consumed by the next bout of violence and terror. This, too, is fitting in its own way; we go through life in a blur, rarely pausing to take stock, before it all ends. Chats with the Dead zooms in on that very end, with stellar precision.

The writer is a researcher based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Chats with the Dead ; Shehan Karunatilaka, Penguin Hamish Hamilton, ₹526

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.