Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka’s DSC Prize-winning novel, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. Meanwhile, Karunatilaka is back with a whodunnit with a twist, Chats with the Dead, the tale of a renegade war photographer, Maali Almeida, who is tasked with solving his own murder.
Karunatilaka has been researching for the book all these years; Chats with the Dead is also a documentation of the Sri Lankan conflict, although the seriousness is camouflaged in artful humour. The novel has a huge canvas, with chapters marked by phases of the moon, and a ghost for the narrator. Excerpts from an interview with Karunatilaka:
How are you celebrating 10 years of Chinaman ?
The bigger celebration is the finishing of the second novel, Chats with the Dead . The last 10 years have been action-packed: Chinaman travelled the world, I got married, had two kids, moved country twice and took six years to finish that difficult second.
The good news is there are several things in the pipeline. Please Don’t Put That in Your Mouth just came out and there are two other kids’ books on the way, along with a short story collection. So, hopefully, it won’t be 2030 when the next book comes out.
The opening pages of Chats with the Dead says, “There’s a corpse every second. Sometimes two.” Does Maali Almeida take the chronicle of Sri Lanka ahead?
Sri Lanka is always a character in whatever I write. Maali thinks of himself as an apolitical atheist who is racially indifferent. He despises everyone in equal measure. But he happened to die in 1989, along with thousands of other Sri Lankans, caught between that year’s four horsemen: terrorists, insurgents, peace-keepers and death squads.
It seemed a fascinating time to set a ghost story in, a time when thousands of corpses ended up in unmarked graves, and no one could tell if they were killed by the LTTE, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the Sri Lankan army or the Indian army. Except for the ghosts.
You seemed to have done a humongous amount of research for Chats .
I was working full-time in Singapore when I began researching. Then moved back to Colombo in 2014 so I could work freelance, run after my toddlers and maintain the semblance of a writing routine.
If prep for Chinaman was researching cricket and drunks, for this one it was researching war photographers, closeted gay men, Sri Lankan history and Sri Lankan ghosts. Not half as fun, much more time-consuming, but quite rewarding. To arrive at a convincing version of the afterlife, I had to read what the world’s religions, its philosophers and its Near-Death Experience scientists had to say about life after death. I also read ghost stories and watched horror movies. The version I ended up with mixes Buddhism, Hinduism, some Judeo-Christian tropes and the idea of the universe as a bureaucracy.
I also had to read about Sri Lanka in 1989, and decide which atrocities to leave out and which to put in. Plus, I had to get into the head of a gambler, a war photographer, a closeted gay man. So, I’m lucky it only took years.
How many rewrites did you do? A comment on the unusual narrative style?
Many rewrites, many false starts, many discarded sub plots and side characters. I realised that when someone calls a book a ‘sprawling’ work, it isn’t usually a compliment. So, I worked hard to take the ‘sprawl’ out and focus on a guy solving his own murder and dealing with his unresolved relationships with family, lovers and the universe.
The moon was the ticking clock. A lot of mythologies say that it takes three-seven days for the soul to leave the body and three months for the soul to move to the next realm. So, setting the story over seven moons or seven nights worked from a mythological as well as a thriller point of view.
How is the publishing journey of Chats different from that of Chinaman ?
With Chinaman I had no clue if it would ever be published outside of Sri Lanka. With Chats , I knew that it would reach readers outside of the subcontinent. Writing the two was very different experiences, as was finding a publisher. Now I have agents and friends in publishing and can call for advice from other writers. With the first book it was just me emailing and posting query letters and synopses to publishers and agents, who mostly ignored me, until Chiki Sarkar replied saying, “Send me MS”.
The interviewer is a journalist, writer and translator.