“ By cruel hands the sapling drops, in dust dishonour’d laid; so fell the pride of all my hopes, my age’s future shade”. ~ Robert Burns
Denis Nowell Pritt, a British barrister, once called Sri Lanka a beautiful but unhappy land. It is difficult to disagree with this identifier even now. It is a land where the sad resonance of humanity, subjugated by three successive foreign powers, has sent waves of discontent to the shores of our conscience, forcing us to hide the pride of our heritage in an armour of cynicism. Sporadically, and from time to time, as if in deliberate remonstrance, we have turned on ourselves. Shehan Karunatilaka writes about such an epoch in his book The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, a supernatural satire which has just won for him the coveted Man Booker Prize of 2022, much to the joyous pride and delight of all Sri Lankans, local or diasporic. His 2010 debut novel – Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew – won the Commonwealth Prize, the DSC Prize, and the Gratiaen Prize and was adjudged the second greatest cricket book of all time by Wisden, the independent voice of cricket. All this makes Shehan a world renowned author and places him in the club of other South Asian Booker Prize winners of distinction such as Rushdie, Ondaatje, Roy and Adigar.
The Man Booker Prize is a literary award for the best novel written in English and published in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The winner is decided by a panel of five comprised of authors, librarians, literary agents, publishers, and booksellers who are appointed by the Booker Prize Foundation and charged with choosing the best out of outstanding nominations submitted for their consideration. The Chair of the panel explained: “ The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ was the ambition of its scope, and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques. This is a metaphysical thriller, an afterlife noir that dissolves the boundaries not just of different genres, but of life and death, body and spirit, east and west. It is an entirely serious philosophical romp that takes the reader to ’the world’s dark heart’ — the murderous horrors of civil war Sri Lanka. And once there, the reader also discovers the tenderness and beauty, the love and loyalty, and the pursuit of an ideal that justify every human life”.
This is not a review of the Booker Prize winning novel, as regretfully the book is not yet available in North America where I live. Neither is this about the distinguished author. It is rather about its interpretation and nuance, experienced through its theme along the lines of what Ann Patchett says – that meaning is made between the reader and the book, not the reader and author. In the book, as I understand, Malinda Almeida (the eponymous Maali), a war photographer, gambler, and “closet queen” who is killed, dismembered, and later dumped in a placid lake in Sri Lanka, is supernaturally resurrected and finds himself seemingly in what resembles a celestial visa office. Having no idea who killed him in a country where revenge is settled by death squads, suicide bombers, and hired goons, Malinda embarks on a quest with the limited time he has – seven moons – to find out who killed him and also to contact the man and woman he loves most – his lover DD and his best friend Jaki – and lead them to the photos that will bewilder and rock Sri Lanka. The book brings to bear various times in history where humanity inherits the loss brought about by egregious politics and the worse demons of our nature, which are presented in frightening testimony of loss and betrayal and feckless insouciance to human dignity and the value of life. Some of these horrendous events addressed are “the barbarism of India up north in ’89, the cruelty of Tamils out east in ’87 and the savagery of Sinhalese down south in ’83”.
Karunatilaka’s book stimulates introspection. Nira Wickramasinghe, Professor in the Department of History and International Relations in the University of Colombo in her book Sri Lanka in the Modern Age – A History of Contested Identities (2006) says: “ The Sri Lankan post colony seems to have failed, in many spheres, to address its past without reproducing it. This predicament has hindered the adoption of any course that steers too far from its colonial and early postcolonial inheritance and has shaped the contours of post-independence development”. Dr. Wickramasinghe goes on to say that one reason for this lack of direction is the failure of institutions of a liberal Sri Lanka which have failed to address all needs of the country be it the poor, the unemployed youth and minorities who have been deprived of the protection the State is required to provide under a social contract. Another reason is a lack of self vision and national identity which countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong had. As far back as 1990 Rohan Guneratne in his book Sri Lanka – a Lost Revolution? The Inside Story f the JVP (1990) partly blames the dystopian inheritance of Sri Lanka’s violence to the failure of Sri Lanka’s academics and intellectuals who failed in two areas: the absence of an attempt to diffuse discord and the ensuing violence and carnage in the country; and the failure to document the tragedy. He concludes that this weakness of planners and experts led to civil disturbance which went from crisis to crisis.
Sri Lanka has gone through, in the words of Dickens “ the best of times and the worst of times”. The best times were before the country lost all sense of purpose, direction and dignity. The country needs to get back to ushering in a different brand of politics devoid of partisan bickering and stultifying division. To bring on a democracy that would solve concrete problems. Children should be able to grow up and receive an education that would lead to career opportunities. In the ultimate analysis, it remains an enduring realization that Sri Lankans have the opportunity to make individual choices without the restrictions of class, religion, caste, race or ethnic group.
The dark wind that howls through our disillusionment must stop, even to catch its breath and allow the better angels of our nature to step in. Darkness must not keep our secrets hidden and we must let in the light.
Shehan Wickremetilleke drives a wedge of conscience into the reader’s mind and jolts him to reality. However, it is the song and not the singer who won the prize. But the singer rendered his song melodiously.