Dead Men Walking

How Sri Lankan crime novels engage with the country’s past

Illustrations by
01 November 2020

WHEN WE MEET MAALI ALMEIDA—an intrepid photojournalist and the protagonist of Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chats with the Dead, published earlier this year—he is recently dead. The novel is set in 1989, a time Karunatilaka chose because it was what he calls a “perfect storm of terrors.” The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Sri Lankan army, Indian peacekeepers, members of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party and the state’s death squads were all locked in conflict on Sri Lankan soil, running an obstacle course filled with curfews, bombs, assassinations and abductions.

The story is told from Maali’s perspective, as he tries to navigate the convoluted landscape of the afterlife, and reconcile with his own death. He does not remember who his killer is—and so, in fact, has been effectively disappeared, both from the world and from himself. “The details come to you in itches and aches,” he muses. “In the Sri Lanka of the ’80s, ‘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.”

Before this book, Karunatilaka was best known for Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, an acclaimed book that was ostensibly about cricket but derived some of its narrative momentum from a mystery. Its protagonist, WG Karunasena, is an alcoholic journalist—a fairly common Sri Lankan stereotype—determined to track down a once-legendary bowler, who appears to have disappeared without a trace. When I wrote to Karunatilaka, asking whether he had intended to write two books with mysteries at their heart, he said he had not. “I began both with the intent of writing a cricket story and a ghost story respectively,” he said. “A mystery is also a convenient device that allows you to go wherever you choose, while misdirecting the reader’s attention. In the end, WG’s quest for Pradeep or Maali’s quest to find his murderer weren’t really the point of either story, but they allowed me to go to interesting places and meet strange people.”

Smriti Daniel is a journalist who writes on culture, politics, development and history. She is a two-time winner of the Feature Writer of the Year award from the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka. Her work has been featured in Al Jazeera, The Atlantic’s CityLab and Architectural Digest, among others.

Keywords: Sri Lankan war Sri Lankan Civil War crime novel