Growing up in India in the 1980s, I got the news of the day from Frontline—a magazine published in the southern city of Madras and known for its dry, no-nonsense reporting—and from TV shows like The World This Week, whose suave host could make neat summaries of the bloodiest conflicts. Thus I learned about the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa; what Yasser Arafat was saying in the cause of Palestinian–Israeli harmony; and the fight of the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to create an independent Tamil state in Sri Lanka. Such were the digestible capsules of information that the fact-bound Indian education system encouraged imbibing. The studious young aimed to be au courant—not to change reality or even understand it, but to win college debates and take competitive exams for public sector jobs.
So the world each week was mostly filed away as trivia, but now and then an unease crept in, a sense that politics could sometimes be just too serious for the passing headlines. I felt this watching footage of the tall, elegant, aviators-wearing Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, being whacked on the back of his neck with a rifle butt by a navy cadet as he inspected a guard of honor in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city. That was in 1987, just after he had offered the Indian army’s help in keeping the peace—an intervention the cadet resented. When Gandhi was assassinated four years later in a suicide bombing by the Tigers—reprisal for the actions of that very peacekeeping force, known to have attacked, tortured, and killed guerrillas as well as those civilians they saw as sympathizers—I was still an undergrad, but drifting away from the fact-finder rut and wanting to be a writer.
As the Sri Lankan government started, from the mid-1980s, to put down the separatists trying to establish a homeland in the country’s north—the region known as the Vanni, where the minority Tamil people had lived from about the third century BC—the country was also seeing an unrelated communist insurrection led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. Tamil guerrillas set off street bombs in Colombo while the corpses of JVP revolutionaries floated down rivers. The modus operandi was covert murder rather than open warfare of the kind that might have allowed for an accounting of the costs. Despite that “reign of terror” decade, death remained unfinished—bodies unrecovered, killers unnamed.
Soon I would discover the novels about Sri Lanka’s troubles, writing that by and large did not make a moral drama of the war, but put the first, tentative human slant on it. These books were part of a larger wave of South Asian fiction more defiantly immediate than any written before in English. Romesh Gunesekera’s Reef (1994) is mostly set in a Colombo of the late 1960s—an interregnum between the end of British colonialism and the start of a new political restlessness—but it ends with scenes of violence from the 1980s. Michael Ondaatje’s beautiful, pensive novel Anil’s Ghost (2000) takes place during the height of the horror, but his characters leave politics alone. “There could never be any logic to the human violence without the distance of time,” thinks Anil Tissera, a forensic anthropologist sent in by the United Nations to investigate human rights abuses. “It would be reported, filed in Geneva, but no one could ever give meaning to it.”
It is this sense of opacity, of deferred closure, that seems to have propelled a return to the conflict in two recent novels, V.V. Ganeshananthan’s Brotherless Night and Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, winner of the 2022 Booker Prize. Earlier novels like Ondaatje’s and Gunesekera’s tended to uphold the sanctity of private reflection; their characters constantly turn to their own meditations, often on art and literature, as refuge from public battles in the name of the nation. But Ganeshananthan’s and Karunatilaka’s books attempt to bring to life a complicated national history as it plays out in and destroys individual lives. The authors use that “distance of time” to dramatize large chunks, if not the whole, of Sri Lanka’s recent past.
That typically South Asian view of education as the route to career advancement, not expanded consciousness, turns up in Ganeshananthan’s story of a close-knit, ambitious family from the Tamil-dominated port town of Jaffna. All five Kulenthiren siblings are studying to be either doctors or engineers. Sashikala, the only girl, is dead set on entering medical college; their grandfather was a famous Colombo doctor, and among upper-class Tamils it is the thing to do. Her eldest brother, Niranjan, who is completing his own medical studies, says, “Our people talk as if your life is over if you are not a doctor, or an engineer, or an accountant. So much pressure to be the same things!” Sashikala will also come to see that there is a certain seclusive hauteur in Jaffna Tamils—and it is something of this quality, along with anger at being sidelined politically, that creates among them the urge for a state of their own. Many hope that it will come through peaceful means; Kulenthiren Sr., for instance, is an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi.
What unfolds instead, as Sashi grows up through the 1980s, is the drawing of battle lines over the settlement of the ethnic-majority Sinhalese in Tamil-dominated areas, the foisting of the Sinhala language on Tamil speakers, and the killing of Tamils in government-orchestrated riots. The children’s father, who went to school in colonial-era Jaffna before independence from the UK in 1948, learned all three of the island’s main languages—Sinhala, Tamil, and English. By Sashi’s time Jaffna’s schools have stopped teaching Sinhala in protest after it was declared the only national language. “My future depended on a language I did not know, no one wanted to teach me, and, on principle, I did not want to learn,” she notes.
This is only one of the many incompatibilities between Tamil nationalism and Sinhalese irredentism. But the novel is not so much an account of the enemy outside as of losses endured within. Sashi has been brought up to be a good Tamil girl, and Ganeshananthan describes with tremendous affection the once unassailable rootedness of her life: the heeding of beneficent parents, the love for traditional cooking, the adoration of the boys from home, the religious rituals at the temple even if its doors are closed to those outside the caste fold. Yet all of this is bedrock for the ambition to do well in the modern world, to succeed at those twentieth-century professions.
Sashi often speaks directly to the (presumably Western) reader. “I want you to understand” and “You must understand” are plaintive refrains. Fiction from South Asia is sometimes charged with having an explanatory, even overwritten quality when directed at the West. But here the insistence works to highlight not cultural difference but common ground. Ganeshananthan is reminding us that Sri Lanka had a bookish, liberal, Westernized elite even if war had reduced the country, in the world’s gaze, to a chronically backward zone. Her project, then, can be compared to Marjane Satrapi’s in Persepolis, which brought to life cosmopolitan mores in Iran before the Khomeini takeover, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s in Half of a Yellow Sun, which portrayed Nigeria’s English-speaking well-to-do on the eve of the country’s civil war: works of fiction that capture progressive eras in countries later degraded by conflict.
Some of the characters in Brotherless Night do their valiant best to resist the Sinhalese government’s belittlement of those values. “Open your books, read while you can, and remember: there are people in our country who would burn what we love and laugh at the flames,” one says.
Sashi, while still at college, is conscripted to work around the clock in a Tiger-run camp hospital. She starts to see how casually the leaders of the movement destroy anyone who doesn’t fall in line—even those who broadly support them—while cynically exploiting the devotion of their most committed members, such as getting one arch-loyalist to fast to death for the cause. By the mid-1980s support for a Tamil nation is growing (“What Eelam held…was the promise of freedom, however imperfect”), but then it is undermined by the Tigers’ dangerous histrionics, their obsession with ideological purity rather than practicability. (A young woman in the novel bravely holds up a sign at a protest in 1989 reading EELAM IS OUR GRAVEYARD.) Through those years the government and the army aimed offensives at Tamil civilians. From 1987 there is a heavy-handed and confused Indian presence (apparently the officers’ only preparation for the mission was reading Frontline articles). And as for the movement, Brotherless Night shows scarcely a single instance of its higher-ups acting honorably.
With the young people around her drawn to violence, Sashi has to construct a new ethics for herself. She joins a reading group started by Anjali, a charismatic professor and outspoken feminist at the University of Jaffna. They discuss texts such as Kumari Jayawardena’s Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, which impresses Sashi for its critique of Gandhi’s view that women are suited to nonviolence as a strategy. She also begins contributing to Anjali’s series of anonymous dispatches on the war, working from testimonies by its victims.
Anjali is based on a well-known figure of Sri Lankan civil society, Rajani Thiranagama, who was, like her fictional counterpart, a popular doctor and teacher. The reporting she led was compiled into The Broken Palmyrah (1990), which also speculates on the era’s shady politics. Thiranagama and her coauthors, Rajan Hoole, K. Sritharan, and Daya Somasundaram, suggest a proxy war was being played out in the country: the Sri Lankan government seemed to be counting on America and Israel, while India helped the Tamils. And how did the famously intelligent Tamils produce those tin-pot leaders? The authors are direct about the movement’s fascist tendencies:
There is a cost to the propaganda edifice that is being erected in Tamil Nadu, incorporating the Tamil militant struggle in Ceylon and the militarism of the Chola empire (from the 10th to the 13th centuries AD) so as to project a Dravidian racial mystique. This cost must eventually be borne by misused children and paid for in the blood of hapless victims.
By contrast, Brotherless Night includes little debate on the Tamil nationalism at its center. Two of Sashi’s brothers join the Tigers and become shifty and tight-lipped. Sashi is actively involved in the reporting but sticks to keeping track of the brutalities, not parsing the rhetoric behind them. At moments she idealizes her role: “We were trying to return our history to its place, to call it by its name, to see the mistakes of others, and to reckon with our own.”
Yet there is an appealing freshness to the Tamil experience of war described in the novel, even though Ganeshananthan, who was born in the US in 1980, could not have known it herself. And while she paints the larger politics in broad strokes, the internal balancing act required of her characters, chiefly of Sashi, is painfully political. Who to stand with? Who to call out?
But as one too many of Sashi’s friends and relatives fall to the movement’s savagery, her inner monologue of empathy for the sufferers can start to wear thin. For Sashi, the urge to make oneself understood as a Tamil exhausts itself. At the end of the 1980s, on a plane to New York, where she will spend the next two decades, she wishes “to be with someone who understood how I felt…without my having to explain. I wanted to be known already.” As for the more polemical Anjali, she is eventually killed for her views. So was Rajani Thiranagama—shot dead in 1989, at the age of thirty-five, while biking home from work.
In The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, Shehan Karunatilaka also reincarnates Thiranagama. Both he and Ganeshananthan attribute her death to the Tigers (though this was not conclusively established), and for both authors she comes to stand for what the poet Seamus Heaney, talking about the costs of a conflict contemporary with Sri Lanka’s, once called “life-waste and spirit-waste.” In Karunatilaka’s novel, set in 1990, Thiranagama is the “good doctor” Ranee Sridharan, a clipboard-bearing angel in a white sari, popping up time and again to urge the ghost of recently murdered Colombo photographer Maali Almeida out of the morally dodgy “In-Between” and into “The Light.”
Maali is an almost Dantean hero: a thirtysomething in a midlife crisis when he is brutally killed. Also Dantean in its scope and moral disquiet is the In-Between that Karunatilaka depicts, peopled with good, bad, and ambivalent figures, a large array of phantoms, demigods, and demons all jostling for Maali’s soul. Their worldviews, though, are rooted in a specifically Sri Lankan reality. Some of these characters consider the Light a bourgeois tool to keep the masses stupid and believe the forces of the In-Between will script their own redemption. Others confabulate with Maali on the country’s politics, history, and mythology, their chats shot through with a riveting sense of disappointment and pain, their conclusion always that the country is not going through a bad patch but is cursed for all time, its middle class educated enough to feel guilt but not driven enough to do anything about it.
In this purgatory, Maali has seven cycles of the moon to dwell on his short life and make a choice about his final fate. While alive, he photographed all the flash points in the war—the 1983 slaughter of Tamils in Colombo (which Brotherless Night’s Sashi, living with her grandmother at the time, experiences firsthand); the massacre of Sinhalese worshipers at a famous Buddhist shrine in 1985; the ravaging of civilians in the Vanni; the purging by death squads of Marxist rebels elsewhere in the country. His skills were in demand from the army major who wanted proof of only Tiger atrocities, not state-planned ones; the NGO run by Tamil moderates who might have been Indian spies and needed pictures of burned homes and dead children from the war zone; and the international newsmagazines and undercover arms dealers who paid handsomely for the services of a local fixer. Along the way, he surreptitiously shot incriminating images—ministers presiding over massacres, for instance—which went into a box under his bed.
He is taunted, in the afterlife, as a “dinner party activist. Photographer for all sides.” To further complicate things, what Maali has pursued most ardently is not political expediency but casual sex. Alongside every set of photos that he put his life on the line to capture are ones he took of the strangers he slept with or tried to. “You screwed anything that moved and many things that preferred not to,” his boyfriend, Dilan Dharmendran, told him when he was alive. The young ghost of a renegade in purgatory introduces Maali as a “buggerer of everything south of Jaffna.”
There is something of a Nietzschean will to power about Maali’s sex drive, an instinct for life in the face of that other, equally strong force: nihilism. For Seven Moons is relentlessly, if entertainingly, nihilistic. Is God unwilling to stop evil or unable to? Maali can’t help but ask the question even as he laughs it away. In his posthuman form, he rides the breezes, a brooding wraith, feeling pain without a body to hold it in, crying without tears, chuckling without sound, chock-full of memories though he cannot, strangely, remember a crucial detail: the identity of his killer. Dr. Ranee pushes him toward the Light but doesn’t reveal this vital information and nor do any of the other beings who harry him about where else he could go from here. So Maali ricochets across Colombo spying on his friends as they piece together his murder, and spooking them into saving one set of his photos that reveal enough to perhaps bring down the government.
Born in Sri Lanka in 1975, Karunatilaka writes with a great, bruising confidence. His genius is in the snappy epigram, the sardonic exchange, the devastating put-down, the brisk finale. The bigger the questions, the better the punch lines. (One asks the universe about the meaning of it all, thinks Maali, and “all the universe has to say in reply is: I don’t know, arsehole, stop asking.”) This is history rendered always as farce, never tragedy. The European chapter of Sri Lanka’s past, four and a half centuries long—starting from the 1500s, when the Portuguese, Dutch, and English fought over the island’s spices, pearls, and elephants—is given all of one sentence: The Suddha (white man) “came, sold things that didn’t belong to him, got rich and buggered off.” The older past is even less a source of comfort:
The Sinhalese race was founded on kidnapping, rape, parricide and incest. This is not a fairy tale but the story of our birth as given by the island’s oldest chronicle, a chronicle used to codify laws crafted to suppress all that is not Sinhalese and Buddhist and male and wealthy.
But to think that this can be held responsible for present ills is also grand nonsense. “The Brits left us with an unpolished pearl and we have spent forty years filling this oyster with shit,” says one of the dead ponderers Maali meets. “We have fucked it up all by ourselves.”
Maali’s stance as someone saddled with this history is to dismiss the forced welding of national pride to ethnic purity. With European, Tamil, and Sinhalese antecedents, he stands for the island’s long tradition of intermixing. His disillusionment with politics and disgust with racial superiority, not to forget the hurt of childhood neglect, leaves only chance as the basis of his outlook. (Unsurprisingly, Maali is also an inveterate gambler.)
As for the state’s response to a multi-ethnic society, Seven Moons shows how its terror is camouflaged by the myth of “we look after everyone,” while those who would oppose the government—the JVP and the Tigers—are also impelled by conflicting nationalisms. There is little conviction on display, but lots of unmitigated villainy. One faction of the Tigers is on the verge of selling out to the government; the Sri Lankan army mows down villagers and then dresses them in Tiger uniforms; the Tigers eliminate truth-tellers like Dr. Ranee Sridharan; the revolutionaries are willing to kill those they represent (“Most of Colombo’s socialists don’t love the poor. They just hate the rich”); the CIA trains torturers for the government; the British are selling arms to anyone who will buy; the cops are bound to follow orders they don’t like; butchers call dead bodies “garbage” and feed them to cats; and the air above Colombo is electric with the shrieking ghosts of the countless unjustly dead.
But Karunatilaka is more adept at the natural than the supernatural. The complex hierarchies of the book’s purgatory baffle—even to Maali they are still being explained two thirds of the way in. The novel is strongest when he deploys his stylishly hardboiled and original idiom to talk about failure, national and personal, as he did in his debut, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew (2010). In that book, a devoted fan’s pursuit of the story of an obscure and gifted cricketer—also half-Sinhalese and half-Tamil—results in a brilliantly sympathetic account of how ordinary Sri Lankans lived during the conflict, evading ethnic rivalries, institutional corruption, individual shortcomings, and just plain disappointment. Cricket was a sanctuary, especially after Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 1996. “I think of Pradeep Mathew, the great unsung bowler,” mourns the narrator. “I think of Sri Lanka, the great underachieving nation. I think of W.G. Karunasena, the great unfulfilled writer.” All these perennial losers are redeemed by moments of glory wrought from a bat and ball.
For Maali, photography lends this grace under pressure; even as a ghost he is always raising his Nikon 3ST to look at the world through its cracked and clouded lens. The view can be too busy, though. All those technicolor creatures, offering varying interpretations of Sri Lankan strife, render the final effect less Dante and more Marvel.
But Seven Moons is in its scope still a staggering achievement, even if it shows, as Brotherless Night does, that there is no easy correspondence between national sagas and big novels. To try and reflect the tangled whole can result in fatiguing iterations. Better, instead, to refract it through what has always sustained the form of the novel: the tragic personal history.