Chats With The Dead is Shehan Karunatilaka’s follow-up to his much-acclaimed debut Chinaman. It begins as all-powerful takes do in a state of absolute bewilderment. Malinda ‘Maali’ Albert Kabalana awakes to find himself in the waiting room for the dead. As he deals with the red tape of limbo, he must also investigate the mysterious circumstances of his own death. The transit between life and what follows has been the theme of many books and TV shows. Karunatilaka gives us a much-needed South Asian take on the same.
Essential to this is a realistic portrayal and a scathing criticism of bureaucracy. The waiting room for the afterlife could very well be an Indian government office. One marvels at the extensive world-building capabilities of the author and smirks in delight at the dark brand of his humor. Case in point — Kottu the professional ‘cleaner’, the one who disposes of the bodies complains about the ‘unprofessional’ way he’s asked to perform his job.
“But must do it properly no? Can’t do in a rush like this. Have to saw the fingers, smash the teeth, pulp the face. Then can’t identify also. After that can dump anywhere.” Deserving special mention are the author’s political zingers. When Sena tells Maali, “I’m not your helper, sir. I only help those who help me. If you don’t want my help, I can leave.” To which Maali retorts, “You sound like the UN.”
One cannot help but marvel at Karunatilaka’s world-building skills. The afterlife is extensively detailed, richly populated with a variety of demons, ghouls — all of indigenous origins and like any consistent world, it has its own rules and hierarchies. Whether it is the Maara trees that catch winds and change texture or the Mahakali that chases Maali and Sena, Karunatilaka’s imagination is nuanced. The fictitious world of the afterlife is in sharp contrast to the very real and profound commentary on Sri Lankan politics.
Karunatilaka’s firm grasp on this complex nexus is evident in the cheat sheet Maali prepares for Andy the foreign journalist with descriptors for the LTTE, JVP, STF, UNP, and the IPKF. He ends on a rather telling note, “Don’t try and look for the good guys ‘cause there ain’t none...These wars aren’t worth dying over. None are.” Prophetic words for someone who’s self-described business card would read ‘Photographer. Gambler. Slut.’
In investigating his own death Maali traces the spiderweb between Sri Lankan politics and its criminal underbelly. “In the Sri Lanka of the ‘80s, ‘disappeared’ was a passive verb, something the government of 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.” Amongst Maali’s most haunting flashbacks are Karunatilaka’s descriptions of his photos, photos that tell of Sri Lanka’s turbulent history.
Karunatilaka’s afterlife too has vigilante mobs that are hankering for justice. How strange that humans even in death trust none but themselves to dispense justice and mete out punishment. A squad that believes only suckers go from the counter to the light. With the recent events in Delhi Karunatilaka’s words are just as prescient when Sena says, “It takes a village to produce a corpse.” Three men picked him up. Someone else hired them. Someone else gave the order. A man in a mask tortured him and someone else signed off on it.
The many layers in Chats With The Dead is a sign of Karunatilaka’s prowess. Amongst the fiction and the politics, he manages to squeeze in musings on existence and being. These, the reader will discover, aren’t your usual garden variety angst. Maali upon learning of the powers of the dead wonders about the voice in his own head, was it truly his own? The same voice that led him to war zones, casinos, strange boys and dark jungles. The same voice that told the story of his life as if it had already happened.
When Maali meets Mad Mother she speaks of how none of the religions prohibit rape. They speak of incest, adultery, fidelity, gambling, bacon, taking the lord’s name in vain on a Sunday but there is no punishment for rape. The most poignant observation Karunatilaka makes is that all devils are made not born, all demons are made out of man-made tragedies.
This is perhaps as true of life as it is of the afterlife. In terms of niggling concerns, those would be the frequent use of local words and terms. The living and the dead together make up a pretty sizeable cast and it is hard to keep a track of them over multiple location changes.
If there is a note to end on it is the moral complexity of Karunatilaka’s character work. Maali loses a portion of the money he borrowed from Jaki at the roulette table. Another small portion he uses to buy a blowjob in Anuradhapura and the rest he gives to a family fleeing the bombing in Vavuniya. Chats With The Dead is undoubtedly hedonistic, unabashedly honest and unquestionably profound. It is part fiction, part Zen handbook but all wisdom, definitely all wisdom.