Book review: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (2022)

This novel by Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka won the prestigious Booker Prize for 2022. He is the second Sri Lankan to win the prize, after Michael Ondaatje. The story is set in 1990 and deals with the carnage that engulfed that country in the decades leading up to that time, with thousands of people, mostly ordinary civilians, dying in the conflicts with suicide-bomb explosions in crowded places, people disappearing, mysterious death squads operating with impunity (‘mysterious’ only in the sense that people were fearful of publicly and openly saying what everyone knew, that these were plain-clothes government forces in unmarked vehicles carrying out extrajudicial kidnappings and executions), and dead and mutilated bodies found floating in rivers, lakes, and canals. As far as I am aware, to this day no one among the senior police, military, and political figures who ordered and executed these atrocities has been held accountable for their actions.

The story begins with narrator Maali Almeida waking up in a waiting room in the afterlife where he is told that he has seven days (‘moons’) to try and figure out how and why he died before he moves on to the next realm. This book falls into the category of magic realism so we are in a world where the spirits of dead people are the main characters as they move around not sensed by the living and are able to go anywhere and listen and watch, though they cannot communicate with the living, except for a very few spirits and that too in very limited ways.

Almeida is 35 years old at the time of his death, a promiscuous gay man in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” society that required gay people to be formally closeted even though who is gay, and that included leading politicians and other public figures, is often an open secret. He was a freelance war photojournalist and fixer for foreign reporters, going into areas of conflict and capturing the horrific brutality that he saw as well as the official lies and deceptions. In his allotted seven days, in addition to finding out who murdered him and why, he also wants to somehow enable his living friends to find where he has hidden a cache of negatives that, if the photos are revealed to the public, he thinks will show the unspeakable brutality that was inflicted on people and expose the complicity of the government in it and thus end the wars.

The book is unsparing in its condemnation of all the parties that were involved in the death and destruction, as in this passage where Almeida recalls a cheatsheet he made while still alive for an American journalist bewildered by the many different groups participating in the carnage.

Dear Andy

To an outsider, the Sri Lankan tragedy will appear confusing and irreparable. It needn’t be either. Here are the main players.

LTTE – The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

  • Want a separate Tamil state.
  • Prepared to slaughter Tamil civilians and moderates to achieve this.

JVP – The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna

  • Want to overthrow the capitalist state.
  • Are willing to murder the working class while they liberate them.

UNP – The United National Party

  • Known as the Uncle Nephew Party.
  • In power since the late 70s and embroiled in the above two wars.

STF – The Special Task Force

  • On behalf of the Govt. will abduct and torture anyone suspected of being or abetting the LTTE or the JVP.

The nation divides into races, the races divide into factions and the factions turn on each other. Whoever is in the opposition will preach multiculturalism and then enforce Sinhala Buddhist dominance in exchange for power.

You are not the only outsider here, Andy. There are many others as confused as you are.

IPKF – The Indian Peace Keeping Force

  • Sent by our neighbour to preserve peace.
  • Are willing to burn villages to fulfill their obligations.

UN – United Nations

  • Have offices in Colombo.
  • Are arseholes to work with.

RAW – Research and Analysis Wing

  • Indian secret service, here to broker dodgy deals.
  • Are best avoided.

CIA – Central Intelligence Agency

  • Sits on the shores of the Diego Garcia islands, holding very powerful binoculars.
  • Is this true, Andy? Say it ain’t so.

It’s not that complicated, my friend. Don’t try and look for the good guys ’cause there ain’t none. Everyone is proud and greedy and no one can resolve things without money changing hands or fists being raised.

Things have escalated beyond what anyone imagined and they keep getting worse and worse. Stay safe, Andy. These wars aren’t worth dying over. None of them are. (p. 24-26)

Some Sri Lankans have had a negative reaction to the book, saying that it paints with too broad a brush and portrays the country in a negative light by focusing mostly on the bad people and leaving out the good. The book is undoubtedly harsh in its judgments but I cannot really find any fault with its basic message. It should be noted that the focus of the book’s criticisms are the organized groups involved and those spanned all the major ethnic and religious segments of the population. The sympathetic figures are largely the spirits of the dead, wondering why they had to be the victims of wars waged by those purportedly fighting on their behalf.

A major character is a ghost named Sena, who was a member of the JVP and was murdered by the government, who writes on a wall all the myths foisted on the people that are designed to support the idea that Sinhala Buddhists are the rightful owners of the country and all other ethnic and religious minorities are there by sufferance who can and should be expelled if they do not accept their supremacy. Sena call these myths ‘Boru Facts’, ‘boru’ being a Sinhala word for false or lie.






This is not unlike the Christian nationalist view in the US, that this is a country founded by white Christians who are its rightful owners and that all others are essentially second-class citizens.

I hesitated to read this book because I was in Sri Lanka through much of the period covered by it and feared having to relive the events of those awful times through this novel. My fears were not unfounded, since the spirits in the book that Almeida encounters appear as they were in death and so many of them bear the marks of torture or their bodies being butchered and flung into lakes and rivers or ripped apart by explosions. The descriptions of the spirits of poor people with their broken bodies, piteously bewildered by why they had been made victims of other people’s conflicts, are sad to read.

More personally poignant to me is that one of the major characters in the book and one of the first people that Almeida meets in the afterlife is Dr Ranee Sridharan, a thinly disguised version of a friend of mine Rajani Thiranagama, a young Tamil woman and mother, a professor in the medical school of one of the universities in the north where Tamils predominate, who was murdered, most likely by members of the LTTE or one of its splinter groups. In the afterlife she is an administrator trying to shepherd people like Almeida along to the next realm. Her crime? She was a human rights activist who documented abuses and did not care if the abuses were by the LTTE, the IPKF, or the Sri Lankan armed forces, she reported them all. The LTTE probably felt that as an ethnic Tamil herself, she should be focusing only on the abuses by the other groups and exclude the LTTE, which was comprised of members of her ethnic group. She was also married to someone from a Sinhalese Buddhist background, making her even more suspect to the LTTE, such is the power of tribalistic thinking. She is now considered a martyr to the cause of human rights. I recall visiting her at her home in the north of the country when I was invited to give a series of lectures at her university. She was gunned down at the gate of that home.

The book also describes events that I lived through during the pogrom of 1983 (now given the label of Black July) in which rampaging mobs of Sinhalese people were egged on and goaded by the UNP government then in power to roam the streets for a week, attacking and killing any Tamils (my ethnic group) they found and also looting and burning the homes and buildings of any Tamils, while the police and army stood by doing nothing. I saw this myself, with army troops in military vehicles driving past rioting mobs and doing nothing to stop them while the mobs applauded the soldiers. It was these events that precipitated my decision to leave Sri Lanka three months later with my wife and six month old daughter and come to the US. To leave without staying to fight for change was no doubt a cowardly decision on my part but at that time I was absolutely livid that the government could incite and condone violence against one community and then deliberately refuse to provide basic protections to them. I wanted to have no part of a country that had such a government. Furthermore, becoming the parent of an infant significantly changes the way that one evaluates personal risks.

What precipitated this violence and how did the mobs know which homes were occupied by Tamils? They were given the government-created electoral sheets of the occupants of houses and Tamils could be identified by their names. As the book says:

The popular mythos surrounding the riots of ’83 is that the began at the Borella Kanatte, at a funeral for thirteen soldiers killed up north by Tigers, in what was then the biggest attack ever. That unlucky number thirteen seems a minor skirmish compared to the rivers of corpses that have flowed since. In truth, the riot originated in an office not unlike this one, with angry men in ties cyclostyling electoral forms for drunk men in sarongs. (p. 215)

The funeral of the soldiers featured incendiary speeches by members of the government who whipped up the crowds into an anti-Tamil frenzy, thus setting a match to the kindling that they had prepared before that then exploded into violence. The government then stood by passively for a week as the mobs roamed the streets, killing, beating, and looting.

This was not the first government-incited anti-Tamil pogrom in the country. There had been similar ones in 1958 and 1977. I was out of the country during those two earlier ones and somehow not being directly threatened by them lessened their impact, making them seem less brutal and threatening. Seeing it first-hand and knowing that any moment one could be the next victim and that the police and security forces would do nothing to stop it was something else altogether.

It is undoubtedly true that no single large identifiable group anywhere in the world, and based on any characteristic (be it religious, ethnic, or nationality) is uniformly good or evil. In Sri Lanka in 1983, during the pogrom against the Tamils, my own family and my mother and sisters were sheltered in the homes of Sinhalese friends who took great personal risk in hiding us, because if they were discovered to be doing this, the Sinhala mobs would turn on them too, not caring that they were attacking members of their own tribal group.

This is the repeating story of ethnic-religious-nationalistic conflicts always and everywhere, that autocratic and demagogic leaders can arouse large numbers of people of one group to think that they are endangered by another group, however irrational that belief, and cause them to violently attack them. While the majority will not take part in such violence, most of them will be passive, allowing the racists and bigots to dominate events. Perhaps some in the passive group may feel that there is partial justification for the actions even if they do not support all of it. But there will also always be a few who refuse to be seduced into such barbaric tribalistic thinking and courageously take great personal risks to try and counter the tide of evil as much as they can. That is why any blanket condemnation of a group is always as false as claiming that any people is possessed of any special virtues.

The people who live in Colombo, the Sri Lankan former capital city and still the commercial hub, occupy a bubble that is sheltered from the rest of the country, and those who belong to the ruling classes (whom the author refers to as ‘Colombians’) seem to live in an even smaller bubble, immune from the hardships that the people in the rest of the country, and the poor in Colombo, suffer. As Almeida recalls telling the father of his friend,

“Uncle, this country was inherited by arrack-swillers who sent their children to British schools. Mostly Sinhala but not all. What they were were Colombians. And being an English-speaking Colombian exempts us from the rest of the country’s sufferings.” (p. 235)

(In Sri Lanka, ‘Uncle’ and ‘Aunty’ are terms of respect in referring to those of one’s parent’s generation or older.)

I recall when I first realized that I was living in such a bubble. It was in April 1971 when the JVP uprising against the government exploded in many parts of the country. I was taken completely by surprise, even though many of the young people taking part in the uprising were fellow students in my own university. How could I have been unaware of such widespread and deep anger and dissatisfaction with the state of affairs that people were secretly arming themselves to overthrow the government? It was because although they and I occupied the same campus, we lived in separate worlds. I was a student in the science faculty where most of the instruction was in English and where there was a sizable cohort of Colombians who formed my circle of friends, while the students who were involved in the insurrection were in the faculty of arts that draws most of its students from the rural non-English speaking parts of the country. That sheltering bubble that prevents Colombians from knowing what life is like for almost the entire rest of the country exists even today. It is clear that one of the author’s aims is to prick that bubble and make visible the brutality of what happened in those decades to those who would prefer not to see it.

My review so far might make the book seem to be extremely heavy going and depressing, but that is not the case. The author writes breezily, irreverently, and with humor, pointing out the foibles of the people of Sri Lanka and using those vignettes to lighten the narrative. While the descriptions of the dead are indeed harrowing, this is not war porn. The graphic descriptions of the shattered bodies and pathetic bewilderment of ordinary people killed by the various parties to the conflicts do not arouse prurient feelings but a sense of sorrow and of the horror and futility of war, making it a decidedly anti-war book.


  1. Venkataraman Amarnath says

    A. Muthulingam, whose stories can stand up to any nobel prize winner will not get much attention, since they are all in Tamil. His stories depict life in and around Kokkuvil (northern most Sri Lanka) during 50s and 60s. His stories make one smile and cry at the same time.
    When he was around ten, he gets a rupee note (a big deal at that time) as a gift. He saves it inside a book and admires it everyday. His father comes to know and wants to borrow. He knows fully well the rupee will not come back, but still parts with it. When he is in college his father dies and back home he finds the huge ledger notebook his father manitained. On one page he finds a note: Borrowed one rupee from …. Not only the author but the reader also tears up.
    The society he describes is no more and not many will appreciate it either. But then it is true of many places in the fast-changing world.

  2. says


    Hey, no fair not mentioning the British Empire!

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Mano. There is nothing remotely ‘cowardly’ about putting your family before the madness going on around you.

    I had a Tamil colleague who had a similar ‘pox on all their houses’ view of the whole rotten business. He had a brother who ‘disappeared’, probably after being stopped at a checkpoint. He was also disgusted by the support given to the LTTE by many expat Tamils in Canada (and the US, I guess).

    Regarding ‘aunty’ and ‘uncle’; having got to know quite a few Tamil, Telugu and Malayali people, that seems to be a common usage among people of South Indian (Dravidian) descent. I don’t recall it being used by North Indians.

  4. Karl Random says

    There is one group of people that seem to be wholly to blame for all of these kinds of atrocities across all of history: Politicians. I hear people complain about politicians like, oh they’re corrupt, do-nothing, lies, etc etc. These complaints bore me. What of the fact that they are all so quick to score votes and secure power by demonizing the easily persecuted? It all makes anarchy make sense, which is not a point of view I’d come to lightly.

  5. Tethys says

    Pogram is one of very few Russian words that has crossed into other languages.

    This is excellent writing Mano, thank you for posting such powerful words.
    I am so sorry to learn about your friend Rajani’s death, and I don’t think it is remotely cowardly to flee from a country that has targeted you for death due to your ethnicity.

  6. KG says

    Regarding ‘aunty’ and ‘uncle’; having got to know quite a few Tamil, Telugu and Malayali people, that seems to be a common usage among people of South Indian (Dravidian) descent. -- Rob Grigjanis@5

    I’ve been “uncled” by young Black guys (i.e. Black British of Afro-Caribbean descent) in London.

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