My first tryst with dark humour was Kundan Shah’s iconic film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. I was too young to understand the subtleties of satire at that time, but having watched it repeatedly over time I have understood and appreciate some of the underlying angst and futility of the common (wo)man trying to rally against the powers-that-be.
I then encountered dark satire when I was introduced to Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, followed by Kurt Vonnegut and Chuck Palahniuk. There was a lull in my close encounters with dark humour till recently, when I had the opportunity to read Chats with the Dead, Shehan Karunatilaka’s second novel after Chinaman.
Right off, I have to say that ‘Chats’ connected even more than other books in the same genre because it is based in the Indian sub-continent and about events that I have grown up, which gave it a context that made it more relatable and relevant for me.
But while my familiarity with Sri Lanka and its tumultuous past helped me connect with the book and its characters, it’s not paramount since the author manages to take the readers on such an extraordinary journey that even someone who has crawled out from underneath a rock and doesn’t know anything about the island nation will be able to savour the magic.
This book is a murder mystery about Malinda Albert Kabalana, a war photographer, gambler and closest gay. Maali is dead and now a ghost who has to solve his own murder but as is the wont in all our countries, red-tape is an impediment.
The book is set in 1989 Sri Lanka, with the country in the middle of civil war with difficult, different actors holding political centre-stage or writing the script in blood to ensure that they are centre-stage. Describing the relevance of the timeframe for the novel, Shehan, in an interview, had said, “1989 was a particularly perfect storm of terrors.
The Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE]), the Army, the Indian peacekeepers, the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) terrorists and state death squads were all killing each other at a prolific rate.
1989 was a time of curfews, bombs, assassinations, abductions and mass graves and seemed the perfect setting for a ghost story, a detective tale or a spy thriller.”
Like in any whodunit, any and or all these players could be involved in Maali’s murder. But while being a dark satire, Chats With The Dead retains its murder mystery element by providing a twist in the tale.
A special mention must be made about the language that the author uses. It is slightly mocking, self-deprecating and sometimes crude that lends itself in creating the necessary atmosphere for the plot.
Shehan, in an interview, has stated that the idea about writing the book was to give a voice to the dead in Sri Lanka who didn’t have voices. Well, they may have a voice, but the complex questions these conversations throw up aren’t going to be answered overnight. For that we need to look inward and ensure that the past doesn’t repeat itself.
The use of a classic whodunit is the perfect vehicle to carry this tale that exposes the frailties, conundrums and absurdities that make up humanity. This is not a book that should be a must-read on people’s list:
It is a one that has to be read multiple times to fully grasp the nuances and underlying pathos and complexities of the characters and situations, as well as the grander political scheme of things.