Midnight's Grandchild: "The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida"
Updated: May 9
In all the years since I first read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight's Children, no book has matched its brilliance, its exuberance and its humanity. Not to mention its wit, irreverence, delightful wordplay. Until now. Shehan Karunatilaka's The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, a brilliant, beautiful novel and winner of the 2022 Booker Prize, is an eminently worthy successor: Midnight’s Grandchild, if you will allow me.
This exceptional book is many things, and in that lies its wonder, brilliance and beauty. It is about the pointlessness of war. It is about the calculated machinations of politicians to whom power and money are worth more than human lives. It is about sinister arms deals. It is about the pain and joy of love. It is about loveless marriages, absent fathers, the scourge of homophobia. It is an impassioned, dead serious case for unfettered, objective, courageous journalism even in the face of death. It is a lament for how some things never change. It is a reflection about the circle of life: birth, rebirth, the afterlife. It is also a mystery, where a spirit seeks to uncover how he lost his life.
Born Malinda Albert Kabalana, Maali Almeida is a photographer in 1980s Sri Lanka, where the novel is set. Or rather, he was. He is dead when the book begins, and broken Nikon camera around his neck, is standing with various other bewildered souls (quite literally) at a desk in some sort of purgatory, trying to sort out where he is, what happened to him, how he died, and what will happen next.
There are white-clad Helpers, notably Dr. Ranee, deceased professor, who wish to guide the newly arrived spirits to the Light. There are other ghoulish spirits led by Sena Pathirana, deceased activist, who wish to keep them away from the Light, to seek revenge for whatever may have happened to him in life, to even influence or change what is to come in the living world. Maali has seven moons to decide which path to pick, perhaps for all eternity.
As Maali struggles to remember the events leading to his death, we meet Jaki, a TV announcer and Maali’s best friend, DD, the love of Maali’s life, Minister Stanley Dharmendran, Minister Cyril Wijeratne, Lankan Major Raja Udugampola, Tamil Tiger Colonel Gopallaswarmy Mahatiya, AP reporter Bob Sudworth, and other western journalists. He slowly remembers all that he uncovered in life: secret meetings, arms deals, planned “accidents” and much more, sufficient to overthrow governments. But corrupted power has a way of preserving the status quo, at the expense of ordinary citizens.
As he remembers the trajectory of his life and reflects on what it all means, we meet his mother Lakshmi Almeida, his absent father Albert Kabalana, and his half-sisters. We learn of his heartaches as a child and as an adult, his losses and longings.
The Seven Moons is like the expanding universe. Each seemingly effortless, lancet-sharp observation sent me to a fictional scenario from a different book or film. Each of these linked together in my mind to form this galactic symphony, this ragamala of art and humanity, of life and death, of politics and civil war, of love and loss, of grief and bewilderment, of embracing and othering, of cruelty and compassion.
Set during the civil war in Sri Lanka, the novel underscores the pointlessness and absurdity of it all with an imaginativeness reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Hired goons cart away dead bodies, finding creative ways to dispose of them when Beira Lake can no longer hold them. The casual conversation among the goons as they go about their macabre routine brings to mind the two drunkards in Munshi Prem Chand’s short story Kafan. Army Major Udugampola is as unpredictable and casually brutal as Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas.
There are stark descriptions of the casualties of war: “It is hard to know what age they are, impossible to determine the race. Despite all speeches made to the contrary, the naked bodies of Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers are indistinguishable. We all look the same when held to the flame.” This brings to mind a similar lament in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s recent book Independence. “Hindu or Muslim? In death, there is no difference.” The narrative is sprinkled with poignant metaphysical gems: “…you come to realize that every death is significant, even when every life appears not to be.”
Love and Homophobia
Maali is forthright about his homosexuality, candid about his promiscuity and infidelities. Worldly, he harbors no illusions about bigots, and on being hit with a slur, wryly observes “You have had more homophobic abuse in the afterlife than you had in 20 years of playing with boys.” DD is more idealistic and has visions of a better life, such as at the University of San Francisco where he has received admission to study Third World environmental degradation, and pitches it to Maali: “In San Fran we can be who we are. Not who we are forced to be.” A nod to our City by the Bay and its open arms, bringing to mind its poignant anthem from the 1936 film San Francisco:
"San Francisco, open your Golden Gate
You'll let no stranger wait outside your door
San Francisco, here is your wanderin' one
Saying I'll wander no more. "
Simple wisdom, philosophy
I was charmed by the conversations between Maali and Dr. Ranee, with her simple, wry nuggets of wisdom. She is patient with him, and tolerant of his rebellious pronouncements as a parent would be to a child, yet sometimes loses her patience. When Maali resists her efforts to seek the Light, citing a list of things that he still needs to do, she remarks, “There are always things to do. Most are pointless.”
There’s a good deal of delightful surreal nonsense and ghostly banter, an amusing hierarchy of ghost, ghoul, preta, devil, yaka, demon, and bizarre, hilarious conversations with a Dead Leopard about insects, lightbulbs, opposable thumbs, and coming back as human. In crisp phrases, Shehan Karunatilaka weaves worlds, and has us pausing to contemplate the circle of life, death and rebirth. In this darkly humorous yet poignant story, spirits, like humans, have emotions and agency, and a desire to change things.
Good vs. evil
The social commentary is sharp and wise, as in these words from Maali’s father to his 10-year-old-son: “You know why the battle of good versus evil is so one-sided, Malin? Because evil is better organized, better equipped and better paid. It is not monsters or yakas or demons we should fear. Organized collectives of evildoers who think they are performing the work of the righteous. That is what should make us shudder.” Keenly observed, and indeed it should.
Telling his tale in the second person, Maali Almeida’s tone is witty, self-deprecating, regretful at times, and always completely honest. He is a gambler, and the stakes are always high in whatever he undertakes, making for a fast-moving, gripping narrative. I took my time reading it, as every page offered much to reflect on. Still, utterly captivated and unwilling to let it go, I was very sorry when it ended. This is definitely one I will re-read a few times, as I did Midnight's Children.