The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka

Book extract

Read the 2022 longlist: an extract from The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka

Shehan Karunatilaka’s rip-roaring epic is a searing, mordantly funny satire set amid the murderous mayhem of a Sri Lanka beset by civil war. Read our extract from the book’s first section

Colombo, 1990. Maali Almeida, war photographer, gambler and closet queen, has woken up dead in what seems like a celestial visa office. His dismembered body is sinking in the Beira Lake and he has no idea who killed him. At a time when scores are settled by death squads, suicide bombers and hired goons, the list of suspects is depressingly long.

But even in the afterlife, time is running out for Maali. He has seven moons to try and contact the man and woman he loves most and lead them to a hidden cache of photos that will rock Sri Lanka. 

Read more extracts from this year’s longlisted titles here.

The memories come to you with pain. The pain has many shades. Sometimes, it arrives with sweat and itches and rashes. At other times, it comes with nausea and headaches. Perhaps like amputees feeling absent limbs, you still hold the illusion of your decaying corpse. One minute you are retching, the next you are reeling, the next you are remembering.  

You met Jaki five years ago in the Casino at Hotel Leo. She was twenty, just out of school, and losing pathetically at baccarat. You were back from a torrid tour of the Vanni, unhinged by the slaughter, breaking bread with shady people, seeing the bad wherever you looked, and wearing your notorious red bandanna. You had sold the photos to Jonny at the Associated Press and cashed a welcome six-figure cheque. Even in Lankan rupees, six figures are better than five.  

You had outplayed the house at blackjack, whacked the crab at the buffet and washed it down with some free gin. A regular day at the office.  

‘Don’t bet on ties, sister,’ you said to the strange girl with frizzy hair and black make-up. She looked at you and rolled her eyes, which you found strange. Women usually like the look of you, not knowing that you prefer cock to cooch. A trimmed beard, an ironed shirt and a bit of deodorant will elevate you above a herd of sweaty Lankan hetero males.  

‘I just won twenty thousand rupees,’ she said.  

You noticed she was alone and that no one was hitting on her, both unusual for women in casinos in Colombo.  

‘And the chances of you winning that again are nine per cent. And this house only pays out seven-to-one, minus commission. Which means, follow that strategy a hundred times and you will lose, even when you win.’  

‘A man who knows everything. What a surprise.’  

Shehan Karunatilaka

Your father, absent since you were fifteen, paid for many of your failed careers. In your twenties, you studied finance for a summer and worked insurance for a winter. You left with a loathing of both games, but knowing everything you needed about the rudiments of gambling.

The croupier stared you down. You shrugged and placed her chips on the banker. She half smiled and half frowned, but let you commandeer her bet.  

‘You better pay if I lose that.’  

‘If you can’t think in numbers, this place will eat you up, sweetheart. The universe is all mathematics and probabilities.’  

‘I come to get mellow. Not to do sums,’ she said.  

When the bet came in, she let you place another, and then another.  

‘It’s no fun when someone else does it for you.’ 

‘That’s not true at all,’ you said. 

You took her to the buffet and had chocolate biscuit pudding and smoked Gold Leafs while an ageing diva sang ‘Tarzan Boy’ to a Yamaha keyboard. Jaki complained in a London accent about how she hated Sri Lanka, living with her Aunty, and working mornings at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. How her aunt’s new husband came into her room without knocking and how it creeped her out.  

Your father, absent since you were fifteen, paid for many of your failed careers. In your twenties, you studied finance for a summer and worked insurance for a winter. You left with a loathing of both games, but knowing everything you needed about the rudiments of gambling. Investment vs Yield. What you put in vs What you earn. The likelihood of something happening vs What it costs.  

You’ve never placed a bet you couldn’t win. Which is not the same as not losing. You went in eyes open, knowing all the angles and most of the odds. The odds of winning the lottery are one in eight million. The odds of dying in a car are one in four thousand. And, according to Mr Kinsey, the odds of being born homo are one in ten.  

What are the odds of being born in a war-torn shithole? Considering most of the planet lives on nothing, and considering there’s never been an era of peace in all of recorded history, you’d say pretty high.  

You told Jaki to stop thinking red vs black, and to start thinking odds. What are the chances the guy next to you has a Jack or that the dealer will draw a Five or that everyone believes your hand is better than theirs?  

She got drunk and passed out at the roulette table. When you volunteered to put her in a taxi, the bouncers gave you a wink. She couldn’t tell you her address so you took her home. When she woke on your couch, you gave her a lecture about going out alone and getting drunk. She was too busy staring at your photographs to listen.  

‘These photographs could get you killed,’ she said. 

‘So could getting drunk at casinos,’ you replied. 

She went home with you for many nights after. While your Amma snored down the hallway, you sat up drinking wine, listening to Top of the Pops on your shortwave and talking ends and odds. What are the chances that the slaughter will end, that you’d be caught in a bomb, that the voices in your head can survive your death? What are the chances that a woman could walk down a Colombo street without being called ‘nangi’, ‘darling’ or ‘slut’? What are the chances that Colombo would get a nightclub that opened past 2 a.m.?  

Usually, when you brought women home, which was about as frequent as a free and fair election, the women – usually drunk – expected you to paw them and rub lips against them and got offended when you didn’t. This one didn’t seem to care.  

‘You have a girlfriend?’ she asked, her eyes giving you a squint.  

‘No one that matters,’ you said. 

‘But plenty that don’t?’ She did a strange laugh. 

There was something brazen about her, something odd.  

Something beyond the make-up and the hair and the ill-fitting dress. She spoke with the squeak of a child but with the authority of a tyrant.  

‘If you want me to come back, you need to stop calling me ‘girl’ or ‘sister’ or ‘sweetheart’.’  

‘You have a boyfriend?’  

‘I’m saving myself for my wedding night. So don’t get any ideas.’  

‘That’s fine with me, girl.’  

First, you became her gambling buddy, then her agony aunt, then her clubbing partner. You told her how to handle the creeps at work and the aunts at home and her new uncle visiting her room without knocking.  

‘Always be cheerful. But never put up with shit. And put a lock on that door.’  

In exchange, she kept you from thinking of the things you’d photographed in the war zone. She got you into parties at embassies and hotels thrown by rich Colombo International School classmates, among whom were confused boys with perfect skin. Jaki didn’t mind that you disappeared from parties, Jaki didn’t mind if you talked to boys, though she hated you talking to girls. And Jaki didn’t care if you didn’t touch her.  

On some evenings, Jaki would inflict her music on you, off-key singers mewling over tedious rhythms. She’d drown you in Chardonnay and suggest zany schemes like moving to a hippie colony in Arugam Bay or staging an exhibition of all the photos under your bed. It was she who came up with the genius plan of becoming flatmates.  

For the first month, you were hardly at home. You were photographing captured arsenals for Major Raja Udugampola, covering the Anuradhapura bomb blast with Andy McGowan from Newsweek, and beating your losing streak at Pegasus Casino.

The beauty of studying odds is knowing which cards are worth betting on. And knowing that freak occurrences happen every day while no one watches. You can shuffle a pack this minute and deal a sequence that has never occurred in the history of all humanity. By your estimation, you have more chance of dying in a bomb blast in cosmopolitan Colombo than in deepest darkest Jaffna. Because, at least in the war zone, you knew which direction the bombs were flying and who was dropping them.  

There was surprisingly little scandal for an unwed twenty- two-year-old sharing a flat with two unwed males in their thirties. Her aunties were happy to relinquish the burden, and your own Amma, as usual, did not give a flying toss. As far as Jaki’s parents in London were concerned, she was sharing with her cousin and his friend, and Uncle Stanley would overlook proceedings. Her friends thought you and Jaki were dating, a rumour that neither wished to confirm nor quell. Being a couple gave you a chaperone and a shield, whichever room you chose to enter.  

‘You may not like my cousin,’ she said. ‘The guy’s super- posh.’  

‘Is he fun?’  

‘We don’t talk,’ she said. ‘You don’t have to talk to him. He’s a lawyer who plays rugby and dates bimbettes. He’s shallow and dull. Will make a great politician.’  

For the first month, you were hardly at home. You were photographing captured arsenals for Major Raja Udugampola, covering the Anuradhapura bomb blast with Andy McGowan from Newsweek, and beating your losing streak at Pegasus Casino.  

You didn’t meet the cousin until your second month and when you did there was little more than small talk. You recognised him from school, though he had no idea who you were. Then you noticed how he smelled after returning from a swim, the rhythm of his walk, how his shorts clung to his hips and how he looked at you from the corner of his eye. You sat in the lounge with windows that overlooked Galle Face Green, watched crows and daydreamed of the landlord’s son.  

The flat belonged to Stanley Dharmendran, Minister for Youth Affairs, MP for Kalkuda, lone Tamil in Cabinet, ower of numerous favours. His son, of course, was Dilan Dharmendran, former swimmer, athlete and ruggerite, old boy of St Joseph’s College, and love of your short sad life.  

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka is published by Sort Of Books, £16.99

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