Shehan Karunatilaka is the multi-award winning author of Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is his second novel. Born in Colombo, he studied in New Zealand and has lived and worked in London, Amsterdam and Singapore.
Shehan Karunatilaka’s novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is written from the protagonist Maali Almeida’s second person point of view. The novel is set in 1980s Colombo, Sri Lanka. However, because the novel is a work of magical realism, the narrative setting is also defined by the main character Maali’s journeys in the Afterlife, a realm referred to as the In Between throughout the novel. The author takes creative and inventive liberties with point of view, structure, form, and conventional notions of the novelistic plot line throughout. The following summary relies upon a linear, streamlined mode of explanation.
Maali Almeida grows up with his father and mother, Dada and Amma, in a house in Bambalapitiya, a neighborhood of Colombo, Sri Lanka. His parents have a tumultuous marriage and are constantly fighting. Maali’s childhood is therefore defined by these conflicts. When Maali is still a young boy, his father leaves his mother. Over the course of the following years, Maali holds a grudge against his absent father. He does not learn until much later that Dada has in fact written him consistent letters following his departure. Amma intercepted these notes and kept them from Maali. When Maali discovers his mother’s meddling, he largely severs his ties with her.
As a young man, Maali pursues a career in photojournalism. He primarily works as a conflict photojournalist, covering the wars, violence, and political atrocities that define contemporary life in 1980s Sri Lanka. He works for the army, for the Associated Press, and a range of other news services.
When Maali is not working, he spends the majority of his time gambling. While at a casino one night, he meets a young woman named Jaki. They become fast friends. Not long later, Maali starts staying with Jaki at her local flat. Through this living situation, he meets Jaki’s cousin, DD, with whom he eventually pursues a sexual and romantic relationship. Although Maali and DD love one another, they keep their affair a secret. DD is not out of the closet, and therefore fears the repercussions of his father discovering the truth about his sexual orientation. Despite these fears, DD constantly urges Maali to leave Sri Lanka for the United States with him. He wants them to start a new life together in San Francisco, California, believing the place will let them live freely together. Maali loves DD, but is reluctant to leave Sri Lanka and abandon his country and work.
Then one night, Maali decides it is time to start over with DD. He goes to Hotel Leo and meets with several of his bosses. He informs them that he will be terminating his contract. He plans to leave the country. After this meeting, Maali runs into DD’s father, Stanley, who has discovered the truth about Maali’s and DD’s relationship. Stanley insists that Maali cut off contact with his son. When Maali refuses, Stanley has him killed.
Maali wakes up in the Afterlife. Because the realm is unfamiliar and because Maali cannot remember dying, he believes that he is asleep and dreaming. He soon learns that he has been violently killed. He is lodged in a purgatorial place called the In Between. He has seven days, or moons, to resolve his incomplete business Down There, in the world of the living.
Maali becomes frantic to communicate with Jaki and DD. He wants them to recover a box of photographs he has hidden under a bed in his mother’s house, develop them, print them, and disseminate them to the public. The photos reveal the Minister of Justice’s hypocrisies, atrocities, and injustices. If the world sees the photos, Maali believes the people will know the truth, he will have created lasting change, and his life will have value.
Throughout his week in the After Life, however, Maali becomes increasingly frustrated. Because of his unresolved traumas, guilts, and sins from his past, Maali cannot get out of the In Between. He also cannot communicate with the living. Once a more accommodating member of the spirit world helps him acquire the skill, Maali whispers to Jaki. He also tries to help preserve other innocent lives he knows are in danger.
Although Maali’s friends do eventually publicize his photographs, by the end of his time in the In Between, Maali no longer cares about his work. He realizes that his work was not what gave his life value. Rather, it was the love and friendship he shared with Jaki and DD that made his life beautiful and meaningful.
At the end of his seven moons, Maali travels into The Light. In The Light, he gains clarity and achieves transcendence. He realizes that no matter what a life or death might look like, they all have inherent value.