Back to Sri Lanka: Why Booker Prize winner Shehan Karunatilaka loves his country

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He’s usually up at 4am. That’s when Facebook is asleep, his phone isn’t getting “useless” messages and he can write in peace before his kids wake up. But since Sri Lankan author, Shehan Karunatilaka, won 2022’s Booker Prize for The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, he hasn’t written a word. 

Instead, he’s been taking some time out, reading the rest of the Booker longlist, as well as 1997 horror novel, Son of Rosemary by Ira Levin, sequel to Rosemary’s Baby.

“Levin only wrote six or seven thrillers in his lifetime, The Stepford Wives, The Boys From Brazil… But it’s a wonderful thing to discover a writer – of whom you think you’ve read everything – has another book, even though he’s passed away,” Shehan tells me, from his home in Colombo.

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Since Shehan won the Booker, he’s been taking a break

A copywriter, children’s author and travel journalist, Shehan was born in Galle, grew up in Colombo and studied in New Zealand before moving around the world for work, eventually settling back in Sri Lanka, where he now lives between the capital and Kurunegala.

His debut novel Chinaman was released in 2011 and won a number of prizes for its rollicking story of an alcoholic sports journalist travelling around Sri Lanka in search of a legendary cricketer. 

However, it wasn’t until the last 10 years that the 47-year-old author began to explore the country himself. “I was a typical Colombo middle-class kid, who goes to Galle for the weekend, sits on the beach and says they’ve travelled around Sri Lanka.”

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Today, he calls Sri Lanka a ‘small miracle’

“Of course, the war was happening back then, so there was not much travel. Many of us lived here not having visited Arugam Bay, Trincomalee or Mannar. I only travelled further when I met my wife, who grew up in the Hill Country and took me to places like Ritigala (a Buddhist monastery and mountain range), that I wouldn’t have thought of.” 

Describing Sri Lanka as a “small miracle”, Shehan vouches for it being one of the easiest places to cover in a short space of time. “Everything is a drive away. Even if you want to go from Galle in the south to Jaffna in the far north, it isn’t an arduous journey. 

“In 10 days, you can travel from beaches to plantations, to this place called Nuwara Eliya – or Little England – and have quite a major experience. There’s also a beautiful little beach town called Bentota, barely an hour from Colombo. And I take my kids to see the leopards and elephants of the national parks at Udawalawe, Yala and Wilpattu.”

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He takes his kids to see elephants in Yala national park

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is a darkly comic satire, narrated by the ghost of a photographer tangled up in the politics of the afterlife. Set in Sri Lanka, most of the action takes place in the shadows of abandoned buildings and in the treetops above parks. 

It was for the novel that Shehan began to roam around the island in search of stories. Together with his buddies, he made road trips to haunted houses around the Hill Country in Nuwara Eliya and Kandy and a place called Ussangoda with a “bizarre red landscape”. 

“It looks like how I’d imagine Mars would look,” he explains. “All the sand on the beach is red, and there are geological reasons for it, but of course the imagination runs riot and it looks like a place where aliens might have landed. With the red soil and purple flowers and not many tourists, it stayed with me.”

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Sri Lanka’s comfort food is what he craves when he’s away

When I ask about his favourite haunts in Colombo, Shehan laughs – his wife would be appalled by his choices, apparently. “The places I would frequent… Hmm… It’s not so much a hidden gem, but in terms of restaurant food, you need to try kottu roti from Pilawoos. It’s the greatest kind of drunk food, equivalent to a 2am kebab. It’s roti and veggies and roast chicken usually, this shredded sort of mess, and there’s an egg on top of it.” 

He pauses, his face lighting up at the thought of it. “It’s a great comfort food. I might have one tonight. It’s the food I crave whenever I’m away. Now, it’s definitely not the flashiest restaurant – you sit outside in your car and the waiter will bring it out to you with a lime juice at 3am – but I think it’s the quintessential Sri Lankan experience.” 

Going further, he then suggests arrack – the local grog: “Arrack is somewhere between whisky and rum and it’s best with ginger beer. That’s what people drink when they sit around and talk politics and nonsense. I like Randoli Bar, where all the dodgy types go to drink, because there’s a nice balcony and you get proper bites: devilled chicken, fried rice, stuff you buy and munch when you’re drinking.”

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The country’s hotels also influenced his book

When it comes to hotels, he can’t talk highly enough of Helga’s Folly, just outside the cultural capital, Kandy. “It’s actually called a ‘non-hotel’ and is owned by former Dior model, Helga De Silva Blow Perera. It’s another place I visited as research for a haunted house. So Helga… She walks with a Dalmatian, has dark glasses, very glamorous – and the hotel is all built in her image, full of vibrant colours, lots of artefacts.” 

With guests from Gregory Peck and Vivian Leigh to Kelly Jones of the Stereophonics (who immortalised the owner in the song Madame Helga), the hotel is completely wild, with incredible décor. 

“The place was quite a big influence when I was visualising all the characters for my book, because there’s one area with all these murals on the wall, just this wonderland kind of place.”

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Next year, Shehan is going on the road again

Over the next 12 months, Shehan is going to be on the road again, in many more hotels – probably pining for Pilawoos from afar. 

So, what would he like to find stocked in the perfect minibar, I wonder? “Jaffa Cakes. When someone says ‘what do you want from London’, it’s Jaffa Cakes. Jaffa Cakes, if you’re listening: there is a big fan in Sri Lanka and I can help spread the gospel.”

Shehan Karunatilaka’s Booker Prize novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, is out now. 

To pen your own personal story this year, join Flash Pack’s 12-day adventure in Sri Lanka with other like-minded travellers in their 30s and 40s.

Images: Dominic-Sansoni, Flash pack and Unsplash

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