Anil's Ghost

Author’s Note

From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, Sri Lanka was in a crisis that involved three essential groups: the government, the antigovernment insurgents in the south and the separatist guerrillas in the north. Both the insurgents and the separatists had declared war on the government. Eventually, in response, legal and illegal government squads were known to have been sent out to hunt down the separatists and the insurgents.

Anil’s Ghost is a fictional work set during this political time and historical moment. And while there existed organizations similar to those in this story, and similar events took place, the characters and incidents in the novel are invented.

Today the war in Sri Lanka continues in a different form.


In search of a job I came to Bogala

I went down the pits seventy-two fathoms deep

Invisible as a fly, not seen from the pit head

Only when I return to the surface

Is my life safe . . .

Blessed be the scaffolding deep down in the shaft

Blessed be the life wheel on the mine’s pit head

Blessed be the chain attached to the life wheel . . .

—Miner’s folk song, Sri Lanka

When the team reached the site at five-thirty in the morning, one or two family members would be waiting for them. And they would be present all day while Anil and the others worked, never leaving; they spelled each other so someone always stayed, as if to ensure that the evidence would not be lost again. This vigil for the dead, for these half-revealed forms.

During the night, plastic sheeting covered the site, weighted down with stones or pieces of iron. The families knew the approximate hour the scientists would arrive. They removed the sheeting and got closer to the submerged bones until they heard the whine of the four-wheel drive in the distance. One morning Anil found a naked footprint in the mud. Another day a petal.

They would boil up tea for the forensic team. In the worst hours of the Guatemalan heat they held up a serape or banana leaf to provide shade.

There was always the fear, double-edged, that it was their son in the pit, or that it was not their son—which meant there would be further searching. If it became clear that the body was a stranger, then, after weeks of waiting, the family would rise and leave. They would travel to other excavations in the western highlands. The possibility of their lost son was everywhere.

One day Anil and the rest of the team walked to a nearby river to cool off during their lunch break. On returning they saw a woman sitting within the grave. She was on her haunches, her legs under her as if in formal prayer, elbows in her lap, looking down at the remains of the two bodies. She had lost a husband and a brother during an abduction in this region a year earlier. Now it seemed as if the men were asleep beside each other on a mat in the afternoon. She had once been the feminine string between them, the one who brought them together. They would return from the fields and enter the hut, eat the lunch she had made and sleep for an hour. Each afternoon of the week she was part of this.

There are no words Anil knows that can describe, even for just herself, the woman’s face. But the grief of love in that shoulder she will not forget, still remembers. The woman rose to her feet when she heard them approach and moved back, offering them room to work.


She arrived in early March, the plane landing at Katunayake airport before the