Shehan Karunatilaka: An unlikely literary star
Winner of the DSC South Asian Literary prize, Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka's Chinman is a sports novel that has transcended sport.
By Binoo K. John
Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka is an unlikely literary star. He wears his stardom lightly, unable to figure out the grandiose stature his debut novel Chinaman has assumed since its publication in late 2010. Now, after winning the DSC South Asian Literary Prize worth $50,000, the highest such prize in this part of the world (The Booker Prize is worth a bit more at £ 50,000), Karunatilaka has wedged himself into the grand tradition of Sri Lankan English writing, which includes writers like Michael Ondatje (Booker winner in 1992) and Romesh Gunasekara.
But ask Shehan anything about all this and he will, with a disarming smile, wonder what he did to deserve all this hoopla.
When you try to drag him into a cricket conversation, again he says disarmingly that he is not much of an expert on cricket. He did not really know what a Chinaman in cricket is, yet it served as a deadly title for his prize winning novel.
Like all debutant writers, Shehan’s manuscript too travelled a long distance and collected its share of rejection slips before Chiki Sarkar, then chief of Random House in India, saw its potential and sent it on its journey. And Shehan got a roller-coaster ride to literary fame. And now I can see that disarmingly innocent smile of disbelief as he turns that cheque over in his hands and lets go with a familiar rant of triumph.
When Shehan came to Trivandrum for the Kovalam Literary Festival in October, the first thing he wanted was Old Monk rum and another variety of exotic substance for which Kerala has long been famous (hence God’s Own Country!) Heaving and panting to beat the deadline we reached a shop just seconds before the shutters were down and managed to get a bottle of Old Cask. Needless to say that night was long.
For Shehan, his writing career is going to be a long journey. Chinaman’s triumph lies in the fact that it is very unpretentious in the way it sets out telling a story. And through the first person narrative of a journalist in search of a forgotten cricketer, Pradeep Mathew, the novel manages to envelope the larger stories of social conflict, family life, the dangers and triumphs of having a sense of purpose and ultimately the meaninglessness of it all. Subversive, irreverent, full of Sri Lankan cockney and utterly uninhibited in the way it celebrates the unconventional, Chinaman is a major achievement.
Pradeep Mathew is a fictional figure though Shehan has a cricketer in mind who vanished from the scene. That brief flicker of fame and that slide into oblivion is the very nature of life , sport and stardom. To make a film of Mathew and thus get him his due place in the history of Sri Lankan cricket is what the narrative is all about. But the search for Mathew is also, for the characters, inevitably a search for meaning in life and the “mathematics of situations”, as the narrator, the hard drinking journalist, says. In writing a sports novel, Shehan transcended sport.
Some of an adman’s creative energies are visible in the book, with diagrams and deliberately darkened photographs littering the 400-page novel. And often you get the feeling that the author is up to some clever tricks and in the next page he is going to throw it on you.
Throughout the narrative there is this constant mocking or daring of death by cricket narrator and journalist Karunasena. In hospital, where the novel begins, the doctor pronounces a verdict like all doctors do to bring in the fear of death on the alcoholic:
‘Mr Karunasena, your liver is being destroyed.”
“At least I have my heart”
“You should have told us you have liver problems,” his friend Ari tells him.
“You should have told me you thought Murali was a chucker."
Cricketing metaphors and similes abound in the book, and for lapsed cricket writers like this reporter, it brought back many memories of cricket reporting which has now lost its meaning due to television. In many ways the book is a celebration of journalism as we knew it, just as it is of cricket as a sport which both unites and splits nations, families and friends.
So much is written about the unseen Pradeep Mathew, his cricket and his love life that the entire novel exists in some twilight zone where the real conflicts with the fictional.
Through this history of one man’s drinking is unveiled the story of many lives. The books leaves you with a haunting hangover that you don’t mind.
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