Although the idea of writing about cricket had been with Shehan Karunatilaka for sometime, the story of Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew occurred when the protagonist, Wijedasa Gamini Karunasena (WG)’s voice, emerged off the page.
“I started writing early morning before work. For the first month, I kind of sat half asleep in front of my computer at four in the morning. I would surf the Net, take a nap and nothing would happen. Then after a month, I starting waking up naturally at 3.59 a.m. and saw this drunk guy slumped on a chair, tanked up on a bottle, telling a story, which I wrote; it was almost like transcribing someone else’s words. That’s when the story kicked into gear.”
Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew won the 2012 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. The novel is unlike some of the serious novels that have emerged from the diaspora; it is a tale on cricket with the issue of Sinhalese-Tamilian conflict skilfully woven in. Above all, it is a lucidly written, humorous story.
The narrator WG Karunasena is a drunkard, who is determined to trace Pradeep Mathew, a Sri Lankan cricketer, who is an expert in the ‘chinaman’ technique of bowling.
Shehan never imagined that his novel would be read all over the world. In America, the novel is called The Legend of Pradeep Mathew . Chinaman was excluded from the title, Shehan explains, to make the novel more relevant for American readers. “At a reading held there, I drew parallels with baseball to explain cricket.”
There were other reasons too for the removal of Chinaman . “If I knew that the book would be read in Hong Kong and Singapore, I would have thought a bit more carefully about the name,” says Shehan, with a straight-face.
Ellis Achong, who was of Chinese-descent and played for the West Indian cricket team, is credited with evolving the Chinaman bowling style.
Shehan adds: “It is a talent, as rare as a Chinese playing cricket,” he says and continues, “It also has a Sinhalese context. ‘Ponytailed Chinaman’ is a term in Sinhalese used for a gullible person who tells tall stories.” One wonders if categories such as ‘South Asian Literature’ are useful; Shehan somewhat agrees.
“They are necessary, though not always accurate. Rahul Bhattacharya, who wrote Ondaatje , was once asked a similar question at last year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, to which he replied: ‘I don’t know what ‘South-East Asians’ mean, it just means people who like to eat daal.’ That said, there are many stories on Sri Lanka that haven’t been told, so I think such categories are useful as it gives us a larger readership,” says the Commonwealth Book prize and Gratiaen prize winner.
Speaking of the tradition of Sri Lankan writing in English, he says: “Prior to the Civil War, Sri Lanka was a paradise and seen as an economic super power. But over the last 50 years, we dismantled that paradise. We have had two Marxist insurrections, numerous political assassinations, a tsunami, and amid all this, we won a World Cup. A lot of stories that have come out of Sri Lanka centre around such issues, but now we are getting a lot of stories from the other side of the war. The country has been documented historically, but fiction-wise there’s a lot more to explore.”
Chinaman documents a bit of the 1983 riots in Sri Lanka, an event Shehan witnessed. “The war was a part of my life since I was eight years old. I never thought that in my lifetime that I would see the war end.”
Shehan was cocooned from the war because he stayed in Colombo. “The horrors of the war raged in the North and East. It is not like I lived in a war zone. In Colombo, we heard of bomb blasts and death and it became a part of our life.”
The conversation now veers to cricket. Though Shehan isn’t an obsessive cricket fan, he concedes that cricket is still interesting, except when Sri Lanka plays India.
The game lost some of its sheen, says Shehan, after the 1999 World Cup as “only one team kept winning.”
As for the clichéd question of what went through his mind when his name was announced as the DSC prize winner, Shehan says: “When your name is announced, you aren’t thinking, you just go up to receive your award while trying not to trip. With every prize, I think after I win what am I going to do and it’s usually that I am going to get back to writing.”
Shehan is writing his next novel, which he says “is not about sports or drunks,” but which he is trying to write “as differently as possible.”