Sunday, March 06, 2011

"I was asked if the Tamil Tigers was a basketball team" - a Q&A with Shehan Karunatilaka

[Did this interview with Shehan Karunatilaka, author of Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. I wrote about the book here.]

Chinaman centres on an elderly journalist’s obsession with a nearly forgotten spin bowler, who he believes was Sri Lanka’s greatest cricketer. How long have you been a cricket fan, and how did the idea for this book come to you?

I watched Wettimuny score 190 at Lords in 1984, watched us get thrashed around the world for a decade, and then in my early 20s saw us win a World Cup and change the face of cricket. But after Sri Lanka’s dismal exit from the 1999 world cup, I stopped following the game. I just found better things to do. And it’s not much fun watching Australia win everything.

It amazed me that no one had written about the one thing that Sri Lanka is truly world-class at. The idea came in bits and pieces over the years and when I realised it had to be about an obsessive cricket fan, I became one for a while. But these days, I’d much rather watch Newcastle United.

To you, as a Sri Lankan and as a writer, what does the fictional Pradeep Mathew represent? Did you see him as a pretext for telling other stories about Sri Lankan society/politics, or did you start with the core idea of a tragic, enigmatic hero and then gradually build the other stories around him?

The former. Sri Lanka is a study in wasted potential and lost opportunities. We’ve all heard stories about mythical Ceylon and how it inspired Lee Kuan Yew to build his capitalist utopia in Singapore. Half a century after independence, we’re an underachieving nation. We’ve spent seven decades squandering all our natural gifts and embracing war, nepotism, corruption and laziness.

The tale of a forgotten genius spinner seemed an interesting way of exploring this without getting too preachy or heavy handed. Not sure if I succeeded.

The structure of the book is very lively: non-linear, full of little asides. Why did you choose to do it this way? And as a reader, do you prefer disjointed narratives?

It certainly didn’t happen by design. I just uncovered so many wonderful stories about cricket and Sri Lanka in my research that I couldn’t help but chuck everything into the mix. Fortunately, the choice of a drunk as narrator (the journalist WG Karunasena) allowed me to ramble and make it seem like a stylistic device!

I read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut, who also intersperses plot with asides and has that beautiful tone that veers between hilarity and horror, something which I wanted to purloin for WG’s character. I’m not a big fan of disjointed narratives. I’m still unable to fathom Ulysses. But I am in awe of writers like Salman Rushdie or directors like David Lynch, who can fashion a story out of chaos.

Your depiction of an elderly narrator searching for fulfilment as his life draws to an end is spot on. What observations did you draw on to make WG such a well-rounded character?

My main challenge was to write as a 64-year-old and not as a 32-year-old trying to sound like one. I interviewed countless drunkards, uncles, grandpas and elderly journos to try and capture that voice. Even though I was chatting to most of them about cricket, details from their interior lives seemed to creep into our conversations. I gratefully let them ramble and took detailed notes.

The book was originally self-published – was that because you wanted to retain control over the work or did you have trouble finding a publisher?

I didn’t anticipate that a novel on Sri Lankan cricket would interest an international reader. I just wanted to write something that stayed on topic and was entertaining and truthful. Once it was done I sent it to the printer just like all Sri Lankan writers do. I kept optimistically sending queries to international agents and publishers, but I wasn’t holding my breath.

Then, at the Galle Literary Festival, I was fortunate to meet Amit Varma, author of My Friend Sancho, who was kind enough to give me some useful email addresses. I fired a few queries to some of India’s leading publishers and was lucky enough to get a response. By then the self-published version was already out in Sri Lanka.

Chinaman mixes fact and fiction: you mention actual matches and real-life cricketers and incidents. In a story that touches on match-fixing and other controversies, were you worried that the book would get into trouble?

All the lawyers I spoke to said that getting sued would be great for sales. In the Sri Lankan edition, the names and the references are much more obvious, but I didn’t think I’d get in trouble, because I wasn’t saying anything that was disputed or untrue. Cricketers like to party and enjoy the company of women who aren’t their wives. Some of them fix matches. These are hardly revelations.

Most of the stories in Chinaman are embellished versions of anecdotes shared with me by cricketers and commentators. I’ve taken care to only use real names if I’m saying something nice. So most of the time it’s badly disguised pseudonyms.

You’ve created an elaborate online world for the fictional Mathew. Did you do this alongside the writing of the novel or was it done as a promotional measure after you had finished writing it?

Apologies. But I have no idea what you’re talking about. You’ll need to ask my friend Garfield about that!

[Interviewer's note: “Garfield” is a character in the book, the estranged son of the narrator WG]

You’ve lived and worked in England and New Zealand, among other places. Where were you living when Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 96 and what effect did the win have on you on a personal level? Did you find a change in the attitudes of other people (non-Lankans) towards you?

Hell yes. I was an undergrad in New Zealand at the time. I had dreadlocks then and let everyone assume I was from the Caribbean. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of being Sri Lankan, it’s just that no one had heard of us. And it wasn’t a fact that impressed girls you were trying to pick up. One asked me if the Tamil Tigers was a basketball team.

But after we won the World Cup, I’d wear a Sri Lankan flag as a bandanna on the streets of Wellington and Palmerston North and get greeted with immediate recognition from strangers. I shaved off my dreadlocks soon afterwards.

1996 was a fairytale even for those outside of Sri Lanka. We were an underdog up against a bully everyone hated and we had tricks up our sleeve and it was a story everyone could get behind. If nothing else, it helped us all believe that we as Sri Lankans could be as good as everyone else.

At a broader level, what was the importance of that win for your country? Has cricket been a uniting force?

After ’96, cricket in Sri Lanka inevitably became a commodity that attracted politicians and big business. The book, or rather WG, believes that sport can be a political and poetic force that can transcend reality. I don’t actually believe that.

While I can’t deny the power of sport in capturing national consciousness, like say in South Africa during the ’95 rugby world cup, it think it would be a bit wet to suggest that ’96 helped us overcome our divisions and prejudices.

Having said that, when a cricket match is on, we all use it as an excuse to forget about floods and tsunamis and wars and human rights. During the 2007 world cup, the LTTE even declared a ceasefire, which of course they broke right after Gilchrist hammered us out of the final.

Even if we win another world cup, it’ll never be like ’96 again. Now the country expects us to win, back then it was a miracle.

“Unlike life, sport matters,” your narrator says at one point. To you, what is the significance of sport?

I think sport is a harmless distraction and a lot of it can be forgettable. But there are moments that can be truly magical where a sporting event can attain myth. And to a sports fan, a game can represent something far greater than life and that was really what I was trying to capture.

Can you name some of your favourite sports-related books?

I’ll have to give you a very condensed list. Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. Simon Barnes’ The Meaning of Sport. Marcus Beckmann’s charming Rain Men. And the sports writings of CLR James, Ed Smith, Lawrence Booth, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton and Hunter S Thompson.

If you steal from enough sources, you get to pass it off as research.

[A version of this appeared in the Hindu Literary Review]


  1. hello jai :)
    i have read your blog on and off before i knew about email subscription and when , it waas carefully monitored what i did on the internet (which wasn't very useful but getting to the point)
    i recently got routed back to your blog, and this time i subscribed. i love you blog .and its amazing to read all the wonderful people you meet and the amazing things they say and you say.

    i am a student as lady shri ram , new delhi - and there are hordes of srilankans in my college. infact , a couple of them are my closest friends. the cricket craze that almost embalms them, i was shocked to know, that at one time, a strong team like sri lanka too was nowhere on the map.

    p.s. looking forward to read the book - though i would rather watch us beat them than read about them

    keep writing :))


  2. Thanks, Devika - nice to know that the blog is still being read, what with Facebook, Twitter etc having monopolised the Internet! And yes, do read the book if you get a chance. It's one of the most vibrant and inventive debut novels I've come across in a while.

  3. Interesting interview...looking forward to read the book. Somehow missed reading this yesterday. Thanks Jai.

  4. Realy very interesting.beautiful post..thanks for sharing here..

  5. Hi Jai -- In both the book review & the Q &A you don't mention (or perhaps I missed) the reference to that video pirate inspired by the character who tried to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi in 1987. *Yeah, so good, he even can get you a copy of Godfather 4!*

    But funny thing -- now bootlegging pirated Hindi & Tamil DVDs for a living.