Media & Culture

'I didn’t intend to write a national novel' - Shehan

Shehan Karunatilaka, is the winner of 2012 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the 2008 Gratiaen Prize for his book Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. He speaks with Mohammed Hanif about writing fiction, hanging around old men in bars to research for the book and South Asia’s obsession with cricket.

MH: What would your main character and cricket fanatic sports journalist WG say about the Sri Lanka-India final in the recently concluded World Cup?

I think WG may well have bought into the many conspiracy theories behind Sri Lanka’s selection decisions, lacklustre performance and slew of resignations. He may even rant about the dew and the wisdom of batting first. But I think his mate Ari would’ve reminded him that we were simply outplayed by a better batting line-up.

MH: Your novel has been described as the “Great Sri Lankan Novel,” a state of the nation novel. Did you set out to write that kind of novel?

Not really. I wanted to write a genre piece. Two detectives tracking a missing person. I just thought if I made the detectives drunk old men and made the “lady in the lake” a left-arm spinner, I might be able to stretch beyond the quest plot and talk about Sri Lankan politics and society. But that was incidental. I certainly didn’t intend to write a national novel.

MH: What had you written before Chinaman besides advertising copy, and by the way, is that good training for writing fiction? Salman Rushdie was a copy writer.

I started out writing songs. Have a couple of albums worth of rock songs from the 1990s, most of them terrible. And I did lots of television scripts, radio spots and press ads as part of my day job. Both are very immediate, disposable forms of writing. Not that there isn’t craft involved, but the agendas are vastly different to writing fiction. I did some travel and feature writing while I was doing Chinaman. But I don’t think anything can prepare you for writing fiction other than reading fiction.

MH: You have said that to research this novel you watched a lot of cricket and hung out with old men in bars. It seems a lot of hard work went into researching this book.

How fun the research is dictates whether I pursue a project or not. If I were writing a medieval odyssey about Buddhism in Sri Lanka, I would struggle with the research. But this one was just about learning about cricket and drunks. If you’re going to spend years crafting something, it’s important that the hard work doesn’t feel like work.

MH: The novel is overtly about cricket but it isn’t, there is violence but it’s happening somewhere else and there is talk of racism in cricket and in society. How did you achieve this balance? Did you have to make choices between life and cricket at certain points while writing this?

It was always to be about cricket and the quest. Everything else was gravy. The gravy did flood over the rice and curry a bit too often though. I just enjoyed listening to WG speak and let him ramble beyond the scope of the story. I had to edit a lot of his rants, though I did get to keep a few of them in.

MH: There is a lot of school loyalty going on in this book. Is it a Colombo middle class thing or more widespread? Which school did you attend? Did you play cricket?

I went to S. Thomas’ Prep in Colpetty, which is the junior school to S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia of the Royal-Thomian fame. I dreamed of going to Mount and playing in the big match, but instead got dragged to provincial New Zealand. And yes, I did bowl left-arm chinaman.

The school loyalty spreads beyond the middle-class in both directions, provided you went to a school you can brag about.

MH: Where, how and when did you conceive the mythical cricketer Pradeep Mathew?

Probably from my fantasies of being a great left-arm spinner. I had a bit of talent, but very little discipline. I thought I could break records without practicing.

I’ve also been attracted to one-hit wonders, bands that had one great album, actors that had one season in the sun and of course sports stars who faded after a few games. A big influence on this was a Peter Jackson mockumentary done in the early 1990s called Forgotten Silver, about the greatest film-making genius who ever lived. I stole from it, rather shamelessly.

MH: There are lots of real cricketers who make an appearance in your novel. There is that brilliant exchange between Miandad and Mathews. Was it problematic weaving in real life characters into a fictional narrative? It seems you had a lot of fun doing it.

It was great fun. Most of the details of Pradeep’s career followed matches and incidents that actually took place. It was mainly things that I came across in research that were too good to leave out. I remember watching with delight in 1986 as Miandad jumped into the crowd at the P. Sara Stadium, bat aloft, chasing a Lankan fan.
It wasn’t problematic coming up with back stories to these events, but it was a bit dicey using real names. So I used very badly disguised aliases, unless I was absolutely sure I wouldn’t get sued.

MH: Has anyone from Sri Lanka’s current cricket team read it? Has anyone from the cricket establishment read it? Their reactions?

Kumar Sanga had a read and generously contributed a quote. I don’t know too much about who else from the establishment has read it, though thankfully there hasn’t been a backlash so far, touch wood.

MH: In Pakistan we tend to blame a lot of our problems on the horrendous levels of illiteracy and generally bad education. Sri Lanka is the most literate country in our neighborhood but it has still had a long and bloody civil war. Is there anything Pakistan can learn from the Sri Lankan experience?

I’m not sure Sri Lanka is qualified to dish out any lessons to our neighbours. I suppose we are more literate and perhaps slightly less excitable, but that’s just because we’re far smaller and less burdened with the need to be great. We’re certainly not immune to the corruption and incompetence that plagues too much of South Asia.

MH: Why are South Asians so crazy about cricket? I know your main character says that “unlike life, sports matter” but still have you ever wondered?

Doesn’t make sense really. I would’ve thought football would be more suited to our conditions. I suppose South Asians must like standing around, waiting for something to happen, and are attracted to games that allow us to do that for days on end.


Mohammed Hanif is the author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes. | Photo courtesy: Eranga Tennakoon - Flicker

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