Opening Spell

Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka's rollicking debut novel is about cricket and dark realities off the pitch.

Sri lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka would wake up every morning to find "chimerical sportswriter WG Karunasena perched near his writing desk". The retired and fictitious WG who drinks milk-less tea (with three teaspoons of sugar and five tablespoons of Old Reserve) would then share gossip about Pradeep Mathew, a spin bowler who played four Test matches for Sri Lanka before disappearing forever, with the real-life author. Karunatilaka's debut book, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, spins fact with fiction, and often blurs the boundary between the two. It won the 2008 Gratiaen Prize and high praise from both novelists and cricket

writers alike.

The 400-page book (Random House) is a rollicking account of a hack's obsession, leading to uncommon discoveries. With an ease of touch and with a knack for the ironic, Karunatilaka tells the story not just of cricket but of Sri Lanka. Why did he choose cricket to tell the story of the island nation? The author, who had adolescent fantasies of joining the national cricket team, says, "It's the only thing we've managed to be world-class at. It's the only cause that the whole nation gets behind. If nothing else, it's helped convince Sri Lankans that they can be as good as anyone else."

WG echoes his sentiment, when he contrasts spinners with plumbers, "Left-arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children or cure you of disease. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there may be no practical use in that, there is most certainly value."

But this book goes far beyond the euphoria of cricket, exposing the seamier side, be it dubious money deals, lascivious cricketers or diplomats with terrible secrets. Chinaman was written in Colpetty and Havelock Town, neighbourhoods of Colombo. Karunatilaka is certain that this book would not have been written if he had not been in the midst of the country's sights and sounds. The civil war simmers beneath the text's surface. It appears in the form of "men with clubs and knives storming buses" and asking passengers to speak Sinhala.

Having grown up in Colombo, Karunatilaka found himself, "far away from the fighting, but not always safe from it." He says, "For most of us, the war represented the ultimate dropped catch or wasted match. It stagnated a country that could've been unstoppable." The war, the death, the destruction, however, never overwhelm the story at hand. "To write about modern Sri Lanka and to avoid the war would be dishonest. But I kept it peripheral, probably because I was and still am unsure about how to talk about it directly," he explains. He talks instead about "cricket and drunks", believing that he didn't have the knowledge or insight to write directly about the people and the country.

While cricket fanatics might sweep through the book, looking for slips and silly points, they'd be surprised to know that this author of ads, rock songs and travel stories, is not "that much into cricket". But erring on the side of caution, he watched every Sri Lanka game from 1982 to 1999, poring over statistics and making notes, looking for those "untold stories".

Since the book stands up to cricket scrutiny, the obvious questions arise, whether Pradeep Mathew, a left arm chinaman and a right-hand batsman, born February 19, 1965, Colombo, is of this world or has crept out of the Karunatilaka's imagination. The author says, "Everything about Pradeep Mathew is true, except

his name."

To draw the reader into WG's sleuthing, the book contains tweaked names of players and even real cricketing images, with really blurry faces. But the photos add more than just the veneer of verisimilitude. "The main reason for the photos is that one of them held an important clue, which no one to date has pointed out."

The 64-year-old WG, a man with an arrack bottle and a mission, shares Spike Milligan's tone and Kurt Vonnegut's satirical streak. While Karunatilaka hopes he is nothing like WG (though he admits he will know only when he is 64), author and character's tone often seem to be similar.

In his email replies, Karunatilaka chooses humility over lordliness, attributing the nuances of his text more to accident than to grand intent. Talking about Vonnegut's influence in his work, he says, "I love how he mixes darkness and light so effortlessly, the way his voice creeps off the page and how he can distill a complex philosophical conundrum into a neat paragraph." While Milligan has not been a direct influence on Karunatilaka, he says that the author and comedian's writings share the space that he wanted for WG's voice.

If fiction inspires his work, so does sports writing. While creating Chinaman, he found himself frequently returning to sports journalist Simon Barnes and Ed Smith, whose writings "analyse the philosophy and sociology behind the sport". The comedy and absurdity of he game, appealed to him in Marcus Berkmann's Rain Men (which tells of the adventures and misadventures of a cricket team) and in author Lawrence Booth's writing. "It just showed me that there were other angles from which to write about cricket beyond traditional sport reportage," he says. But Karunatilaka looks beyond cricket writing and finds inspiration off the pitch as well. He also found himself moved by Nick Hornby's football chronicle Fever Pitch, which talks about "life, the universe and everything through 20 years worth of Arsenal games." He hates the team but admits liking the book.

Today, the book is receiving rave reviews, which the author finds "puzzling". But it has been a hard route to fame. It took five queries a week to agents and publishers and as many rejections, before Random House India gave the nod. The struggle for a publisher is described all too irreverently in Chinaman. It even describes Gratiaen Prize winning books, which were printed on good paper and had "saffron", "monsoon" or "frangipani" in their title. The 2008 winner of the prize says, "I hadn't won it when I was writing it and didn't expect to. Otherwise I would've been a bit more respectful."

His first book The Painter, a supernatural noir thriller, never saw the light of publishers. It lies in a box under his bed. He describes it as "poorly plotted, lazily researched and badly executed". Learning from the follies of this dead novel, where he simply wrote and pressed print, he devoted all his time to Chinaman, researching, writing and rewriting. Everything he writes is read by wife and art director Eranga Tennekoon, who pulls no punches. He says he pretends not to listen to her, but he does.

Once this novel had been put to press, Karunatilaka took a break from cricket. Having lived in the cricketing nations of Sri Lanka, UK and New Zealand, he doesn't miss the game yet in Singapore, where he now lives. The Sri Lankan cricket clubs like Lanka Lions and Ceylon Sports Club keep him in the know and cable TV keeps him up to date. "I'm looking forward to see who SL meets in the final of the World Cup from the comfort of Orchard Road (the hub of Singapore)," he says.

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