|Volume 6 | Issue 12 | December 2012 ||
Bowling Chinamans with Shehan Karunatilaka
Commonwealth Book Prize winner Shehan Karunatilaka talks about books, cricket and life with QUAZI ZULQUARNAIN ISLAM.
The first time I hear Shehan Karunatilaka speak, he is dissecting the relative merits of T20 cricket compared to Test cricket. Participating in a panel in the recently concluded Hay Festival alongside Bangladesh's Khademul Islam and the Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie, Shehan encapsulates my feelings about the shortest form of the game in a nutshell.
“I don't understand the concept,” says Shehan. “The reason fours and sixes are so special is because they are so rare.” I smile inwardly and even though we haven't met yet, I get the feeling that this is going to be one of those rare, mutually rewarding interviews. It almost doesn't turn out that way.
As the Commonwealth Book Prize winner, Shehan is seemingly in high demand. I am asked by organisers not to take more than 15 minutes of his time. Lunch is beckoning and I am sceptical about how much I can get out of him in such a short time period.
But the minute we start talking, my doubts prove ill-founded.
With his long, curly, salt and pepper locks, his full beard and his overall uber cool demeanour, Shehan looks, to me, more like a bass player in a smoky jazz bar. Instead, he is the hottest property in the South Asian literary scene at the moment with his first book Chinaman: The legend of Pradeep Matthew, earning rave reviews both in Sri Lanka and beyond borders.
The book tells the story of an over-the-hill sports journalist's, dogmatic and single-minded goal to uncover the mystery behind the greatest Sri Lankan spin bowler that no one knows.
In the media, Chinaman has been touted as a book about cricket. For me, it seems more to be a book about a sports journalist. And Shehan agrees. “It's true that the story is less about cricket than it is about WG (the protagonist of the novel) and his quest.”
And what a quest it is. WG is 64, and he is an alcoholic. He drinks arrack with everything and sometimes with nothing. He finds out he is dying and he is determined to leave behind a legacy. Unfortunately, his legacy seems not to include caring for his wife, Sheila, or his son Garfield (named after the legendary West Indian all-rounder Gary Sobers). His philosophy is that unlike life, sports matters and at one point in the book WG lays this philosophy bare for all to see: "In 30 years, the world will not care about how I lived, but in a hundred years, Bulgarians will still talk of Letchkov and how he expelled the mighty Germans from the 1994 World Cup with a simple header." In other words WG, at face value, seems to manifest every single stereotype of sports journalists. He is drunk, unhappy, starts fights and hates idealists but only because he is a failed one himself.
Part of the reason Chinaman has won so many fans is the voice in which it was written.
Shehan admits it was a challenge. “I tried to write the book in the third person, and it didn't work. I tried to do it through a series of interviews, and that didn't work. And then I tried writing it through the voice of this sports journalist, and it suddenly took over.”
WG's whims and personality dominate the book, and for Shehan replicating this took hours of 'work'. “I spent the best part of two years in bars between 4pm to 6pm drinking arrack with sports journalists. These guys are lovable people, but you have to catch them at the right time because after six they are absolutely incomprehensible,” he says. Having been part of the same journalist crew that Shehan writes about, I cannot dismiss his argument.
In the book, WG's central quest sees him embark on the making of a documentary about a Sri Lankan spin bowler who has seemingly disappeared into thin air and whose records have been removed from the history books. To WG and his sidekick Ari, Pradeep Sivanathan Matthew is the elusive genius, a master spinner whose repertoire includes the floater, the chinaman, and even the double bounce.
In the course of his quest, WG and Ari descend into the vivid imagination of Shehan which mingles fact, fiction, humour and tragedy into a wonderful end product that investigates the very fabric of Sri Lankan society.
But at its crux, Chinaman is also about one man's battle with the bottle.
“It is about a struggle with alcoholism,” says Shehan. “…but it was released in a World Cup year and the publishers wanted to go with cricket. At a certain point you have to let them do their thing,” he says.
Perhaps it was a wise decision because Chinaman is also about cricket with copious references made to actual cricket matches and actual cricket players. There is the Indian Lothario Mohinder Binny, there is Graham Snow, an Ashes hero, there is also the Great Lankan Opening Batsman (GLOB); all characters easily identifiable through clues riddled throughout the book. Touted by a friend, I cheekily inquire whether the GLOB is Sanath Jayasuriya. Shehan, equally cheekily bowls me a googly. “There are enough references in the book to reach your own conclusions,” he says with a smile.
For a man who wrote a book dominated by cricket, Shehan claims to be just a 'casual fan'. I am not entirely buying his argument, however, because he inquires about the score of the Bangladesh, West Indies Test match a number of times through the course of our chat. He confesses his like for Shakib al Hasan, despite the Bangladeshi bowling a more orthodox variety of spin than his Pradeep Matthew.
But even if there is any doubt over his allegiance to cricket, there should be none about the quality of Chinaman; a riveting book that uses cricket as a prism to explore the wider aspects of friendship, love and rivalries. In fact, there are so many elements to Chinaman that it is a wonder that cricket was what it has been tagged to so easily. As Shehan had explained in an earlier interview, Chinaman started off being “…a drunk detective story, then it became a character study, then a book about writing, then about fathers and sons, and suddenly all this Sri Lankan philosophy and sociology crept in as well.”
We are almost nearing the end of our conversation and I feel it would be amiss to leave without asking Shehan about the mythical protagonist of his tale, the legend of Pradeep Mathew.
This time, though, there is no smoke and mirrors from Shehan.
He defends with a straight bat when asked about his inspiration behind Matthew.
“There was no real fixed inspiration, but I have always been interested in the story of Anura Ranasinghe. Ranasinghe was the first schoolboy to play in the World Cup but never got a chance to fulfil his potential at the highest level after touring South Africa with a rebel side late in 1982,” says Shehan. The 25-year ban effectively ended his cricket career and threw his life in a downward spiral. Ranasinghe died in his sleep in November 1998. A right-handed batsman and a left-arm chinaman bowler he remains one of Sri Lankan cricket's most famously unfinished stories.
Adds Shehan: “Ranasinghe missed being selected for Sri Lanka's inaugural Test match by a whisker when he was just a schoolboy. Another youngster from the rival school took his place and scored a half-century on Test debut. That boy was Arjuna Ranatunga.”
Quazi Zulquarnain Islam is a sports journalist.
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