Shehan Karunatilaka Explores Sri Lanka Through Cricket

L-R: Rahul Bose, actor, and author Shehan Karunatilaka

MUMBAI, August 7, 2012 — The struggles and the effects of war on Sri Lankan society, portrayed through the lens of cricket, were one of the many topics discussed at Asia Society India Centre's event here with author Shehan Karunatilaka and actor and former member of the Indian rugby team Rahul Bose, on Karunatilaka's debut novel Chinaman, winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.

Karunatilaka revealed that as much as he initially tried to avoid addressing Sri Lanka's political and societal issues, they organically emerged as important aspects of Chinaman. Karunatilaka's initial premise was a question — "what if the greatest cricketer of all time was unfortunate enough to be playing for Sri Lanka in the 1990s?"

His straightforward story of a drunk chasing a "wasted genius," the cricketer Pradeep Mathew,  "became an allegory for Sri Lanka … because despite being a beautiful country blessed with so many gifts, in 60 years of independence we are still an underachieving third-world nation who've suffered a 30-year civil war."

The book was intended to be a short story; but as the author noted, "I like to think of the book as a drunk detective story … a classic quest plot ... and amidst this plot ... it ended up becoming a six-hundred-page tome about Sri Lankan history and politics and it ended up a little more unwieldy than I intended."

Karunatilaka also revealed that the book was never intended for audiences abroad, and despite trying hard to make the characters authentically local, audiences around the world could relate to them as well. He explained, "I was just writing for people like me … I just wanted to be authentic to a drunkard's way of telling a story."

To get a better understanding of Sri Lankan cricket in the 1950s and '60s, Karunatilaka spent time conversing with Sri Lankans who grew up in that era. Through these discussions, he not only learnt about Sri Lankan cricket during those decades, but also about the personal lives of these older men. He saw themes of sporting success interwoven with broken familial relationships, realizing that they all embodied his main character, the drunk, W.G. Karunasena.

Karunatilaka mentioned that although the idea for the book existed for a long time, he couldn't make it work until he found the voice and soul of the book in his protagonist. He concluded, "It was quite sad to say goodbye to him [W.G. Karunasena] so maybe there will be a sequel, who knows."

Reported by Mayanka Singh Nongpiur, Programme Assistant, Asia Society India Centre

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