Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka, who recently won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), came down for the Kolkata Literary Meet 2012. Here he speaks about his debut book Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, how sports is hardly utilised for content and the importance of awards and controversies in a writers life:
Whats the role of cricket in this book?
Cricket is just a device. Its actually a detective story about a drunken sports writer whos trying to track down a mysterious cricketer. I designed it so that if you know nothing about cricket or Sri Lanka, youll still get into the book. Of course, if you are a cricket fan, the experience will be much richer.
Have sports stories become alarmingly scarce?
When I was researching, I didnt find many cricket stories around. I was quite surprised, because sports is designed for conflict. Theres drama on the field and off the field. Even today, if you look at Indias performance in Australia or at Sri Lanka losing the World Cup, there are many novels and stories there.
There was quite a ruckus about Rushdie at the JLF
It made no sense to me. (Salman) Rushdie has not produced just one idea. His books are about a host of ideas. To paint him as a man trying to bring down Islam is complete nonsense. Right next to him was a man called Richard Dawkins. He brought down God. No one cares about him. If you want to target someone for blasphemy, thats the guy. Sri Lanka, too, suffered last year. Orhan Pamuk and Kiran Desai didnt come to the Galle Literary Festival. Some say they couldnt get a visa. But some say it was probably because they were launching a protest against the treatment of journalists in Sri Lanka. I dont know if lit fests are places where you can make political statements.
So what helps a book more awards or controversies?
(Smiles) When I launched Chinaman, we were thinking of playing up the fact that Pradeep Mathew is real. A day before the launch, his lawyer calls the newspapers and says, A libellous book is coming out about my client. I demand it be banned in Sri Lanka! In the end, we chickened out. But these are cheap tricks. Controversy is good, but I certainly wouldnt want to be in a position where I cant go to a lit fest because I have angry mobs threatening me. Writers are pretty passive people (smiles again).
Youve also written many travel pieces. What are you writing next?
I used to work in advertising. I quit my job to write this book. Thats when I took up travel writing. I really enjoyed it, because it gave me the opportunity to explore Sri Lanka. I've started on my next novel, but Im still figuring out what the story is. Im researching a lot of true stories. It will be set in Sri Lanka. And its not going to be about cricket or sports.