Shehan Karunatilaka's Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew was self-published in Sri Lanka and is now all ready to uproot stumps in India. He spoke exclusively to CNN-IBN editor-in-chief and cricket nut Rajdeep Sardesai for HT Read:
Rajdeep Sardesai: At last a solid book of fiction with the subcontinent's biggest obsession cricket as a backdrop. You obviously love the game.
Shehan Karunatilaka: In 32 Songs, Nick Hornby described himself as a casual Bob Dylan fan, even though he owned over 25 Dylan albums. I have a similar relationship to cricket. I watched it as a kid, tried playing it as a teenager and then gradually switched off. I don't mind the game and I'll follow a World Cup or a Test Series if I have the time. But I'm not a die-hard obsessive. But I realised the story is about a cricket fanatic and that the book will probably be read by many cricket fanatics. So I did my homework as thoroughly as I could. The game lends itself to drama, political commentary and philosophical musing. Researching it was fun. But I haven't watched a full game of cricket since I finished it.
RS: Did you set out to write a book about cricket, or a book about Sri Lankan society with cricket as a metaphor for life?
SK: Sri Lanka is a case study in wasted potential and lost opportunities. Despite what people say about our beaches and our tea, I believe that cricket is the only thing that Sri Lanka has been truly world-class at. Most of Sri Lankan literature over the last few decades focuses on the war, tsunami, race divisions, poverty, colonial classes and corruption. I was mystified as to why no one had yet attempted to write about the one thing that the world knows us best for. My intention was to use cricket as a device to write about Sri Lanka, just as I had intended WG Karunasena to be a device to explore the Pradeep Mathew story. Somewhere in the writing, the focus shifted and before I knew it, the devices had taken over the machine.
RS: CLR James's epic Beyond the Boundary used cricket to give us a window into West Indian life and was strongly political. Your book sees the Tamil-Sinhala conflict flit in and out.
SK: While there may not be too many great cricket novels, there's certainly an abundance of brilliant cricket biography, analysis and match-reporting. Then there's CLR James and writers like Simon Barnes, Lawrence Booth, Ed Smith and Marcus Beckman who use the sport to talk about life, the universe and everything. The Sinhala-Tamil conflict is inescapable if you're describing the Sri Lankan experience. As we all know, race rears its head in most scenarios involving power and money. Cricket is no exception. To write about it and not touch on the race issues would've been naïve and dishonest.
RS: Does your protagonist, the chinaman bowler Pradeep Mathew, a Sri Lankan Tamil, resemble anyone in particular?
SK: Everything about Pradeep Mathew is true apart from his name. That's my story and I intend to stick to it.
RS: The book, at one level, has an undercurrent of darkness running through it. Was that consciously done?
SK: Not consciously, but then again, to write about Sri Lanka over the last 30 years without dark undercurrents would be to write fairy tales or propaganda. The story is about a bitter alcoholic and a forgotten genius, set in a corrupt, poverty-stricken island torn by civil war. I tried to keep it light, but it was a losing battle.
RS: In a sense, Sri Lanka's victory in the 1996 World Cup provided you a platform to perhaps explore the idea of a book of life in the island through the prism of cricket. Could World Cup 2011 encourage you to look at Sri Lankan society again, this time maybe a post-LTTE Sri Lanka?
SK: I will be watching the 2011 World Cup to see who Sri Lanka beats in the final. I'm currently writing a novel about Sri Lankan society again. But I'm going to steer clear of cricket and post-LTTE Sri Lanka. The latter, because it's way too early to make any sort of coherent comment on it. The former, because it's hard to ride a horse if you keep flogging it.