The content of the book relates to cricket, politics and a sports journalist’s struggle to drop alcohol. The masterpiece by Shehan Karunathillaka is about a person’s amazing quest to find a cricketer who’s long forgotten. In doing so, readers are made to experience the main character in the book pour out all his feelings and emotions and untold stories. The author of the award winning book Karunathillaka has certainly managed to blend life with cricket. Through this literary creation he puts the typical Sri Lankan society and culture under the spotlight. The book has won many international awards and accolades such as Commonwealth book prize, 2012, DSC prize for South Asian Literature, Gratiaen Prize, 2008, Gratiaen prize, (short list) for his debut book, The Painter. It has been published in India and UK, and brought him tremendous responses. The Sinhala version of Chinaman was done by Dileepa Abeysekara. He has done a brilliant job with the Sinhala edition. We had a chat with both Karunathillaka and Dileepa Abeysekara, to know how a book based on the Sri Lankan society became an International bestseller.
Dileepa said that he was surprised that film makers or writers had not selected the subject of cricket till Karunathillaka touched on it through his book. Artistes have a relationship with cricket. They won’t do anything till they finish watching a match. In the mainstream culture we see cricket all the time, but it doesn’t translate into things that represent us
He is currently working on a novel which is based on the Sri Lankan society during the 1980s. He is also penning a short story collection, hoping to have something complete this year. According to Karunathillake, writing was not in his mind, at least not from the very beginning of his life. He used to keep diaries, read English, but didn’t have an ambition to write. He was into advertising and copy-writing. He had ideas for stories, but it was not until his twenties that he tried to write. He wrote a few drafts using the ideas, but never followed them. And then this idea to really write came in 2007 or 2008. Identifying past mistakes helped him. He took time off to write, did some research and began to write. It just happened.
For his book Chinaman, he selected the subject of cricket, a theme which we rarely see in a novel. It seemed an interesting idea to select cricket for a novel. And for him, it was the ideal theme because it was connected with the Sri Lankan society. At the time he was writing, the war was still raging and most Sri Lankan writings reflected on the war, ethnicity and class conflict. Basically, it sounded interesting for the writer to talk about cricket and describe how Sri Lankan cricket has developed so far. The book traces back to the 1950s. The book mentions our entry into Test cricket in the 1980s and winning the 1996 world cup, which is a great story by itself. After he finished researching he started to develop the characters, especially the two lead characters: W.G and Ari. Then he moved with the flow and the story gradually developed.
In response to the question whether people considered cricket as a religion in this country, he gave an interesting answer. He thought otherwise and said that religion has its own politics these days, and also cricket. He said that cricket unites. He gave a classic example. He said that during the 2007 World Cup, there was an unofficial ceasefire and the war stopped during that month. As soon as we got defeated in the final, where the Aussies bashed us and it was obvious that the game was lost, the LTTE started sending planes to attack Colombo. It was almost like the LTTE was furious over the defeat and started it all over again, he said, making everybody have a hearty laugh. In the recent World Cup we did not do well at all – and everyone was talking about it. It is a uniting force. And he said that the book is based on the life of Pradeep Matthew, a true story. He said that everything about Matthew is true except his name.
He based his research on ‘certain gossip’ he said. He got a lot of information talking to ex-cricketers, commentators, coaches, but not from people in the team.
Dileepa added to the conversation by saying, long before we got into playing world class cricket, there were so many cricket lovers around us and that they had their kind of favorite cricket. He said they were kind of miffed because they didn’t make it to the team. Everyone had their favorite cricketer and would talk about him.
Karunathillake said that cricket has now become professional. Earlier it was difficult to survive with cricket, and after the 1996 World Cup, money came flooding in, and the cricketers became superstars. No one thought that was possible before 1996. Now it’s become a global game. People retire from national cricket early and move on to IPL, but he does not see anything wrong with it.
Karunathilake said he thought conveying messages was dangerous. “When you write a book initially you write a story based on characters and incidents,” he said. In Chinaman, there are themes such as the generation gap, fathers and sons, talking about why he selected WG as the narrator of the book. He said he was the ideal person to do it. The book is lived through his voice.
He was a drunkard and he can exaggerate. If somebody else told it it would have sounded somber and farfetched. But when a drunkard tells the story, a reader can guess if he’s making it up or is it real. ‘Tall stories’ is a very Sri Lankan thing. Many Sri Lankan stories are obtained through gossip, folklore, and anecdotes. Also, WGs destructive journey, which emerged when Karunathillaka developed the story, showed the true side of an alcoholic. If you interview drunken people or read about them, you will see it is a very tedious process, and not so simple. The plot in the book is for WG to save himself from his destructive life. In general, the idea of the book is to make life meaningful. So he thinks WG (somewhat reminds of the great cricket legend, WG Grace) is an interesting character. Once he came in as a character the book received a bigger dimension. The voice is the most crucial thing in the book.
“That’s what they focused on when they did the Sinhala translation,” Dileepa expressed his opinion.
When he asked Karunathillaka what his opinion was, he said he wanted to find the voice of WG Then it was almost like writing WG’s own book and how WG would have felt. That he said was to see certain incidents in his drunken state and how he would explain it to another. Even in the beginning of the book you have a doubt and he even said that he doesn’t know if we would read this book. But you find him interesting.
Sometimes you don’t agree with him, and you see the bitter side of him as well. According to this subject of alcoholism, according to him, cricket and alcohol have been a part of the modern Sri Lankan life. It hasn’t really been portrayed in art forms. “Nowadays only cricket gives us a thrill. And also we’re fond of alcohol. And according to the statistics, we’re world class in that too,” he said.
Dileepa said that he was surprised that film makers or writers have not selected the subject of cricket till Karunathillaka touched on it with his book. The artistes have a relationship with cricket. They won’t do anything till they finish watching a match. In the mainstream culture we see cricket all the time, but it doesn’t translate into things that represent us.
Karunathillaka said that publishers would publish a book if it’s interesting. The attraction of publishers is more if you write about violence and politics. There are a lot of sports and sports blogging is active. Dileepa added that we try to keep it (cricket) away from artistic things. There is such a division in this country, because some people think that some subjects are not worthy enough talking about. It’s not the publishers, actually, but others such as writers sometimes. They pick their subjects thinking that it’s worth it. Karunathillaka said in America, the relationship between sport and literature is healthy. It’s a cool thing for the Liter achy to write about some sport.
Dileepa said that when he told Karunathillaka that he did not know that much about cricket, he said it was not about cricket. And he loved the fact that it starts off with a cricketer and later on develops with WGs search for him. Karunathillake said it was more like a detective story. He especially liked the part where Ari’s theory about how Royal-Thomian rivalry was born. But that kind of imagination intrigues everyone. Can one guy mimic all the actions and have a final say in the outcome of the game? It’s just not about the game, he said. In the book it’s the most boring game to watch. “But the drama in it is in the people’s minds”, said Dileepa.
Karunathillake said that it is true that WGs son, Garfield Karunasena is a fantasy, a version of himself. This guy was a guitarist, had one hit and lives off it. That’s the musician’s dream; to make a hit and be well off for the rest of your life.
And his lifestyle was quite different from Garfield’s. That was also fun because when the book ends you don’t know if the story is real or not. How much of the author is in the character, were they based on his real life experiences or not. There was fun in that too and it was intentional. There were obvious similarities and also differences. He said that he would write something interesting rather than something radical so that it would capture the reader. The idea is to write a book which a person would always enjoy. That’s why he got the idea of the drunkard and associated that with cricket. It’s an area which most writers haven’t touched. It takes a long time to write a book, something like 2-3 years. One must keep observing trends because by the time you finish the book that trend would be gone. He believes that the content in a book must be original and different.
When asked if he expected Chinaman to receive such a response and be considered for international awards, he answered in the negative. “Awards are a great thing and you welcome them, but one doesn’t think of writing expecting awards. It’s not worth writing that was,” he said.
Chinaman was very lucky, graduating from the Gratiean to the Commonwealth prize. Karunathileke said if you measure your success through awards, then you are going to be a lonely writer.
After mentioning that only a few writers like Ashok Ferrey, Romesh Gunasekara and Michael Ondajje made it to the international level, and asked if more writers should emerge both in the Sinhala and English Literature stream, Dileepa said that the Sinhala Literary world is a little stuck in the 50s. He added that we still talk about the great works of the 50s. Not that there haven’t been any attempts. Even now we see some brilliant writings, but we don’t seem to think that there is a world out there that we can explore, using different styles. He wishes more people would go out and write nice stories, without being stuck in class conflict and other themes. What he likes in Chinaman is, it’s very lighthearted. It’s about a dying man, but you can have a laugh. That is missing in most of our books, especially in Sinhala Literature. That funny side is missing. We all enjoy a good joke. The English writers are not like that. For an example, ”Funny boy” written by Shyam Selvadurai, funny boy had his moments which made him forget it was 1983. There are lighthearted moments about life in Colombo before 1983. This book was translated into Sinhala by Sugathapala De Silva, and it had an interesting name too, ” Amuthu ilandaria”. He thought that was brilliant. He took the gist of it and made it sound more readable. We haven’t seen those kinds of attempts being made for the past 10-15 years.
Karunathillaka chipped in, saying that they are all privileged to write about Sri Lanka as Sri Lankan writers. He said writers have tried writing while being abroad, but they have always returned to write about Sri Lanka, because there are so many things to write about this country.
If you write a story it should be about what it feels like to be under those circumstances, what it feels like to live in the North and East, in the thick of the war. The Colombo based English writers like Karunathilake, wrote a fraction of those stories. It’ll be a great thing if English writers from all parts of the country should come up with creations, even now. He said quite a bit has been put into paper but the writing is amateurish. He said he likes to see the next generation of writers coming up who possess vigor. He said he didn’t support the idea that you have to write stories to cater to the international market. He said that you can always write a very localized one and make it appeal to the international market.
Regarding the writing style, and attempts made to change it by force, Karunathillaka said, if you think about it too much, you’ll lose it. Writing style, he said, is important, and added that it comes with time. The Observer queried why his debut novel,” The Painter” was not published, despite it not being nominated for the Gratiean prize. He said when he wrote it he hadn’t done research. He had stopped writing after that, and waited until he really had the knowledge and information to write. He balances his writing career with his professional career as a creative copywriter. He said he enjoys flexibility as a freelance writer. It’s not that easy, but he balances both writing and his career. He said he enjoys writing features for Magazines such as Wisden, Rolling stone and papers like the Guardian.
Karunathilake said he is happy with the journey Chinaman has made so far and even happier to see the translation of the book in Sinhala language. Dileepa, who translated the book, said that the translation is one of the greatest things he has done so far and added that it was similar to writing his own book.