Shehan Karunatilaka – Chinaman

The Jaipur Literary Festival starts this Friday and our hottest young writer there is Shehan Karunatilaka whose novel Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Matthew, about an alcoholic sports writer and his obsession with a spin bowler called Pradeep Matthew, is creating waves everywhere. In Sri Lanka it has been hailed as the ‘great Sri Lankan novel’, Waterstones, UK’s big bookstore chain, has picked the book as one of their top debuts of 2011, and Michael Ondaatje has called it, ‘a crazy ambidextrous delight’.

Chinaman is published in early February but for the readers of our blog, here’s a sneak peek…

Pradeep Who?

Begin with a question. An obvious one. So obvious it has already crossed your mind. Why have I not heard of this so-called Pradeep Mathew?

This subject has been researched lengthwise and breadthwise. I have analysed every match our man has played in. Why, you ask, has no one heard of our nation’s greatest cricketer?

Here, in no particular order. Wrong place, wrong time, money, and laziness. Politics, racism, powercuts, and plain bad luck. If you are unwilling to follow me on the next God-knows-how-many pages, re-read the last two sentences. They are as good a summary as I can give from this side of the bottle.

Pradeep Why?

Another question. Why am I chasing a man who played only four test matches for Sri Lanka? A man who denied me interviews, delighted me on occasion, disappointed those he played with, and disappeared three years ago. A man whose name is remembered by a minority smaller than our tribal Veddah population.

I ask myself this right after my bath and my morning tea. My tea is taken milk-less with three teaspoons of sugar and five tablespoons of Old Reserve. As you will soon see, I take arrack with a lot of things.

So when did Pradeep Mathew stop being just another Lankan spinner of the 1980s? When did he become something worth obsessing over? A cause I would champion? To answer that I will take you to a boxing match between two men in dinner jackets. One was my dearest friend; the other, my oldest enemy.

Wicket

The word wicket can refer to the three stumps that the bowler attempts to hit. ‘The ball almost hit the wicket there.’

The surface they are playing on. ‘The Eden Gardens wicket is dry and difficult to bat on.’

The bowler’s performance. ‘Laker’s taken 7 wickets in this match so far.’

The batting line-up’s mortality. ‘South Africa lose 5 quick wickets.’

Its versatility is bettered only by a four-letter word that serves as noun, verb, adjective, adverb, and expletive.

Clean Bowled

The simplest dismissal is when the bowler knocks over the batsman’s wickets. Mathew did this with most of his victims. He sent left-arm chinamen, googlies, armballs, and darters through pads and feet. Here is a not-so-random sample of batsmen whose bails he dislodged. Border. Chappell. Crowe. Gatting. Gavaskar. Gower. Greenidge. Hadlee. Imran. Kapil. Lloyd. Miandad.

You are shaking your head. You are closing the book and frowning at the cover. Re-reading the blurb at the back. Wondering if a refund is out of the question.

Punch-up at a Wedding

In the buffet corner, weighing over 100 kilos, from the bridegroom’s hometown of Matara, sports journo, talent broker, amateur coach: Newton ‘I came to eat, not to be insulted’ Rodrigo.

In the champagne corner, weighing under 180 lbs, teacher, preacher, video fixer, uninvited guest: Ariyaratne ‘I have watched every test match since 1948’ Byrd.

Ari is my neighbour and my drinking partner. I have smuggled him in and he has smuggled in a bottle. The Oberoi wasn’t Ari’s usual watering hole. He has tanked up already at somewhere far less plush. I should have expected trouble.

We are at the wedding of the Great Lankan Opening Batsman, or the GLOB as we shall call him. The GLOB is a man of the people and has invited to his wedding members of the press, ground staff, and a sprinkling of international cricketing celebrities.

Thirty tables away, Graham Snow and Mohinder Binny are swooning over a gaggle of girls. Both were former players who became commentators and then became players. The buffet table has seven types of buriyani. Next to vats of chicken, Tyronne Cooray, the Minister for Sports and Recreation, is laughing with Tom Whatmore, the then coach of the Sri Lanka cricket team.

And this is where it begins. At the Lanka Oberoi in 1994. With Ari Byrd, Thomian blazer torn along the creases, pressing a chicken drumstick into the face of Newton, shrieking ‘You came to eat, no? Ithing kaapang! Eat!’

I have seen many fights. Boxing bouts in Kurunegala, barroom brawls in Maradana. Never have the combatants been less skilled, more drunk, or better dressed.

A waiter guards the buffet table as the men in torn suits roll against empty chairs.

Newton takes a hard bite on the chicken, chomping down on two of Ari’s fingers.

‘Ah-wa!’

Ari’s scream is high and girlish. Our table, composed of inebriated journalists like myself, chuckles, sips, and gazes around with pleasure at sari-clad women, exotic dancers, and international celebrities, who, thanks to Ari’s scream, are gazing back, though perhaps not with as much pleasure.

Most observe from the dance floor. Disapproving aunties and jolly uncles push through the has-beens and never-will-bes. Hand on mouth in mock shock. ‘This is what happens when you invite the riff-raff,’ cackles a crow in a sari. No one for a moment considers stopping the fight just then. Not even us.

Two reasons: (a) Sports journalists rarely see anything in the way of entertainment, especially these days, especially on the cricket field. (b) We all dislike Newton and feel he deserved this bludgeoning with buriyani chicken.

Newton has made a lot more money than any of us. ‘For me, of course, journalism is a hobby. A calling. Pocket money.’ Newton brings young cricketers to Colombo and sells them to clubs; he also studies race sheets, politically and literally backing the right horses always. I know this pudgy man as well as I know the gentleman who was dousing him in gravy.

‘Shall we do something?’ asks Brian Gomez, TV presenter and prankster. Brian once typed a letter on Oxford stationery asking Newton to visit the British High Commission to receive his Queen’s scholarship. The next day Newton wore a suit to work.

‘Let them be,’ says Renganathan, Tamil cricket writer. Renga is a good bugger, but unhealthily obsessed with Roy Dias. When he was editor at the Weekend, he ran one issue with seventeen articles on this wristy batsman of the 1980s.

Newton gains the upper hand. He smears rice in Ari’s eyes and crawls under the table. Elmo Tawfeeq of the Daily News tries to separate them, gets elbowed twice, and decides to sit down. Elmo once told us that he hit Imran Khan for a 6. In actuality, he played club cricket with a Bangladeshi who Imran once hammered for 6.

These are the men I have spent my years with and they are all drunk. Failed artists, scholars, and idealists who now hate all artists, scholars, and idealists. The band has stopped playing and I hear raised voices in the distance. Newton and Ari knock into veteran scribes Palitha Epasekera and Rex Palipane and I decide to intervene.

I gulp down the last of my rum, but before I can offer my services, the bride of the GLOB enters, shining under yellow lights. A delicate petal, bouquet in hands, tears in eyes.

In the distance, her husband advances with concern smeared across his brow, thinking what I am thinking: that these animals would tear his flower apart. The flower drops her bouquet and screams in an accent that sounds like Sydney but could be Melbourne, in a voice that is anything but petal-like: ‘Get the fuck out of my wedding! You fucking arseholes!’

We can take a fist from a brute, but not a curse from a bride. The waiters assist us in packing up the fight. Released from Ari’s gin-powered grip, Newton picks up a mutton curry with intent.

‘Put that down!’ The GLOB descends on the scene. ‘Yanawa methaning! Get out!’ Both Newton and Ari heed the great man. With the GLOB is Ravi de Mel, has-been fast bowler. He looks for the softest target, finds it, and snarls. ‘Ah, Karunasena. Who else? Kindly take your friends and bugger off.’

Fearing unfavourable press, the GLOB puts on his man-of-the-people smile and pats me on the back. ‘Don’t get angry, Mr Karuna. Wife is bit upset. Don’t you know?’

As we are led out, I see a dark man with a crew cut. He is leaning on table 151, surrounded by sycophants. Indian captain Azharuddin is chatting to him, though the man doesn’t appear to be listening. Our eyes meet and he raises his hand. I return the wave, but he has already averted his gaze.

That may or may not have been the moment that started what you are about to read. But it was most certainly the last time I ever saw Pradeep Sivanathan Mathew.

Shehan Karunatilaka has written advertisements, rock songs, travel stories, and basslines. Chinaman is his first novel. It will be available in book stores in February, 2011 and is priced at Rs. 499.

Here is the link to what ESPN Cricinfo has to say about the book - http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/481225.html

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