This was written more than a year ago and buried under my drafts and in other people’s emails. So, thought of posting anyway. On Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman.
As Rohit Brijnath often asks, why do you watch sport? Howdo you explain the joy when a gifted athlete puts his bat to a ball and drives it past the covers or when a prodigy defies established tenets of a sport to hit a single handed backhand winner from an impossible position? Where in your body, or soul, do you tap into to find the energy to support a team when they are 0-8 and two series whitewash down? What makes you pick up your bags and travel afar following that team? Why will you watch a moment of play for the millionth time or listen to its commentary on a pocket radio, like Brad Pitt playing Billy Beane in Moneyball, years or in some cases decades after the event? How hard will you try to search for an unsung Greatest of All Time that no one has heard about?
Shehan Karunatilaka’s novel ‘Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew” pretty much waddles through all those existential questions, directly or indirectly. In a beautiful way. Shehan’s madness for cricket, Sri Lanka and its greatest player according to him – Pradeep Mathew – knows no bounds. There is a passage in the end where his stand-in – W.G. Karunasena – tries to explain to his wife in his head why sport is above and more important than life. If you are a fan, it reminds you of the beauty of sports, and even if you are not, the unbridled love comes through. A key scene in the Spanish film El Secreto De Sus Ojos has two federal agents – struggling to find a rape-murder suspect – in a bar indulging in an expository sequence from a fan of a local club that forms the basis to not only their solving of the case but also of that ingredient immutable in every man – passion. Pablo, one of the agents asks, as I paraphrase, “What is Racing to you, even after nine years without a championship?” The fan gives only one word – “Passion”. In the film this simple philosophy is part of something greater. In similar fashion, in Chinaman, the passion of Karunatilaka and thereby WG, is something far greater than sport and cricket – it is about Sri Lanka and its history.
The ghost of Hunter S. Thompson freely treads all through Chinaman. Alcohol floods through the pages as much as it floods through WG’s blood stream. This makes Pradeep Mathew – the greatest cricketer to have played for Sri Lanka as Karunatilaka never fails to remind you at every step - more mythical than he is already. It also makes the real events from the cricketing world all the more surreal, no matter that we’ve lived through each and every one of them ourselves. WG, as a journalist and a man closer to the scene, bends, shape shifts and reconfigures cricket viewing, especially Sri Lankan cricket, as we know it. The spirited prism throws kaleidoscopic images of sports mad people, match fixers, mysterious gangsters, corrupt ministers, dysfunctional families and sultry damsels in distress and if you are into cricket, there is little to complain about. Chinaman is probably the first Gonzo-esque re-imagination of cricket and the kind of unconditional love it has demanded all over the world.
The book does have an inclination for the dramatics from time to time. The digressions and the ramblings can be seemingly worlds apart but are quite apparent in some cases – like how the parallels between the boggling mystery of the Duckworth-Lewis method and WG’s best friend and companion Ary Byrd’s detective skills are woven. As with David Foster Wallace and his writings on tennis, Shehan Karunatilaka is really in his elements when he describes cricket matches and their intricacies. It’s entirely possible to visualize his memory to be this huge library where he props up a ladder at the last but one section and goes up to retrieve the choicest details. Among the tedium of the theatrics associated with the search for Pradeep Mathew, I longed for more such gems in the book. But nothing unforgivable considering what an inscrutable genius Pradeep Mathew is conjured to be in your head.
Inside Shehan Karunatilaka resides the very same sports megalomaniac that resides in all of us. The one that hopes for one last Grand Slam for Roger Federer, beating Nadal and Djokovic. The one that has the recurrent pipe dream of Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman winning a Test series in Australia. The one that wishes for graceful retirement – whatever that means – for all the great sportsmen. It is through his vision of Pradeep Mathew that he lays bare all his affection for Sri Lankan cricket, the people and their struggle and the heartbreaking politics within. Pradeep Mathew might be the unsung legend of Sri Lankan cricket, but what he represents is far greater than the sport itself. It is Sri Lanka, stripped off its Baila induced stereotypes but the hangover intact, its characters and figures so true to the heart that it won’t have been surprising if this was titled – Synecdoche, Sri Lanka.