GOOD PROSE FROM BAD GUITAR
Shehan Karunatilaka is a multifaceted personality — the Sri Lankan is a novelist, a bass player, a copywriter and an avid cricket fan. The winner of DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012 shares his views about the game, Sri Lankan literature and society with Biswadip Mitra
An award can change life. It means recognition, fan following, and of course the money that usually comes along. But for Sri Lankan novelist Shehan Karunatilaka, who won this year’s DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, “nothing has changed.” Life is the same, he says even after his Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew trumped other contenders at the Jaipur jamboree. “There’s a bit more money in my savings account and a bit more press about me. But I’m back at the desk, grinding out another one. It’s looking to be as fun and as tedious as the last one,” Karunatilaka says from Singapore where is he currently based.
The novel tells the story of Pradeep Mathew, a missing cricketer who is being sought by an alcoholic journalist W G Karunasena. Pradeep is half-Sinhalese, half-Tamil who can mimic the style of any bowler, and can bowl equally well with both hands. As one reads, the larger reality sets in: cricket in South Asia is too large for comfort; it gets mixed up with nationalism, politics, money, power, stardom and scandals. I ask Karunatilaka whether as a writer and as a cricket fan, he ever feels that the game is lost somewhere, just like Pradeep? “There’s a lot going on, on the fringes of the game and there are a lot of unsavoury influences on it, but I think the magic is still alive,” he replies. “As long as great stuff is happening on the field, I can forgive the rest.”
Besides being a novelist, Karunatilaka wears several other hats: he’s a copywriter; he’s into freelance editing; a song writer; and a bass player — he played with Sri Lankan bands Independent Square and Powercut Circus. Don’t these identities nudge each other all the time? How do we define Shehan Karunatilaka, I ask him. “I’d like to think myself as a bass player, but sadly my aptitude for music is nowhere near my love for it. The copywriting pays the bills and is fun as long as it doesn’t encroach on the other writings. But I haven’t written a song in years. Hope to write one soon,” he says. “They all cross-fertilise each other, and I can’t imagine trying to write good prose if I didn’t play bad guitar.”
‘I HOPE TO READ TAMIL SOME DAY’
We get back to literature, especially the Sri Lankan variety. According to Karunatilaka, “most Lankan writers in English” are inspired by “lyrical Michael Ondaatje and the lewd Carl Muller.” So, he too “tried to write like both, but failed.” Now, his attention has turned to Sinhala literature. “I’ve just started reading Sinhala novels. I hope to read Tamil some day not too far in the future,” he informs.
Names of writers in English from the island nation come up. Karunatilaka draws up a list: “In English, we have literary writers like Romesh Gunasekera and Shyam Selvadurai, mainstream writers like David Blacker and Ashok Ferrey, and wonderful women writers like poet Viv Vanderpoorten, playwright Ruwanthi de Chuckera and novelist Ru Freeman.”
Now that he is writing a new novel, away from Sri Lanka, though it is set in that island, I feel tempted to ask Karunatilaka whether he is getting a clearer picture of his country from a distance. “Perhaps,” he says. “But there’s nothing like smelling the places you’re writing about. I plan to move back there for the next draft,” he clarifies.
In case of the Indian writers in English, the home-grown tribe and those living abroad are quite accomplished. And every day we have new writers emerging. Considering the substantial readership of these writers, marketing their works remains a serious business on part of the publishers. Why is it that we do not see the same thing happening with Sri Lankan writers in English? “Sri Lankan writing is still in its infancy. There are a lot of good contemporary writers, but Colombo’s bookshops are also lined with a lot of self-published, poorly-edited writing by dabblers and amateurs,” says Karunatilaka. “If we Lankans take writing more seriously and immerse ourselves in our work, I’m sure the world will take notice. There are certainly plenty of stories here to be told,” he assures.
‘STOP ALIENATING MINORITIES’
The ethnic disharmony and the alleged violence against the Tamils in Sri Lanka feature in our interaction. As a Sinhala Buddhist, what does Karunatilaka think? Is the continuation of ethnic discord a burden of history that is embedded in the Sinhala psyche, or is it that the pedlars of chauvinism won’t let people live in harmony? “It’s a timely question you ask,” he tells me. “Over the last few weeks, Sinhala Buddhist monks in Dambulla have been behaving disgracefully, storming mosques and kovils, threatening violence. The clips are all on YouTube. These thugs in robes resemble members of the SS in Nazi Germany rather than representatives of a non-violent philosophy of kindness and peace. I feel ashamed as a Sinhala Buddhist to see bigots and thugs claim to represent me,” Karunatilaka doesn’t mince his words. “If the Sinhalese stopped alienating minorities and embraced all forms of Sri Lankan-ness, and if the vast diaspora returned and brought home their knowledge and wealth, this country would be unstoppable,” he asserts in the same breath. “We’ve just come off a 30-year ethnic war. We should be building bridges and healing wounds, rather than promoting bigotry and violence.”
So, can literature build that bridge? Can remorse wash away the wounds, I ask. “Literature can do far more things than we give it credit for. But it will take more than a few good books to heal Sri Lanka’s wounds,” Karunatilaka says with lot of hope before we part.