It is not everyday that you sit down and write your debut novel and it goes on to win the Commonwealth Book prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. However, Sri Lankan Shehan Karunatilaka, a former copywriter with an advertising agency, has managed just that.
His book Chinaman, in which an alcoholic former sports scribe endeavours to trace the journey of a uber-talented spin bowler who mysteriously disappears from the public eye, has created quite a few storms in the tea cup.
Karunatilaka, though, is quite unfazed by all the attention. ‘It is not like it has happened overnight,’ says the author, quietly browsing through books in a coffee shop in Nizamuddin. ‘I was not expecting to be read outside Sri lanka or for the book to come out in the US. I am still speaking about the book, people are talking about it, it’s a good thing,’ he admits.
The recognition, though, brings with it an added burden. ‘Now I have to make sure I write a second one that doesn’t suck,’ says Karunatilaka, who is currently touring India as part of the DSC Prize Winner’s Tour.
But does the emerging markets here have anything to do with so many writers from the subcontinent getting international recognition? Karunatilaka says that interest in writers from this part of the world started building from the time when Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children came out. ‘May be we are writing better now. Also, a lot of us have managed to straddle both worlds, so that gets reflected,’ he explains.
So after India and Pakistan, is it the turn on publishing houses to head to Sri Lanka in search of new talent? ‘If the product is better, audience will come. Everything is shifting East. The world has accepted that the best writing doesn’t have to come out of Oxford or Cambridge,’ says the man who once penned songs for Sri Lankan bands like Independence Square and Powercut Circus who now lives in Singapore.
Karunatilaka calls Chinaman a classic detective plot where a drunk former sports journalist WG Karunasena chases Pradeep Matthew, a successful spinner who suddenly disappears. ‘It is the character’s journey, why he is going on this madcap journey,’ he explains.
It is failure that got him interested in the subject. ‘There are a lot of these guys who would come, do amazing things and then disappear. It is easier to talk about success,’ he quips.
The character of the scribe, Karunasena, has been drawn using elements of people the author met. ‘But he ultimately became his own character,’ says the author.
There has been a sudden spurt in writers who come from all sorts of backgrounds. The award-winning author feels it is actually a good thing. ‘Those from different backgrounds have life experiences which they have to offer. It is good that not just English professors or students of creative writing are coming out with books,’ he says.
Has publishing books become easier? ‘It’s not easier. But good books are not the ones you do as a hobby. They have to be edited by professionals,’ opines Karunatilaka.
And now that he has won awards, do we see more writers coming out of Sri Lanka? Karunatilaka most certainly hopes so. ‘There are a lot of stories in Sri Lanka. Hope this encourages people to write more. If that happens, the publishing industry will grow. The conditions are right, what with the war ending and now one has access to all parts of the country,’ he says.
What next for him? Shehan doesn’t want to reveal much about his next book and firmly believes that it could bring ‘bad luck’. All he is willing to reveal, though, is that it will be set in Sri Lanka, ‘won’t be based on cricket, will have a bit of alcohol but not much’. Well, good luck for that.