Shehan Karunatilaka is in no hurry. Despite his hectic schedule with back-to-back interviews, the Sri Lankan writer will pause over every question before answering. He chooses his answers carefully too.
When I ask him how many copies of his debut novel, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, which recently won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, have been sold so far, he gives me a blank look.
“I don’t know. It’s embarrassing, but I just don’t know,” he says earnestly. “My publisher keeps sending me the figures, but I still don’t know what the total sales figures are,” he says.
Later, I check with Random House and learn that the book, which had earlier won him the $50,000 worth DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012, has so far sold 8,000 copies in India since its release in 2011 and has gone into reprint twice. It has been published in the US and UK this year.
The figures are modest by bestseller standards. But Karunatilaka isn’t perturbed about that. The manuscript, which did not find any takers initially, was self-published by the author. “It then sold around 3,000 copies in Sri Lanka,” he says.
We are sitting in the coffee shop of a five star hotel in Delhi where Karunatilaka is staying. Dressed in a black cotton shirt and khaki pants, with salt and pepper shoulder-length hair, a black wristband, a silver stud in his pierced ear and several silver rings on his fingers, Karunatilaka, 37, looks more like a rocker (he is quite a keen musician, in fact) than a writer.
He is in town as part of the DSC Prize Winner’s Tour and will be visiting Bangalore and Mumbai to interact with readers. Later that evening, he is to take part in an event where author-politician Shashi Tharoor will be reading from his book. Later, I learn that the event was a success, with Tharoor praising the young writer for his interesting plot.
Chinaman is the story of an alcoholic sports journalist and his search for a missing cricketing legend. But at a deeper level it is also the story of Sri Lankan society caught up in civil war and ethnic conflict.
“It started as a short story and before I knew it, it became a full-fledged novel,” says Karunatilaka, who is a Sinhalese. “The year was 2007. I was on a pilgrimage to New York to see my favourite band, Police, perform. I was writing an article about the concert when the idea of a journalist searching for a cricketer struck my mind. I went back and started writing the story.”
Soon Karunatilaka quit work as a copywriter in an advertising firm in Colombo. He spent the next two years watching cricket, hanging out with drunkards, meeting cricketers and writing. “I interviewed players from the fringes, never entered the dressing room. A lot of anecdotes were born out of those interviews,” he says. The “Chinaman” word in the title is a cricket term that refers to a left arm spin bowler. But in the American edition of the book, “Chinaman” has been dropped from the title to steer clear of any racial offence. Karunatilaka regrets not having thought of the implication of the title in a novel that brings together two important aspects of his country — cricket and conflict.
“War is at the periphery of my book. It’s more about alcoholism and a sport. The way I see it, the lead character is almost a metaphor for Sri Lanka. A great country, yet in the 60 years that we have been in existence, we have been just torn apart by conflict,” he rues.
Karunatilaka’s first attempt at writing a novel — which he called The Painter — met with a somewhat abrupt end as it was never published. It has since been consigned to a place under the mattress of his bed and might never see the light of day. “It’s completely flawed, not worth publishing,” says the writer shrugging. He believes the manuscript needs a lot more research and editing. “And now I have lost interest.”
When he is not writing, Karunatilaka is creating musical scores and playing bass guitar. He often performs at gigs in Singapore, the country where he resides now. He continues to work in the advertising world and also writes articles for various publications, including The Guardian and Newsweek. “I am looking forward to my next gig in Singapore. It has been quite a hectic period,” he says of his multi-city book reading tours.
Born in Galle, Karunatilaka grew up in Colombo and went to Wanganui in New Zealand as a 15-year-old when his father, a doctor, moved there with his family to escape the civil war raging in Sri Lanka at the time.
Even though his family moved away, Karunatilaka, who graduated with a degree in business administration, says that he was affected by the civil war. “Living in Colombo we were kind of cocooned. But I have seen dead bodies and burning streets. None of us thought there would ever be an end to that conflict,” he says.
Then a smile appears, making those painful memories fade away. “The day I was doing the final edit of my book in 2009 I got to know that the war was over.”
Studying in New Zealand wasn’t easy for Karunatilaka. “I was the only brown kid in my school and got bullied a lot. So my favourite hangouts became record shops and libraries. That was my education,” he says. It was the thought of forming a band with his friends that drew him back to Sri Lanka in 1997. “I started writing while still working with an advertising firm. But, I soon realised that I wasn’t able to do justice to my book, so I quit my job,” he says. While writing the book, Karunatilaka never thought of a global audience for his work. “The book was mainly for Sri Lankans and I never thought it would get published elsewhere,” he says candidly.
But it did get published. He visited the Galle Literary Festival with his self-published book in 2010 and got in touch with several publishers. “A few months later Chiki Sarkar (then editor of Random House) picked it up,” he says.
Karunatilaka admits that authors from Sri Lanka writing in English are yet to have the kind of success that’s come the way of their counterparts in India and Pakistan. “Sri Lanka is yet to have a well-developed publishing industry. Though there is no shortage of interesting writing, a lot of our writers aren’t read outside.”
It is lunch hour now. The empty coffee shop has started getting crowded. Next to our table a determined bunch of ladies is involved in some animated conversation. That doesn’t distract Karunatilaka. Instead, he tells me why his stories will always be based in his home country. “There are a lot of untold stories in Sri Lanka. I can’t think of any other place to write about,” he admits.
Today many writers from the subcontinent are known to attend creative writing courses in the US. Had he ever planned to attend one, I ask him.
“I did think about attending one such course, but it was too expensive. I thought of all the books I could buy with that money and dropped the idea.”
What was it like winning the $50,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature?
“Oh, I was flummoxed. I never expected my novel to travel out of Sri Lanka, let alone win prizes. The money is lying safe in the bank, the only indulgence being a Playstation that I bought,” he says with a laugh.
“Perhaps it will sustain me when I quit my job once again and move back to Sri Lanka to write my next book,” he adds.
I ask the obvious question. “What is the next book going to be about?”
“It’s definitely not going to be about alcoholism or cricket,” he says firmly, shaking his head.
The interview is now inching towards its close. His publicist sitting at the next table is giving me cues to wrap it up and make way for the next interviewer. But Karunatilaka shows no signs of weariness. He has just started and it’s clear that he’s here to stay.