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BELONGING AT A DISTANCE
- Cricket and the nation: two Sri Lankan novels

At a time when the news headlines are hostage to N. Modi’s feral minions and cricketing conversations centre on N. Srinivasan’s creatures, books are both a refuge and an education.

Cricket’s partisans are forever telling us that their game has inspired a substantial literature, so it should be possible to trawl through a cricketing country’s novels and learn something about the game’s place in the life of the nation or the nation’s place in the life of the game. Given cricket’s standing in post-colonial nations like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, you would imagine that there is a large subcontinental literature centred on cricket…only there isn’t.

In fact, cricket is poorly served by the literary novel, both in the colony and the metropolis. Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man and L.P. Hartley’s The Go- Between use cricket episodically, and if you discount Hugh De Selincourt’s The Cricket Match and P.G. Wodehouse’s marvellous trilogy of cricket novels, Mike at Wrykyn, Mike and Psmith, Psmith in the City, I can’t think of a 19th- or 20th-century novel that uses cricket as its animating principle.

So it’s remarkable that between 2008 and 2011 three novels were published in which cricket was the main character. Even more remarkably, these books were critically welcomed as literary novels.

The books this column is concerned with are the two cricketing novels written by Sri Lankans: The Match by Romesh Gunesekera and Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka. Gunesekera’s novel was written before Prabhakaran’s defeat in 2009, while The Chinaman was published two years after the massively violent end of the civil war. (The third book, Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, is a cricketing novel set in post-9/11 New York.)

The main character of The Match is an expatriate Sri Lankan, Sunny Fernando, born in Columbo, taken to Manila by his journalist father, Lester, and eventually domiciled in the London of the 1980s with an English wife, Clara, and their son, Mikey. Through his teenage years in Makati and his life in London as a father, Sunny tries to firm up an uncertain sense of himself with two binding agents: cricket and photography. Cricket is a talismanic part of his childhood, and he uses it to reach out to his father and, later, his son. He hopes to reclaim the country that has changed beyond recognition in the years he was away, to reassure himself that the loyalty inspired by the Sri Lankan cricket team amongst both Sinhalese and Tamil fans is a sign that his homeland’s sectarian wounds can heal.

When Sunny revisits his natal home in Colombo, he finds it razed and built over: “Grey concrete had covered what had once been a lawn; breeze-block walls had replaced hedges and fences… None of the things that had made up his early world, imprinted as images on his brain, existed any more. Everything had been violated. There was no past — no place, no people — except what he remembered. It frightened him.” (page 215)

The Match is a novel of exile and its anxieties, where the faraway nation is both a lost home and a disappeared past. Cricket here is a ghostly substitute for the autobiographical hinterland every life needs, without which it is stranded on the shrinking, disconnected shore of the here-and-now.

Chinaman is the opposite of a nostalgic, angst-ridden, diasporic novel. Its narrator is Karunasena, a stay-at-home cricket journalist, grown old in the erratic service of the game he loves. Oppressed by a sense of failure, estranged from his son (who’s bumming around Europe as a musician), he’s told by his doctor that he is killing himself with drink. So in the time he has left, Karunasena sets about scripting a documentary about Sri Lankan cricket that will be his tribute to a sport that had brought him and his country joy and glory. Simultaneously, he begins to try to track down and rehabilitate Pradeep Mathew, the most gifted spin bowler Sri Lanka had ever seen, who never lived up to his promise and had now disappeared.

Every sentence of Chinaman is about cricket. Sri Lankan cricket and its baroque history contain all the stories told in this book. Cricket isn’t an episode in this novel, it’s the medium that makes the novel possible. And the nation isn’t something lost in the past or dissolved by a generalized prosperity, the nation is passionately, violently, cathartically everywhere. Cricket is irradiated by the politics and preferences and prejudices of the nation.

The protagonists of both Sri Lankan novels see themselves as cosmopolitan in the sense that they reject parochial prejudice and chauvinism. But theirs is an embattled cosmopolitanism, besieged by a nation that won’t let go of them. They are patriots, but they’re patriotic about a Sri Lanka that has been destroyed by Sinhalese chauvinism, Tamil secessionism and terror. The only way they can be patriotic now is at a cricket match where Sri Lanka takes on the world with the great Muralitharan, a Tamil, leading the charge.

The protagonists of The Match and Chinaman react to the treatment of Tamils in Sri Lanka with mortified, agonized despair: This is Sunny’s response to the pogrom of Tamils in 1983: “Clara saw the news first and called out. ‘Colombo is burning. It’s on TV.’…Dark smoke spiraled out of the place that Sunny could recognize as the town of his childhood. This was news from elsewhere. These were not atrocities committed in a country of some other world. This was part of him destroying himself... Who were these murderers? When the BBC reporter described the killing and burning, and spoke of rabid Sinhala mobs hunting out Tamil families, Sunny shook his head, ashamed. He couldn’t understand where these monsters had come from. He felt sick.” (p. 153)

Chinaman’s louche narrative voice disguises a commitment to a non-discriminatory nationalism. This announcement by its narrator — a sixty-something, alcoholic journalist — is typical of the tone of the book: “I must warn you, the following story features midgets and racist language. While I myself may be something of a freak, I am certainly no racist. Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers all nauseate me in equal measure.” (p. 160) The context for this statement is, of course, Sri Lanka’s contested nationalism, where the political representatives of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority established a majoritarian democracy rejected by Sri Lanka’s minorities, especially its Tamils.

The unsung genius of Sri Lankan cricket, Pradeep Mathew, the man Karunasena wants to reinstate in history, is a victim of Sri Lanka’s anti-Tamil chauvinism. The son of a Tamil father and a Sinhala mother, his life has been pockmarked by discrimination: “Pradeep Mathew…told Kuga of how the Sinhalese mob had nearly turned his father’s bakery to cinders in ’83. How his father was pressuring him to give up cricket and enter the business. How his coach had advised him to drop Sivanathan from his name if he wanted to play for Sri Lanka.” (p. 220)

It’s hard not to read Karunasena’s quest as an individual act of national atonement: an attempt by a secular Sinhala, who dreams of a genuinely cosmopolitan and tolerant nation, to make Sri Lankan cricket and Sri Lanka whole again by doing the right thing for its greatest cricketing son. This task of rehabilitating a fictional cricketing genius is set in a narrative that is dense with actual matches and players and thinly disguised cricket administrators and commentators. Chinaman sometimes reads like a roman à clef, sometimes like an anarchic alternative history of Sri Lankan cricket.

Like Chinaman, The Match presses real cricket into the service of fiction too: the novel ends with an intent, rapt description of two real cricket matches, one, a Test played between England and Sri Lanka at Lord’s, and the other an ODI between Sri Lanka and India, both played in 2002. These happen at the same time as peace talks begin between President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government, and Prabhakaran, the violent grandmaster of Tamil Eelam. Peace seems possible. After the ODI defeat against India at the Oval, Sunny is moved by Tamils and Sinhalas in Sri Lankan cricket shirts, supporting the team together.

This near-documentary use of cricket in both novels is an act of faith, an attempt to find in actual, historical matches a state of grace and possibility. In south Asian nations riven by violence, even civil war, cricket sometimes seems the one shared part of real life that can be infused with the hope of fiction. Sunny, the protagonist of The Match and Pradeepan Siva Nathan, aka Pradeep Mathew, the missing hero of Chinaman, are victims of both their national histories and their individual shortcomings. By the time their stories are told, they are damaged men who have come to terms with their straitened lives.

Sunny has an epiphany as he takes what he thinks is the perfect photograph at a cricket match. To observe vigilantly, to capture the telling moment with a camera, to be the best spectator he can be to a life that has nearly passed him by, that is his redemption. Exiled from a Sri Lankan life that no longer exists, not backstopped by a nation, his life has no hinterland, no strategic depth, all he has is the now of his wife and child. Cricket, in The Match, is episodic, not enveloping; it’s a ritual of belonging at a distance. The novel is about leaving Sri Lanka behind, or rather, finding a diasporic relationship with his South Asian home.

In Chinaman, Karunasena’s son, Garfield, named after the great West Indian all-rounder, completes his father’s book for him by tracking Pradeep Mathew down in New Zealand, where he lives in a remote village, teaching Maori and Pakeha children cricket. He is a genius who has purged himself of striving and has found contentment teaching the game at a great distance from the feverish excitement of Sri Lankan cricket. He has held on to cricket and let go of the nation-state.

In these two acute and humane novels, Sunny and Pradeep don’t win, but neither do they lose. They manage what life and cricket sometimes allow, a draw: an honourable, inconclusive end.