Extracting Turn off an Infant Track: Shehan Karunathilake and “Chinaman”

By Vihanga

Shehan Karunathilake’s “Chinaman” is one of the better novels which relates to the Lankan context that I have read. It is a satisfactory read in terms of its subject matter — cricket; and an alcoholic journalist’s bid to trace the whereabouts of a Pradeep Mathew, the “best” spinner Sri Lanka had ever produced –, the creativity with which Shehan works, as well as its attempt to forge a complementation with “actual history” of Sri Lankan Cricket.

Shehan moves the plot and exhausts it by “turning it” in numerous twists and possibilities – taking his hero WG Karunasena across a diverse and multiple socio-ecoomic spectrum of Colombo: from the “Kaanuwa”, a drinking joint in Moratuwa, to the roof top of a prominent Colombo hotel; from the Bloomfield’s secretary’s office to the rooms of an underworld-linked “Kuga Anna”: location unknown. Shehan is controlled yet unreserved in mixing in the light-veined anecdote, pinch of irony – which, overall, blends well with the “lucky go happy” care free attitude which Karunasena and his neighbour / accomplice Ari Byrd maintains throughout the novel.

Paul Adams --- SA spinner with a lethal chinaman

Shehan makes one suspenseful; as much as he makes one guess. “Chinaman” is a novel where you are always thinking, probing the endless scope of possibilities that are given us. For instance, who is the “GenCY” (stands for “Gentleman Cricketer of Yesteryear”) and is the “Great Opening Batsman” (who invites Karunasena for his first marriage, though not for his second) actually a fictionalized shadow of Sanath Jayasuriya? One thing I couldn’t figure out was as to who Pradeep Mathew’s “tour mate” Charith Silva was – the closest I could think of was Ravindra Pushpakumara. Perhaps, Charith Silva was not a foil but a “fiction” altogether – who knows. The Cricket Board President Jayantha Punchipala – is it Jayantha Dharmadhasa, Thilanga Sumathipala, Ana Punchihewa….is it none of them or is it a mix of all three? The title of Lankan spinner Promodya Dharmasena’s autobiography “Not Fast, Not Spin”, too, is too memorable to disallow a citation in this space.

All in all, “Chinaman” was a delight to read and is – in my opinion – one of the top rankers of Lankan fiction in English. Perhaps, the Sri Lankan creative discourse in English and its dearth of challenging work, makes things all the more easier for “Chinaman”. But, saying that, nothing can be taken away from the novel that improvises on a national theme, that cuts across socio-economic and political strata in laying out its groundwork and keeps the readers hanging on with a fine and creative assortment of “situations” and “twists”.

Let me say that I am not here to praise “Chinaman”; nor to unduly bury her. But, I wish to share, in way of which, I hope, would go down as fair comment, a few observations I made while “batting with” the “Chinaman”. For a fairly extensively researched work, with dips into commonly held as well as obscure histories of Cricket and for a novel that does not hide its ambitiousness I was baffled by a crucial technical detail that had skipped the writer’s eye. This is to do with the term “chinaman” itself. The novel, at one point, locates Karunasena, Ari Byrd (passionate cricket lover with a meticulous eye for detail and a vast store of Cricket records) in conversation with one of Pradeep Mathew’s supposed coaches. Here, Byrd notices that Mathew had 14 variations to his deliveries. Among the noted varieties are the “zooter”, “flipper”, “double bounce”, the “carrom flick” and so forth. Two other of his variations include the “googly” and the “chinaman”. Now, to my knowledge, the “chinaman” is, in fact, the left armer’s “googly”; and are not, in fact, two seperate variaties.

The right arm leg spinner – whose delivery that comes “in” to the right hander is called the “googly” – has his counterpart the left arm spinner, whose “wrong one” goes “away” from the righthander: the “chinaman”. In this sense, while Mustaq Ahmed of Pakistan, Anil Kumble of India and Shane Warne of Australia were noted for their “googlies” in the past decade and a half, left arm spinners such as Paul Adams of South Africa and Bradly Hogg of Australia were reputed for a deceiving “chinaman”. To my knowledge, Sri Lanka has not produced “unorthodox leftarmers” in my day – hence, no “chinamans”.

"Chinaman" --- now a Lankan top spinner (in the non-cricketing sense)

Then, again, there are times where I felt that the writer is over-stretching the “limits of belief” – making Pradeep Mathew and his alleged abilities both “superhuman” and, in that sense, “mythical”. The “sources” unearthed by Karunasena and Byrd reveals the reader that Mathew has been “ambidexterous”: that he could bowl both right arm and left arm and both spin and pace with equal aptitude. This form of claim makes Mathew “more the legend” and the “mystery”; but, the claim in itself does not ring out loud as being credible or probable. The storyline is also punctuated by many Euripidian-like coincidences: take for example the sudden appearance of Pradeep Mathew’s sister, who tries to shake off Karunasena’s trail by claiming that her brother is dead. Take, then, the revelation that Mathew’s coach had six fingers – a “word of wisdom” that slips out of the tongue of a all-but-dead former national coach of weak and fluctuating memory. It is true that these are the very arsenals which Shehan Karunathilake uses to fashion the suspense and the mystery of his story. But, an over-emphasis on the same feature damages the “harmony” of the work.

The frequency of references to arrack, alcoholism, drinking joints, “frivolous” women at parties and the like, too, at times become repetitive and tedious. Well, we are told that Karunasena has a drinking habit; and he is a representative of that “drink before breakfast” spirit – yet, a super-imposition of the same does no good to the reader’s attention. For instance, Manuka Wijesinghe, in her “Monsoons and Potholes” keeps returning to the Vijaya-Kuveni myth to the point where it becomes a hacked and clichetic improvisation: a dead horse. In both instances, the writers “hang on” to an “object” in the narrative and “valourize” (in a technical sense) it. In Shehan’s case this would re-impose Karunasena’s alcoholism — but, the fact is already established; and hence, recurrent repetitions comes across as redundant.

Chinaman???

At the beginning of the novel Shehan has in the back of his mind a certain audience that may not be too familiar with Cricket. The first part of the work is often supplemented with little snippets that act as “dummy’s guides” to the lingo, peculiarities and such in the game. The little sections strive to familiarize the “non-familiar” readership from “wicket”, “how the game is played” to “chinaman” and other such specialized areas. Yet, this becomes the lesser pre-occupation of the writer as the novel takes shape. While the self-conscious (and at times flippant) definitions are harmonized into the first section, the second part is more concerned with numerous “digressions” from the main line of the story. In fact, at times, one felt that Shehan was bowling a few “wide balls” in that middle section: taking too much space and being long and winding in laying out several scenes that are of less consequence. “Wicketkeeper conundrum” (p.260), “Hand on knee” (p.276), “Dehiwala Zoo” (p.281) are three such sections that come not-too-far apart from one another: each, at their own merit, making us sit and watch “maidens being bowled”.

Chinaman” is with no doubt a unique moment in Lankan fiction. Both in its scope, its bredth as well as its application the novel stands out as a “better” work to grace the Sri Lankan bookshelves. When I first caught a glimpse of its manuscript at the Gratiaen shortlist for 2008, I had a confidence that I was listening to a literary “defining moment” of our contemporary circuit. “Chinaman”, I conclude, delivered me the promise.

[This was originally carried in the LN of 23-05-2010]

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One thought on “Extracting Turn off an Infant Track: Shehan Karunathilake and “Chinaman”

  1. this is undoubtedly the best novel to appear in Sri Lanka in the past decade …. it surely deserves the Gratiaen !!!

    VK i dont agree with you about the redundant references to Alcohol… its not a factor here…. and i ddnt feel it was redundant

    However i do agree with you about Pradeep being exalted to heroic status…. its as if the guy is behind everything which takes away that “realistic” touch to it….

    But other than that the novel is pure genius to me !!!

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