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Shehan Karunatilaka’s Colombo capers

The award-winning Sri Lankan writer speaks on his latest novel, real-life inspirations, cricket, and chronicling Colombo

A performer at the annual Perahera festival in Colombo, Sri Lanka
A performer at the annual Perahera festival in Colombo, Sri Lanka (Photo: AFP)

A decade ago, Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka finished writing Chinaman, a first novel that became almost as mythical as the characters that populated it after it quickly transmogrified into that rare beast: the critically acclaimed best-seller. Now, Karunatilaka has reason for a double celebration. Not only has Penguin Random House India released a 10th-anniversary edition of the cult novel, it has also published Chats With The Dead, a second offering that is a more literal realization of the author’s obsession with the ghosts of Sri Lanka’s past.

Chats With The Dead: By Shehan Karunatilaka, Penguin Random House India, 400 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599.
Chats With The Dead: By Shehan Karunatilaka, Penguin Random House India, 400 pages, 599.

In Chinaman, the alcoholic sports journalist W.G. Karunasena and his pious friend Ariyaratne Byrd were in pursuit of Pradeep Mathew, a mystery spin bowler who unexpectedly dropped off the map. In Chats, the ghost of the murdered war photographer Malinda Almeida is on a mission to track down his own killer. The cross-referencing is not confined to thematic preoccupations. In Chats, we get part of the backstories of two of Chinaman’s most enigmatic characters—the cricket-loving British diplomat Jonny Gilhooley and the tough-talking Tamilian I.E. Kugarajah. Chinaman fans will also find their souls lifted by a cameo appearance of two elderly gentlemen—“one looks drunk, the other looks mad"—at the British high commission.

Shehan Karunatilaka
Shehan Karunatilaka

Lounge spoke to Karunatilaka over email about the two books, Colombo and his rumoured friendship with former cricketer and fellow smooth-talking stylist, Kumar Sangakkara. Edited excerpts:

The thing they say about the second novel being harder than the first. True?

Of course. The first one you are just jamming with yourself. This one you are competing with yourself. The first one you know that you know nothing and try not to care. This one you think you know how it’s done, when you might have just lucked your way into it. It’s a minefield! Hopefully the third one will be a breeze.

How would you say the general mood of Sri Lanka has changed between ‘Chinaman’ and ‘Chats’?

Depends on who you ask. Some say we are on the brink of greatness, some think we are teetering on the edge. Our buildings are taller, our parks are prettier and our cricket team is crappier.

The war ended just before Chinaman came out and we are all grateful it has stayed that way. And the events of last Easter remind us not to be complacent.

And Colombo specifically? How much has changed in the last 10 years?

We have seen curfews, terror attacks, dictatorships, democracies and whatever mishmash it is now. Before, I would advise visitors to avoid Colombo and head straight for the hills or the beaches. Now I encourage them to spend a day or two in the capital as it has become quite a beautiful city. Chats began as a road trip around the coast but gradually contracted to become even more of a Colombo novel than Chinaman.

And what have you been up to between ‘Chinaman’ and ‘Chats’?

It has been an action-packed decade. I got married, moved country twice, quit two jobs, built a house, bought a car, had two healthy kids and wrote two stillborn novels. I still pop over to Singapore for a few months each year to earn some foreign exchange in advertising, and spend the rest of the year picking up after children and trying to write.

What did recreating the Colombo of the late 1980s for ‘Chats’ involve?

Talking to people who remembered Richard de Zoysa (a murdered Sri Lankan journalist from the 1980s), drawing on childhood memories, and Victor Ivan’s brilliant book of photographs, Paradise In Tears. And listening to lots of a-ha, Pet Shop Boys and Prince.

Speaking of de Zoysa, your characters are often thinly disguised versions of real-life personalities. ‘Chats’ has an activist member of Parliament from Hambantota who shares his name with the current prime minister of Sri Lanka. Surely not the same man?

Yes, it is the very gentleman from Hambantota, who was a peacenik and human rights activist during the 1980s. There’s even a clip on YouTube, if you don’t believe me.

How many drafts of ‘Chats’ did you do? Considering that this is also a plot-heavy novel, did you have an idea of beginning, middle and end before you put fingers to keyboard?

This was a long, ugly process and I have lost count of drafts. I had ideas before I had a plot and it took many tries to get the voice and character. I didn’t have an end until quite late in the game, and even when I had it, wasn’t sure it could work. This one went through many more structural changes than Chinaman did, but hopefully it still stands up.

So in what shape had ‘Chinaman’ gone to publisher Chiki Sarkar (who was then heading Random House India before the merger with Penguin)?

It was a ragged 550-page draft filled with ramblings and irrelevancies. Random House India shaved about 150 pages off it, and I think the book is much better for it. But a few gems did end on the cutting-room floor, like the chapter about Pradeep Mathew and the forgotten West Indian cricketer and apartheid rebel Danny Germs.

Oh, I think ‘Chinaman’ junkies will love this piece of trivia! What is the nicest or craziest ‘Chinaman’ story you have heard? Not putting my hat in the ring but I have spent an evening—admittedly arrack-influenced—on De Saram Road in Colombo’s Mount Lavinia, trying to decide which houses match your description of the residences of the Karunasenas and the Byrds.

I think you just answered your own question! My geography is crap and takes great liberties with the layout of De Saram Road. Sorry, if I wasted your time. I did hear that Nuwan Pradeep and Angelo Mathews were selected and asked to open the bowling in a Test match just so the words Pradeep and Mathews could appear on the scoreboard next to each other. Though I could have just made that one up.

‘Chinaman’ research involved hanging out with cricket-obsessed drunks. Who did you spend time with before and as you wrote this one? Politicians and yakas (demons)?

Chatted to plenty of demons, some of whom still reside in my head. It’s also hard to interview people about the afterlife and death squads and being a closeted gay man. Because those who know about those subjects aren’t easy to talk to. In the end, I read as much as I could and then made up the rest.

Speaking of death squads, have you personally known journalists or activists who were made to disappear in a white van and not heard from again?

Sadly, yes. And there were far too many more whom I didn’t know.

Has anyone from the government or the army or the cricket establishment given you trouble for what you write?

Fortunately, no. Though the editor of a state newspaper once made fun of my piercings.

I have read that ‘Chinaman’ has been optioned and is being adapted for screen. Any update on that?

I recently emailed my agent, who says they may have signed a director and a writing team and may be in production soon. I asked him if he could be any vaguer. I am told that in the hierarchy of a film set, the author is less important than the key grip or the best boy.

And what about ‘Chats’? I am already imagining the Karunatilaka universe on screen. If you could choose, who would you pick to direct the ‘Chats’ movie and to play Malinda?

Let’s be real, if the screen rights to Chats were sold, I wouldn’t even get to choose the catering. But okay, I will play your fantasy game: Sayid (played by actor Naveen Andrews) from Lost for Malinda. And Sofia Coppola’s dad to direct.

And books? Are there more of those coming?

If I stay on course, I should finish a story collection in a few weeks. After that, I have a third novel planned, also set in Colombo. And hopefully it won’t take 10 years.

Are the rumours of you hanging out with Kumar Sangakkara true?

He lived next door to me in Colombo, all through the writing of the first draft of Chinaman. Every morning around 6am, I would be sitting on my balcony having imaginary chats with W.G. Karunasena, and he would be leaving for training. Occasionally he would look up at me and nod. He knew my then girlfriend (now wife), whose flat it was, but I doubt he knew my name or that I was writing an epic cricket novel.

I wrote a commercial for a tech company, featuring him, and all through the shoot, we pretended not to recognize each other. Such is the fragility of masculinity. Since then, he has read the book and contributed a blurb, and even though we have friends and agents in common, our paths have never crossed.

Vikram Shah is a Delhi-based editor and writer.

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