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Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka on his new book and the worlds he carries within himself

Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka on his new book and the worlds he carries within himself

Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka on his new book and the worlds he carries within himself
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By Murali K Menon  Feb 10, 2020 12:22:45 PM IST (Updated)

Author Shehan Karunatilaka talks to CNBCTV18.com about growing up in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, his stillborn novel, 'Devil Dance', and the worlds he carries within himself.

Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka’s first book, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, was released in 2010. It told the story of cynical old hack WG Karunasena’s search for a half Tamil, half Sinhalese cricketer named Pradeep Sivanathan Mathew who shone like a supernova before disappearing mysteriously from the scene. Among the most lethal deliveries in the left-arm spinner’s arsenal was the ‘double bounce ball’, which, when bowled, was akin to “a 5-ounce, spherical, leather-bound object made to behave as a pebble skimming water”. Karunasena’s obsessive search is set against the story of Sri Lanka in the late 1980s and early 1990s, an island infested with terrorism and corruption, and torn asunder by civil war. Chinaman picked up several awards, including the Commonwealth Book Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, in 2012. The rights for the book were reportedly acquired by a major Indian studio early last year. Karunatilaka’s latest, which is just out, tells an equally compelling story. Chats With The Dead, which is set in and around 1989, in the aftermath of the civil war in Sri Lanka, features Maali Almeida, a renegade war photographer, who finds himself confronted with an onerous task – of solving the mystery of his own murder. The Sri Lankan author talks to CNBCTV18.com about growing up in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, his stillborn novel, Devil Dance, and the worlds he carries within himself.

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Chats With The Dead is set in and around 1989. How did that year and thereabouts shape you as a writer and human being?
I was a teenager in the late 1980s and oblivious to the carnage around me. The government was running death squads to combat the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, which was using guerrilla tactics to disable the state. Up north the LTTE was battling the Indian Army and catching civilians in the crossfire. And 1990 also brought the killings of journalist Richard de Zoysa and activist Rajini Thiranagama, both middle-class, English-speaking victims who tend to attract more coverage and concern in Colombo. But I, who’d grown up amidst curfews and bombs and assassinations, knew nothing of the above. Schools had shut for weeks, so I was at home watching reruns of Oscar and Grammy shows, which, for some reason, both state channels were playing around the clock. It gave me my introduction to Hollywood, Pop music, and living in a Colombo bubble.
The plots of both your books involve realms of the imagination. Have these worlds always been a part of you? Or do you sit down and create a new world each time? 
There was much more world-building required for Chats With The Dead. I had to construct an afterlife with rules that worked, a visual palette to describe the ghosts, and had to reconstruct the war zones, the shady hotels and corpse disposal network of 1980s Sri Lanka. I spent a lot of time researching and imagining before I began plotting. For Chinaman, not so much. The idea of a perfect left-arm leg spinner had been with me since childhood. And the bars and verandas of WG (Karunasena, narrator of Chinaman) and Ari’s (Byrd, Karunasena’s friend and neighbour) lives were places I knew all too well.
What is happening with the Chinaman movie?
How would I know? I’m only the author. It may have already been turned into an animated Japanese musical, for all I’m told.
Last year, you wrote Please Dont Put That In Your Mouth. How different was it creating a picture book for children? 
I procrastinate just as much, though when I get to writing, I’m a lot kinder with myself and spend less time agonising over the craft. I get to try out silly ideas and test them on my own toddlers who give more forthright and brutal feedback than the adults who read my drafts. Plus a kid’s book takes a few months to write and draw, unlike novels which, for me at least, take decades.
Your much anticipated Devil Dance never saw the light of day. How did you apply the learnings from that experience to Chats With The Dead?
In the end, I think Devil Dance had too many ideas and uneven characters and was just me trying to cram everything I thought I knew into a story. I was writing like a bad gardener and just scattering seeds wherever I felt. It ended up a dense, impenetrable jungle of a book. For Chats, I began with the story and the character and constructed a vision of the afterlife before I began writing. It feels more focused and less confusing, though some may disagree. I ended up using the best ideas, settings and characters from Devil Dance in this, but it’s a very different book. Hopefully, a better one.
Who are the new Sri Lankan novelists and writers to watch for, according to you?
Recent novels that I’ve enjoyed were Anuk Arudpragasm’s The Story of a Brief Marriage, Rajith Savanadasa’s Ruins, and Nayomi Munaweera’s What Lies Between Us. I’ve also just begun Amanthi Harris’ A Beautiful Place, which so far lives up to its title. All these writers live outside the island, and write very differently and very brilliantly about it. On the theatre scene, Arun Welandawe-Prematileke’s masterwork The One Who Loves You So was a revelation and a ground-breaking piece of writing. There’s also a quiet sci-fi revolution happening with the likes of Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, Navin Weeraratne and Amanda Jay sidestepping mainstream publishing to find their own audiences with unorthodox and uncompromising stories. And, of course, Andrew Fidel Fernando’s charming and incendiary writings on cricket and travel are must-reads. And MIA continues to be one of the finest writers to come out of Sri Lanka, even if she isn't acknowledged as one.
Murali K Menon works on content strategy at HaymarketSAC.
Read his columns here.
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