Rambukwella reviews Karunatilaka’s “Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew”

Harshana Rambukwella, from The Sri Lanka Journal of Humanities, volume 36 (numbers 1 and 2) 2010

  Pic by Dexter Cruze for AP –showing Sri Lankan fans celebrating victory

Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is ostensibly about down-and-out alcohol —-soaked journalist W. G. Karunadasa’s attempt at a comeback by unravelling the mystery behind Sri Lanka’s greatest yet virtually unknown ‘Chinaman’ (a very rare breed of left arm unorthodox 1) spinner Pradeepan Sivanathan Mathew.’ But for both WG and the reader the quest for Mathew becomes something else. As the text courses through the tumultuous history of Sri Lanka in the last two decades the discourse of cricket becomes metonymic of the many socio-political concerns dominating public consciousness over the last few decades of the country. Bribery, corruption, racism, political chicanery, abductions, bloody acts of terrorism and most tellingly the inability to extricate reality from rumour form points of reference in the narrative that would resonate with most Sri Lankan readers. At one level, the text is almost like a latter day Sri Lankan Don Quixote with a bumbling protagonist and his side-kick on a seemingly impossible quest—chasing a legend, motivated mostly by gossip and rumour with very little substantive evidence to go on. However, with its self-conscious and persistent blurring of the boundary between truth and fiction Chinaman’s comic narrative raises serious issues about truth and accountability in contemporary Sri Lankan society. Too many investigations have been initiated, and too many commissions have been appointed with very little outcome leading to a situation where the public consciousness inhabits a phantasmal twilight zone between truth and fiction—so there is belief that anything and everything is possible but that belief is accompanied by simultaneous disbelief.2

Cricketing Nomenclature: Chinaman is organised in five sections derived from cricketing nomenclature: “First Innings”, “Second Innings”, “Close of Play”, “Follow On” and “Last Over”. In the first three segments the narrator is Karunadasa (who prefers to be identified by his initials WG which he feels relate him to cricketing legend Sir W. G. Grace) and readers follow his life from the time he is informed of his imminent liver failure to hospitalisation and a subsequent unsuccessful attempt at abstinence and finally hospitalisation for the last time. While the quest for Mathew dominates the narrative we are also offered access to his personal life. WG and the world he inhabits are fully realised in the novel avoiding caricature or over-simplification. Sheila the long-suffering but compassionate and loving wife is compellingly drawn. She is frustrated by WG’s alcoholism, obsession with Mathew, and scant regard for the upbringing of their only child ‘Garfield’ but shows great empathy during his illness. Garfield features only marginally in the earlier segments of the novel but is a convincing portrait of a rebellious teenager dissenting the authority of a distant and uncaring father. He eventually runs away to Europe to become a successful bassist in a rock band. Garfield however returns at the end of the text to pick up Mathew’s story where his father leaves it and performs an important role as the final narrator of the text.

The virtual death sentence WG is served at the beginning of the novel when informed of liver failure from alcohol abuse precipitates a personal crisis. As a failed father and husband and journalist whose career has gone to seed, WG is suddenly compelled to take stock of his life. A chance encounter with international cricket commentator Tony Botham (who like many characters in the text is a hybrid of a real personality) provides WG with a new aim in life. Along with his neighbour and friend Ari Byrd (who fancies himself as an anachronistic magnifying glass-wielding sleuth) WG receives a grant which enables him to produce a television series on Sri Lankan cricketing greats which includes Pradeep Mathew. From the outset WG and Byrd encounter an impenetrable web of deceit and lies that seem to surround Mathew. There are many figures from the television industry, Mathew’s personal and family life and the cricket administration that appear to have knowledge of him but are unwilling to reveal much.

Bizarre mystery: The TV series production quickly tumbles into trouble with disputes on directorial control and WG decides to self-finance the project by betting the money bequeathed by Botham in an illegal cricket gambling operation. WG and Byrd make quick money but then lose it all when WG is unable to resist one last gamble. The TV series is however salvaged with more financing from Gotham but on the very night when the segment on Mathew is aired there is an all island power cut literally plunging into darkness the possibility of Mathew’s story being made public. But for WG and Byrd Mathew has become an obsession with the man himself having disappeared and rumoured to be dead. As the pair continues their investigation Mathew’s legendary stature within the narrative grows parallel to the deepening of the bizarre mystery behind the bowler’s lack of recognition at national or international level. Byrd, an amateur cricket statistician, argues that Mathew has some of the most impressive career statistics in the modern game but readers also discover that Mathew’s impressive performance in an international test is disallowed after the match is( abandoned due to bad pitch conditions. Similarly, he misses out taking a world record 10 wickets for 8 runs in a first class match against Zimbabwe when the Zimbabwean captain declares the innings while a potential catch hangs in the air. In WG’s words, ‘Rose … yelled, “We declare! We declare!” The Zimbabweans walked off the pitch and Liyanage bungled the catch. Mathew didn’t get his record.’ (295) A string of such near misses characterise Mathew’s career—some coincidental others more the result of design and conspiracy. The hazy outline of Mathew’s character that begins to emerge suggests he was a brilliant but temperamental sportsman—a shy retiring personality but given to mercurial outbursts and a man never given due recognition because he resisted the status quo. Mathew’s Tamil identity, it is suggested, was one of the obstacles to his success along with corruption in the cricket administration and just plain bad luck. The legend of Mathew is however as big as the mystery that surrounds him. He is credited with introducing sledging to the Sri Lankan team making them tougher opponents on the field, advising Sanath Jayasuriya to use a lower bat grip and even the strategy of opening one-day international games with hard-hitting batsman (a change of strategy that is directly attributed to Sri Lanka’s 1996 World Cup success). Indeed, Mathew, it appears, had a hand in just about every significant event in Sri Lankan cricket history from the late 1980s.

Within the quasi-surreal quality of the narrative none of this appears completely implausible. There is sufficient anchoring of the narrative in a real verifiable history outside the text to suggest that some, if not all, of this could indeed have happened. Events like the 1996 World Cup victory, narrated with a palpable sense of atmosphere, serve as mooring points that make the narrative grounded in a recognisable contemporary Sri Lankan history. WG and a host of other fictional characters occupy this ‘known’ history alongside pastiches of real characters like Tony Botham or the Sri Lanka Cricket Board MD Punchipala. However one character occupying the surreal margins of the text exemplifies Chinaman’s playful yet serious probing of the truth/fiction dichotomy. Innocent Immanuel Kugarajah — LTTE double agent, match fixer, corporate espionage agent and general agent provocateur—is a shadowy figure who occupies an indistinct place in the geography of the text as well. Most of Chinaman’s action takes place in and around Colombo—altered but recognisable. In contrast, Kugarajah lives on Chelvanayagam Road, an indistinct location on the outskirts of Colombo replete with Bawa-designed luxury houses peopled by colourful rogue personalities such as the naval rating who assaulted visiting Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sepala Ekanayake, Sri Lanka’s one and only airline hijacker.

Larger socio-political themes: WG’s meetings with Kugarajah are secretive affairs preceded by WG being blindfolded and driven to Chelvanayagam Road. Kugarajah claims he was a benefactor to Mathew and has benevolent vested interest in WG’s quest for the cricketer, though later there is a suggestion Kugarajah was among those who exploited him. Kugarajah surreal quality is heightened -by the claims he makes. These extend from the absurd to the profoundly disturbing: that he had a hand in breeding mosquitoes around Colombo to generate business for mosquito repellent manufactures, fixing the result of important cricket matches and tournaments including the Asia Cup of 1988 and to having orchestrated a rash of political assassinations and bombings. Kugararajah may well be read as a phantom figure exemplifying the paranoia of a public consciousness caught between reality and fiction. WG’s status as an unreliable narrator who calls attention to the authorial liberties he takes in fashioning Mathew’s story also supports such a reading.

It is also however in conversations between WG and Kugarajah that the discourse of cricket as it relates to larger socio-political themes becomes most sharply crystallised. Cricket has historically been seen as a singular site where an inclusive Sri Lankan identity, lacking in post-independence socio-political discourse, has been however fleetingly realised (Roberts 1985). The Sri Lankan cricket team has been at most times multiethnic/multi-religious in character and when the Sri Lankans play against another country it has the potential to unite the nation—a potential realised most tellingly when Sri Lanka beat Australia in the 1996 world cup (a moment, as mentioned earlier, Chinaman captures palpably). However critics such as Qadri Ismail (1997) have argued that this discourse of cricket being metonymic of the nation needs to be resisted. For while the multi-ethnic nature of the cricket team creates the illusion of unity, Ismail argues, it does little to change socialised and institutionalised realities of ethnic discrimination in the country. Kugarajah also appears to bring this aspect to the fore.

“I told him [Mathew] that it is hard enough being a Tamil in Sri Lanka, let alone be in the cricket team,” says Kuga as we make our way to the balcony. “I told him that our brothers Sridharan Jeganathan and Vinodhan John suffered the same prejudice.”

“What prejudice? They both had their chances” [WG] “Vinodhan John Jeyarajasingham couldn’t make the side even after changing his name. Jeggie died in 1996. Just 44, the first Sri Lankan test player to die.”

“As if Sri Lankan cricket killed him.”

“The President and the Minister kept him out of the side. He turned to drink. That is probably what killed him.”….

He [Kugarajah] told of how the Sinhalese mob had nearly turned his [Mathew’s] father’s bakery to cinder in ‘83. How his family 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.

“That’s nonsense,’ I [WGI] say, “Look at Chanmugam, Kasipillai, Schaffer, Pathmanathan and of course, Muralitharan.”

“That is what you all say,” says Kuga…. “Murali. Murali. You elevate a few Tamils for your pleasure, and then you destroy them.” (269-70)

While pithily outlining the pervasive nature of ethnic politics in the country, this dialogue also highlights something of the absurd and absolutist nature of extremist nationalist perceptions. When Kugarajah adds Rukmani Devi to his list of Tamil victims, implying darkly her death was not-accidental, what may have sounded absurd or implausible becomes patently fantastic. Kugarajah is thus shown to be a man who reduces everything to ethnicity and uses the history of discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka to justify this perception. He also exemplifies the problem of an authoritarian militant-terrorist nationalism which exploits the very people on whose behalf it speaks and acts. Kugarajah we later discover may have been extorting Mathew and even involved in breaking a couple of his fingers over a match fixing dispute.

Veering off: The story tends to veer off track somewhat in the middle with a subplot about WG’s and Ari’s expat friend Jonny being accused of paedophilia taking centre stage. Following WG’s death, however, the Mathew story regains its momentum with Garfield as narrator. This shift in perspective is facilitated by the “Follow On” section which serves an important transitional function disturbing the narrative’s otherwise ‘masculinist’ tone and emphasis—manifest in its brawny humour shaped by WG’s sardonic voice.

In “Follow On,” other narrative voices enter the text in the form of letters penned after WG’s death which offer a poignant yet starkly revealing perspective on WG’s life—especially Sheila’s belief that her husband hated her which shows WG’s tragic failure to communicate with his family. In the same section of the novel, Garfield following a failed marriage but a successful and lucrative music career returns to Sri Lanka and in a seemingly unlikely turn of events decides to complete his father’s quest for Mathew. This section of Chinaman poignantly captures the struggle of an estranged son to come to terms with his father’s legacy. Garfield accidentally discovers his father’s final `to-do’ list in which “Garfield peace”, the number one item on the list, is marked with an “X” denoting failure. Moved by the knowledge that his father, for all his failings, may have indeed cared for him, Garfield Karunasena reads his father’s manuscript and decides that the best way of paying tribute to the man is to finish his quest for Mathew and publish the manuscript. Following an exhaustive search (which is also somewhat exhausting in terms of reading) Garfield eventually tracks Mathew down in a remote town in New Zealand coaching a local school team and leading a settled domestic life. A brief bowling demonstration on the lawn on the pretext that Garfield is searching for a coach for his child proves beyond a doubt that Mathew is an extraordinary spinner and that WG was not chasing a phantom. Garfield as narrator in this segment appears to confer authenticity to most of WG’s narrative—that there is indeed a legendary but unrecognised spinner called Pradeep Mathew.

However in typical fashion Chinaman adds a further twist. After a frustrating struggle Garfield finds an international publisher for WG’s manuscript (local publishers refuse it for fear of legal action by Sri Lankan cricket authorities). In trying to decide a pen name for the author readers are told “Shehan Karunatilaka” is chosen because it is a “common name” that will disguise the real writer (Karunatilaka the author also happens to be a bassist in real life). But pushing the limits of the postmodernist play on fictionality even further we are told that the name of the main character in the story “Pradeep Mathew” is an arbitrary choice chat simply comes up while Garfield/Shehan Karunatilaka and the editor of the book toss about names for the primary character. Like the deceptive delivery of a ‘Chinaman’ bowler, the text ends by provocatively hinting that this may all be fiction after all.

Multi-dimensional reality: Chinaman’s playfulness however does not end with the printed text. It literally takes the discourse beyond and outside into the ‘real’ word. Garfield is initially unconvinced by his father’s story and accepts its authenticity when he discovers the existence of a cricketer named Pradeep Mathew on the “Crickipedia” website. Readers in the non-fictional world may Google the name “Pradeep Mathew” and they will discover such a website carrying statistics for the legendary cricketer along with a few similar websites containing information on the cricketer as well. This is innovative and a clear first in Sri Lankan writing in English. Just as writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien went to the extent of creating an alphabet for “Elvish”, Karunatilaka attempts to create a multi-dimensional reality for his text and its characters. This attention to detail is visible within the text as well where the game of cricket along with Mathew’s remarkable deliveries are explained using cameo segments of narrative and detailed technical diagrams that are interspersed within the main narrative. Chinaman can therefore be described not just as a text but an ‘event’ in Sri Lankan writing in English. I call it an event for two reasons. There have been a number of rave reviews of the text which rightly recognise it as a significant event in Sri Lankan writing in English due to its uniqueness but it is also an event because the author has chosen to make it so by literally extending the discourse of the book beyond its covers. The entire exercise of reading the novel and then finding out about Mathew in cyberspace is like a hyper-extended postmodernist metaphor which leaves one with the uncanny feeling that one has been the victim of a very elaborate and sophisticated joke. But in a society where the real and surreal are increasingly difficult to differentiate Chinaman’s joke may very well be one we cannot ignore.

ALSO SEE http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/may/01/the-chinaman-shehan-karunatilaka-review


1. For those unfamiliar with the game of Cricket, a “Chinaman” is a term used to describe a very rare type of left arm unorthodox spinner. There have been very few historically in the game and most have flourished briefly to be relegated to obscurity. The unorthodox character of the technique of this type of bowler and their relative obscurity in the game makes “Chinaman” a good choice of title and a good choice for the main protagonist in Karunatilaka’s book because it complements Mathew’s status as a maverick legend. The term “Chinaman” and its marginality also have racist origins. It is apparently traced to the comment “fancy being done by a bloody Chinaman”, English cricketer Walter Robbins uttered when he was adjudged stumped to a ball by West Indian bowler of Chinese-origin Ellis Ahchong.

2. Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s When Memory Dies (1997) broaches a similar theme tangentially when one of the text’s main protagonists witnesses the murder of Tamil prisoners at Welikada prison but society at large refuses to believe him thinking he is delusional—however without the postmodernism emphasis in Chinaman. Gunadasa Amarasekara’s Gal Pilimaya Saha Bol Pilimaya (2001) directly addresses a crisis of authenticity, where the fake cannot be distinguished from the real, in a different historical context—the late 1980s when the Jayewardene regime deployed the concept of a Buddhist-inspired dharmishta samajaya (righteous society) for political ends. Amarasekara’s satirical text is highly effective in capturing the absurdity of a social context where there appears to be mass, self-inflicted delusion. Karunatileka’s Chinaman however, is arguably the only Sri Lankan English text to provide extended and skillful treatment of a similar theme.

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