Monday, 21 May 2012

Book Review: “Chinaman – The Legend of Pradeep Mathew” by Shehan Karunatilaka

A Chinaman is not a man from China, but a delivery by a bowler in a game of cricket where the ball is drifted in a wayward manner to pitch outside the batsman’s feet, only to suddenly turn in towards the batsman. We are told that such a delivery was originally bowled by Ellis Achong, a West Indian of Chinese descent. The Chinaman was Pradeep Mathew’s stock delivery in his role as a Sri Lankan bowler.

Karunatilaka’s Chinaman is a book of exquisite beauty, at times raw and crude, at times fine and sensitive, about cricket and a cricketer named Pradeep Sivanathan Mathew, who is at times called Mathew Pradeepan Sivanathan. One is never sure if the first name is Mathew or Pradeep or even Pradeepan. In ethnically sensitive Sri Lanka, Pradeep Mathew is classified as a Tamil, though his mother is Sinhalese.

Chinaman is narrated by Wijedasa Gamini Karunasena, a sports journalist who is fanatic about sport in general and cricket in particular. Wije, as the narrator is called by many, has seen Pradeep Mathew bowl and thinks he is the greatest Sri Lankan cricketer ever. Unfortunately Pradeep Mathew seems to have disappeared and might even be dead. Even more unfortunate is that there are few public records of Pradeep Mathew’s achievements. A temperamental man who was shy and honest, Pradeep could twist his wrist almost by 360 degrees which enabled him to spin the ball much more than the average bowler and bowl various types of unplayable spin. We are told that there was a time when Pradeep Mathew was a pace bowler. Normally left-handed, he could also bowl with his right hand. Apparently Pradeep Mathew could imitate practically all well-known international bowlers, both pace bowlers and spinners. If this doesn’t stretch your incredulity, then here goes: When Pradeep Mathew was young, he was drafted in to play for Royal College in Sri Lanka’s fiercely competitive inter-school cricket tournament, though he was actually a student of Thurstan. However, Pradeep Mathew didn’t play as himself. ‘In the first match he wore a double T-shirt and played the role of burly pacey Nalliah de Silva. Against Nalanda, he wore a gold chain and mimicked Chanaka Devarajan, de Silva’s new ball partner. He took four wickets and ripped the spine out of a Nalanda batting line-up featuring future international stars Roshan Gurusinha and Hashan Mahanama. In the St. Joseph’s match, he masqueraded as star spinner Rochana Amarasinghe, while his namesake recuperated from an ankle-sprain. His spell of 6-72 livened up an otherwise drab game.’ One’s incredulity isn’t stretched to breakpoint since Karunatilaka has all Royal College players in sunglasses, sunscreen and hats.

Pradeep played a few international games – just a handful. For reasons which can’t be explained in a book review, there are no records of those games and no one remembers Pradeep Mathew who was instrumental in persuading the Sri Lankan captain to not take Aussie sledging like a gentleman, but to pay back in equal measure. A man who never endeared himself to seniors in the cricket team or to selectors, Pradeep Mathew was infatuated with a girl Shirali for whom he wrote poetry and was even prepared to give up cricket.

To add spice to the story, the narrator Wije has ruined his liver by excessive drinking. Wije cannot write unless he drinks. Warned by doctor that he would die in a year or two if he did not stop drinking, Wije has decided to continue drinking and look for Pradeep Mathew. Wije is aided in his search by his friend Ari – Ariyaratne Cletus Byrd. Does Wije succeed in his search? Do please read this wonderful book to find out.

Chinaman is politically incorrect and does not make any bones about it. Rather, it celebrates political incorrectness (of a bygone era) in a very pleasing manner so that no one is really offended. Wije the narrator leads a life which is revealed in great detail, just as Pradeep Mathew remains an enigma till the end. Married to a Christian woman Sheila, with an only son who is called Garfield from whom Wije is estranged, the fun loving Wije fits into the stereotype of a typical hard-drinking sports journalist who cares a lot more about sports and having fun rather than his longevity. Towards the end we find out that Garfield’s real first name is Shehan, same as the author. As much as Chinaman is the story of Pradeep Mathew and Wije, Karunatilaka’s satire also makes it the story of Sri Lanka and its society as it goes through so much pain and suffering on account of its inability to deal with its ethnic divide. For cricket aficionados, the various cricketing anecdotes and trivia make this 500-odd page tome a must-read. Non-Statutory Warning: If you are not a cricket fan, it is possible you may turn into one by the time you finish this novel which won the DSC prize for South Asian literature at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012.

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