Been a while since I wrote about books. As much as I hate to admit that the average quantity of books I read per month has come down, I also have not found the necessary enthusiasm to collect my thoughts together to write/blog about the books I read. See, books get into my system in a complex way. I rarely finish a book in one sitting – so this means, a book I start today continues to create, alter and erase impressions in my mind, over a period of time, thus forcing the whole thing to get stored in my mind, as a series of non-sequential images & intonations. In contrast, writing about movies is a bit easier for me, because the impression a movie makes on me is a bit more simple and straight forward and more importantly, they all get stored in one sitting, much in a sequential manner. The two books I want to write about in this post are:
The Match by Romesh Gunasekera
Chinaman – The Legend of Pradeep Matthew by Snehan Karunatilaka
Both have one common link – Cricket. The game of cricket. After Netherland (by James O’Neill), this was the first set of cricket related books I managed to read (There is a dearth of popular fiction/writing with cricket based stories or themes). And that is largely due to a very good friend of mine, who shared an article which specifically talked about these books. So Thanks to my dear friend Dave. You know who you are.
The Match and Chinaman are extremely different. In The Match, cricket just happens to be a backdrop of Sunny, the lead character, who moves from Sri Lanka to Manila to England. It’s very diasporic from that perspective and as the story leaps from one phase to another phase of Sunny’s life, it continues to connect the lead character Sunny to his place of residence with his home country Sri Lanka, through cricket. So, cricket acts as that binding cord that proves to be the vital factor, making Sunny realize who he really is, in the end. Not that Sunny manages to end up on a victorious note, but Gunasekera succeeds in making us connect with Sunny’s moment of self-realization and acceptance of what is more important for him, albeit a bit late in his life. Gunesekera’s focus in the story is on his main characters – Sunny, his family and more importantly Sunny’s parents and the tragic end to his mother’s life at a very young age, which fact Sunny couldn’t reconcile with his father till he (father) passes away. Gunesekera manages to weave everything else into the story, right from the Sri Lankan food & culture to the geopolitical issues of the land, including the ongoing Tamil-Sinhala ethnic war. But they don’t let the reader get distracted from the main focus of the author.
Chinaman on the other hand, is all about cricket. There is cricket in every page and in fact the story is as much about a mysterious cricketer called Pradeep Matthew, as it is about a cricketing author/journalist WG Karunasena. In between, much like Gunesekera, Karunatilaka also manages to interweave the issues of the land that are pertinent to the time the story is set in – LTTE and the Government atrocities included. Snehan doesn’t hesitate taking punches on his own people, the government, ex-ministers, ex-presidents, and more. He also presents his opposing views on LTTE and their ideologies, without disrespecting what the main cause they stand for is. Overall, the story continues to progress through different eras (decades) of the ethnic civil war in Sri Lanka. And then there is cricket!
Firstly, Snehan manages to create a completely fictitious cricketer called Pradeep Matthew, with extraordinary attention to details through his fictitious career spanning over a couple of decades, all by overlaying Pradeep’s story on top of real history of Sri Lankan cricket during the exact same period. Not an easy feat. Since my cricketing interests grew almost during the same period of time when most of the story passes through and since I distinctly remember when Sri Lanka played their first internationally recognized cricket matches (thanks to Rupavahini at home, which incidentally has been not so cleverly disguised as Rupavision in the book), it was almost like I was taken back to that period of my life, consistently with one nagging question. Who is Pradeep Matthew? The overlaying of fiction over history was so authentic that, at some point, I started believing that Pradeep Matthew was either a real person or the author was using a real cricketer with a different name in the story. After I finished reading the book, the first thing I did was to google for ‘Pradeep Matthew’.
Secondly, the game itself accounts for so much space in the book that if you are not a cricketer or don’t understand the sport well enough, you may be forced to reread some passages to get the nucleus of what Snehan is trying to convey. But, I loved it. Thirdly, Snehan deserves complete credit for the slew of impressive one-liners throughout the book. They recreated my childhood in a uniquely different, but same way. WG, Ari, Graham Snow, Garfield, etc. – they all meant some characters from my childhood in a distant way. Where Chinaman however differs from The Match, is exactly on these three points above and on the fact how cricket in Chinaman is not a thin cord that holds the vitality of the story, but it is the life of the story. Pradeep Matthew walks away from meeting with success he deserves because he couldn’t get it in his own terms, but ends up choosing his own destiny. Much like Sunny.
The book WG writes about Pradeep Matthew but couldn’t complete it and how eventually Garfield (WG’s son and named after the one and only Garfield) gets in touch with a self-exiled Pradeep himself in the end, made me as a reader, wish for WG to be alive to see his work published.
Two books. Two different stories. Yet they both resonated well with me at different levels. Chinaman is certainly my pick though, if you are a true lover of the sport, irrespective of your knowledge of the Sri Lankan cricket history.