Time for the Gratiaen, time for Chinaman

By Richard Boyle

“The Gratiaen Prize . . . has been set up to test and trust and celebrate ourselves, to discuss and argue about the literature that grows up around us, to take it seriously, not to just see it as a jewel or a decoration.” – Michael Ondaatje, founder

Once again, it’s time for the Gratiaen Prize; the Gratiaen Prize 2010 to be exact. The Prize was instituted in 1992 by Michael Ondaatje with the money he received as joint-winner of the Booker Prize for The English Patient. It is awarded annually to the best work of literature in English, fact or fiction, by Sri Lankans resident in Sri Lanka. The Prize, intended to encourage English writing by Sri Lankans, is named after Michael Ondaatje’s mother, Doris Gratiaen. Initially, the Prize was administered by Ian Goonetileke, the former librarian, University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, but later handed over to the Gratiaen Trust, which was set up for the purpose.

Each year three judges are selected by the Trust – for the Gratiaen Prize 2010 they are Feizal Samath, Sunethra Bandaranaike and Dinithi Karunanayake – to assess the entries, which number around 50 in recent years. The entries, submitted by either authors or publishers, include fiction, poetry, drama and literary memoir, either published during the last year or presented in manuscript form. Initially a short-list of five is chosen by the judges, which is announced at the British Council, this year on Monday, April 4, at 6 p.m.

Excerpts are read from the short-listed books. It’s open to the public, so if you have an interest in the latest Sri Lankan writing in English, come along. The winner will be announced at the Gratiaen Prize award event, to be held on Saturday, May 21, but attendance is by invitation only. The value of the Prize is Rs 200,000.

Past winners include Carl Muller’s The Jam Fruit Tree (co-winner, 1993), Punyakante Wijenaike’s Amulet (1994), Tissa Abeysekara’s Bringing Tony Home (1996), Jeanne Thwaite’s It’s a Sunny Day on the Moon (1998), Neil Fernandopulle’s Shrapnel (1999), Ruwanthi de Chickera’s Middle of Silence (2000), Elmo Jayawardene’s Sam’s Story (co-winner 2001), Nihal de Silva’s The Road from Elephant Pass (2003), Vivimarie Vanderpoorten’s Nothing Prepares You (2007) and Prashani Rambukwella’s Mythil’s Secret (2009).

Although translations came within the scope of the Gratiaen Prize at the beginning, in 2003 the Trust created the HAI Goonetileke Prize exclusively for translations. This allowed the Trust to strengthen its mandate of promoting original creative writing in English while rewarding those who provided English readers access to the rich literatures produced in Sinhala and Tamil. As with the Gratiaen Prize, the HAI Goonetileke Prize is Rs 200,000, but unlike the Gratiaen it is awarded every two years, this year, unfortunately, not being one of them.

The Gratiaen Trust would never have been able to sustain the Gratiaen Prize and HAI Goonetileke Prize in the manner that the interested section of the public has become accustomed to, so it is appropriate to mention the unstinting support of the British Council and Standard Chartered Bank
“Why, you ask, has no one heard of our nation's greatest cricketer? Here, in no particular order.

Wrong place, wrong time, money and laziness. Politics, racism, power cuts and plain bad luck. If you are unwilling to follow me on the next God-knows-how many pages, re-read the last two sentences. They are as good a summary as I can give from this side of the bottle.” – Shehan Karunatilaka, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew

Since the New Year, the judging of the entries and organisation of the shortlist and award events has coincided with the publication on the Subcontinent, and the preparations for further international publication in the UK and US, of a novel that won the Gratiaen Prize 2008, Shehan Karunatilaka’s cricket saga, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. It was hailed by the judges as “one of the most imaginative works of contemporary Sri Lankan fiction”. Michael Ondaatje, who prefers to remain as invisible as possible with regards the Trust and rarely comments on the novels that win the prize he founded, was moved to describe Chinaman as “a crazy ambidextrous delight”.

This is the first time in the history of the Gratiaen Prize that such international publication of a winning entry has occurred, although Carl Muller’s The Jam Fruit Tree (co-winner 1993) was published by Penguin in India. The publishing history of Chinaman is complex considering its comparative youth. The entry was submitted in manuscript form to the Gratiaen Trust, and after winning the prize Shehan spent time in honing the text.

The process took far longer than expected. “I was due to appear at the Galle Literary Festival in January 2010 and had nothing on the shelves,” he told me. So “the best alternative”, he believed, to rushing out an incomplete book, “was to publish a 30-page teaser booklet leading up to publication. It generated a bit of buzz and anticipation for the finished product.”

After a fruitless search to find a sympathetic agent or publisher, Shehan used the Gratiaen Prize money to self-publish the first edition in March 2010, and then left Sri Lanka to work in Singapore.

Since its initial appearance in Sri Lanka, Chinaman has garnered some positive reviews, one of the most perceptive, I believe, being Richard Simon’s “Liar’s Cricket” (The Sunday Times, July 11, 2010).
“Until Chinaman, I had yet to read a Sri Lankan English novel that stayed good, or even palatable, to the last drop,” Simon declares. “Some had arguable literary merits – a charming sense of time or place, real action and suspense, the odd felicitous turn of phrase or telling auctorial insight – but none of them were worth a damn as a story, one that kept you interested, that had a plot which stayed the course and characters anyone but the author could possibly care about. Not one of them, frankly, ever had a proper ending. Chinaman has that, and pretty much everything else it takes, too. The first genuine contender for the title of Great Sri Lankan Novel has entered the lists.”

Simon points out that Chinaman is much more than about cricket, that it is embedded in the realities of this island’s life: “Sri Lankan it is with a vengeance. Its blend of fact and fiction closely resembles the made-up ‘history’ Sri Lankan children are taught in school. Its subject, cricket, is, of course, our national obsession, but in the background, Karunatilaka also touches, without ever making it look like a stretch, upon all the crucial Sri Lankan realities: racism, all-pervasive yet blandly denied; class snobbery; endemic corruption, moral failure and cultural decline; suicide-bombings, alcoholism, paedophile sex tourism; the shadow of the colonial past and the failures of the first post-Independence generation. It’s a depressing list, but in spite of it, as we all know, Sri Lanka is a far from depressing country.”

Inevitably, the book drew attention on the cricket fanatics’ website, CRICINFO. The review “Where in the world is Pradeep Mathew?” by Sidin Vadukut of October 16, 2010, informed online readers of its handsome stroke-play, although it included “a few hoicks over slip”: “The mysteries of Pradeep Mathew, combined with the brutal dissection of cricket and the delicious morsels of cricketing trivia come together to form one of the strongest, most immersive plots in a sports novel, or indeed any novel, I have read in a long time.

“The book is not without its gimmicks. There are a few towards the end that are particularly laboured. And there are a few occasions where the dialogues seem too smart by half. But all good innings have room for a few hoicks over slip. And Chinaman is a Test match-winning innings-at-the-death watch-over-and-over-on-YouTube kind of a book.

“It certainly is a superb novel. For all cricket fans, especially those from the subcontinent, it is a compulsory addition to their library. And if you can't stand cricket, this is still a book well worth reading. For sheer scope, ambition and inventiveness. Karunatilaka has smashed this out of the park.”
From Singapore Shehan sent a few more queries to publishers and, encouragingly, Chiki Sarkar of Random House India responded with enthusiasm. “She suggested the book was slow-paced and filled with too much cricket jargon and local in-jokes - something I always knew,” Shehan remarks. “We decided to shave 100 pages from the Sri Lankan edition, and, after months of emails, succeeded. I think the international edition is much tighter, though I’m glad we have a ‘director’s cut’ version.”
Chinaman was published by Random House India in February this year, launched at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and attracted positive reviews.

Nandini Nair, writing in the Indian Express of February, 20, 2011, stresses, like Richard Simon, the “dark realities off the pitch”: “But this book goes far beyond the euphoria of cricket, exposing the seamier side, be it dubious money deals, lascivious cricketers or diplomats with terrible secrets. Chinaman was written in Colpetty and Havelock Town, neighbourhoods of Colombo. Karunatilaka is certain that this book would not have been written if he had not been in the midst of the country’s sights and sounds. The civil war simmers beneath the text’s surface. It appears in the form of ‘men with clubs and knives storming buses’ and asking passengers to speak Sinhala.”

Pratap Bhanu Mehta claims in India Today (weekly edition) of February 28, 2011, that Chinaman is one of the best South Asian novels of the century. “The characters are wonderful, the ‘history’ is so subtly woven in and the cricket is of course superbly handled. Karunatilaka has done something rare in South Asian literature – created characters.”

Before Chinaman was published in India, Chiki Sarkar of Random House sent the novel to the Publishing Director of Jonathan Cape in UK, Dan Franklin, described as “the colossus behind Britain’s superstar authors”. Franklin compares Chinaman to Midnight’s Children, arguing that it does for Sri Lanka what Rushdie’s novel did for India: “This makes it sound serious, but it’s nothing of the sort. It’s anarchic, verbally playful, incredibly funny, and most glorious of all, it’s entirely one hundred percent about cricket and it doesn’t matter one jot if you’ve never seen an over bowled.”

“The book comes out on April 28th in the UK and across other cricketing countries towards mid-year,” Shehan enthuses. “And we’ve just sold the US rights.” The novel has also been selected for Waterstone’s 11 “Our pick of the best first novels of 2011” and the first chapter of Chinaman is available for download on Waterstone’s website.

The division between fact and fiction is deliberately blurred in Chinaman. Shehan has enhanced this aspect by creating a website “Pradeep Mathew’s Amazing Deliveries” – 14 in all - with accompanying articles and diagrams, and the copyright in WG Karunasena’s name!

As we head towards another Gratiaen Prize, let’s hope that this year other major literary talent will be revealed.

(The writer of this article is a Trustee of the Gratiaen Trust For further information on the Trust visit

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