Shyam Dissanayake intended his first novel Dalada to be a history of the Sacred Tooth Relic but by the time he submitted it for the Gratiaen Prize it had become an altogether different book. “I had no intention of writing a thriller, but that’s how it turned out,” he says, speaking over the phone from his home.
The first-time nominee, explains, that he had long wanted to write a book that would make Sri Lankan history interesting for his readers – much as he as a young boy discovered stories based on Western history lining his father’s bookshelves. “I believed this should be the way children should be taught history,” he says of his conviction that they would absorb more in this format.
Having chosen his subject, Shyam decided to do just that. However, he soon realized that the story was disjointed, and decided to add specific modern elements into the plot. Rival Tamil nationalist groups were tossed in, international and local politics, violence and subterfuge, conspiracies and counter-conspiracies added to the intrigue. But when Shyam showed the book to friends they found the sections devoted to history heavy going.
“I was not yet very happy with the final output – the novel was neither fish nor fowl,” he says.
Following his friends’ advice and his own instincts, he pruned his book ruthlessly, cutting approximately 50,000 words to convert it into the straight-up thriller that it is now. There were other changes - having begun writing in 2003, Shyam had initially set the action in war-torn Sri Lanka, but with the defeat of the LTTE, he decided to “twist his plot around” to suit the island’s new circumstances.
Having praised his characters as “portrayed compellingly,” the panel of judges for the Gratiaen described the novel’s narrative as dealing with conflicts between two groups, both of which were united against the common enemy - the Sri Lankan state – and that it addressed the State’s scramble to cope with an attack on one of its most sacred precincts. “The power politics involved in this situation is, by its very nature, of perennial interest and becomes one of the principal assets of this novel,” they added.
Professionally, the author has had a chequered career with interests that ranged from the bio-sciences to the hotel trade, business consulting and teaching. Part of his time has been spent in New Zealand. Now based in Negombo, Shyam, who “studiously avoids Colombo” however made it to the city for the announcement of the nominees.
An excerpt from Shyam Dissanayake’s book, Dalada:
Minister for Defence? That’s a new one, thought Fonseka; whatever their colour, independence of thought and action had not served to endear him to politicians.
Though he muttered under his breath, in a way, Fonseka was relieved. Saturday was his off day. Left to his own devices, Fonseka would be at a loose end. Apart from work, the only activity he really enjoyed was camping out in a wild life reserve, observing and photographing animals in their natural habitat.
Alcohol and cigarettes helped him while away the time. After Amanda, he never considered marriage, to the eternal regret of several designing females. He did wonder, however, at what this was all about. He was at the Minister’s office cum residence at half past eight. Announcing his presence to the Minister’s private secretary, he waited expectantly. The secretary seemed preoccupied as he went inside to advise the Minister, and didn’t bother to ask Fonseka to be seated.
Fonseka stood in the doorway in full uniform, cap in hand, for a full fifteen minutes before the Minister deigned to meet him. Coming out with the secretary in tow, he saw Fonseka and started to quibble at the ostensible delay in meeting him. Fonseka remained silent and erect, disdaining excuses, looking down on the short statured Minister. Realizing that he was ineffectual, the Minister got down to the matter at hand.
“You are to meet the Chinese Ambassador at 9.30 today.” The Minister was seemingly more interested in a document he was carrying and did not even look at Fonseka as he spoke. “a.m. or pm. Sir?” Fonseka politely interjected. Taken aback, the Minister paused, looked up at Fonseka in obvious irritation and snapped;
“a.m. of course.”
He was accustomed to a more subservient approach. Unfazed, Fonseka continued:
“At his residence or at the embassy Sir?”
Though his manner was polite, Fonseka disliked people who exuded superciliousness and instinctively tried to get under their skin. His quick-wittedness ensured that he did in fact succeed more often than not, much to his personal amusement, but to the detriment of his career. But this little fact never unduly worried Fonseka.
“Embassy of course,” snapped the Minister once more. He had heard of Fonseka from his colleagues who considered him a recalcitrant troublemaker, and wondered why the IGP (Inspector General of Police) had recommended him for this particular job. He paused again, for longer this time, as Fonseka had succeeded in temporarily derailing his train of thought.
“Will that be all, Sir?” asked Fonseka, again very politely.
Recognizing that in Fonseka, he had come across an officer far removed from the ordinary, the Minister changed tack. He was also concerned about losing face in front of his fawning private secretary whom he abruptly dismissed.
“It is a bit more involved than that Mr. Fonseka. Come, sit down and I will tell you all about it.”
He ushered Fonseka into the sitting room of his residence, where he continued with his directions, but this time, in a manner more refined and less peremptory.