Gratiaen Prize: Judges stumble on something new in Lankan writing?

By Smriti Daniel, Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

Sixteen years after its inception the Gratiaen Prize has grown in stature, becoming one of Sri Lanka’s most notable awards. Today, the prize is meant to recognize the best literary work in English written by a Sri Lankan resident in the country. And as Richard Boyle, trustee of the Gratiaen Foundation announced, the prize money has officially been raised to Rs. 200,000, heaping both glory and riches on the winner.
The Gratiaen trustees and panel of judges and the Gratiaen winner Shehan Karunatilaka.

Shehan Karunatilaka won the 2008 Gratiaen Prize for an unpublished manuscript ‘Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew’. Other nominees for the prize included a self-published collection of short stories by Anthea Senaratna titled ‘The Mango Tree’, an unpublished play by Jehan Aloysius titled ‘The Ritual’, an unpublished collection of poetry by Malinda Seneviratne titled ‘The Underside of Silence: A Book of Questions and Answers’, a self-published novel by Vihanga Perera titled ‘Stable Horses’, and ‘Eternally Yours’ – an unpublished memoir by Sybil Wettasinghe.

In Chinaman, the narrator, a disreputable, aging sports journalist is delivered what amounts to a death sentence when his doctor diagnoses him with a failing liver. Having faded into obscurity, W.G. Karunasena, variously called WG, Wije, Karu and Gamini, decides to stage a comeback and track down Pradeep Mathew, the cricketer he considers one of the most spectacular spin bowlers ever to play for Sri Lanka.

“This is the starting point of a story that touches on an extraordinary range of themes, from racism to corruption, political thuggery to paedophilia,” said the judges, declaring their choice of the winner unanimous.
Edmund Jayasuriya receiving the H.A.I Goonetileke Prize for Translation from Prof. Ashley Halpe

The judges noted that the 300 page novel - which included technical drawings of different bowling techniques - proved surprisingly absorbing, even though two of them were far from being fans of the sport itself. Praising the author for passionate attention to detail, they said the novel was about, and featured “an extraordinary array of statistics and analysis and trivia,” and that it served as “a stinging expose of the corruption, the gambling, the match-fixing, the womanising – in short, the seedy underbelly of the so-called “gentleman’s game”.”

Dr. Anila Dias Bandaranaike, Dr. Kanchanakesi Warnapala and Michael Meyler made up the panel of judges this year. Speaking at the ceremony, Dr. Warnapala said of Shehan’s winning entry “against a backdrop of socio cultural and political tension in Sri Lanka, it is remarkable that a novel so full of irony and humour is possible, where the political is visible but never centre stage.” She concluded by adding that, “while it is every Gratiaen panel’s dream that they will uncover the next big thing in Sri Lankan English writing, and while wary of making such a claim ourselves, we are tempted to do so tonight.”

Also announced that night was the H.A.I. Goonetileke Prize for Translation, which was awarded to Edmund Jayasuriya for his translation from Sinhala into English of the novel Sedona by Eva Ranaweera.

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