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Journalism of Courage

Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises takes on Sri Lanka’s ethnic, religious and class divides head on

The collection of short stories by the 2022 Booker Prize winner pushes the boundaries of what a reader might expect from the genre

Shehan_KarunatilakaShehan_Karunatilaka (Courtesy: Hachette India)

Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises came out just around the time that he won the Booker Prize for The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida in October last year, which may explain why it has not been noticed that much. This collection of 30 sad-funny short stories, as its title says, is filled with surprises, pulling the reader into unanticipated turns and twists and sudden eureka moments.

And yet, just at that moment, comes along something else that turns the story on its head. If you are looking for a comparison, some of the stories are reminiscent of Roald Dahl. But make no mistake, this is all Sri Lanka, entirely Karunatilaka territory — conflict, violent death or the threat of it, with layers of life lived on the edge, all quite quotidian with people caught on one side or the other, or in some other part of the world, not forgetting the cricket, and the comic absurdity of it all.

Absurdity and fantasy have been the forte of the 47-year-old writer, who has also written books for children. Here, too, he soups up the fantasy generously, and you have a bunch of stories written over two decades that have no one style, but take on Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, and its religious and class divides head on. Some of the characters are recognisable as an amalgam of real-life personalities, and the stories themselves are rooted in events of the last four decades or more. Some are just a few paras, others are pages long, some feel like prep work for Karunatilaka’s prize-winning work. Dr Ranee Sridharan in Assassin’s Paradise is based on Dr Rajani Thiranagama, the human-rights defender killed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1989, recognisable in the Booker-winning work as the woman in the white sari, who guides Maali Almeida through purgatory.

Taking the writer’s advice not to start at the beginning, I “just read it how [I] damn well please”. Like that annoying person who breaks the queue at a buffet, I dive into the middle, and find “My Name is Not Malini”, a story about two Sri Lankan women (and some others) working as maids in an unspecified west Asian country. “If you hate it so much, why did you come?” one of them asks the other. “Because I am a girl from Ratnapura with a polytech degree and no English,” comes the reply.

The Capital of Djibouti is a thriller in 12 pages, with the President of Sri Lanka out on an anonymous visit during an official trip to London – “…the cab fare shoots past 30 quid. She doesn’t think of taxpayers footing the bill, instead she thinks of all the sacrifices she’s made that no salary could possibly compensate”. The reader cannot help but think of Chandrika Kumaratunga, in a wig and dark glasses. She pretends to be from Djibouti, and the cabbie is Tamil from Sri Lanka, and he tells her about the atrocities being inflicted on the Tamils, and how the President has “slept her way to the top” and faked her foreign degree. Then the cabbie takes a detour…

My favourite was The Ceylon Islands, a brand new country for Sri Lankans who want to chuck their own. No one else can become a citizen, and some are granted residency if they have a parent who ate rice and curry with their hand. It is in the Arabian Sea, “somewhere between the Maldives and Somalia”, there is “eleven months of sunshine and one month of snow” an island with “…citizens of fixed smiles. And an air of controlled freedom [and a GDP] that is the envy of the uncivilised world”. And it aspires to play cricket against Sri Lanka. There is a plot involving the Maldivians but I will be giving away too much if I say more.

Like Indian English, Sri Lankan English is a language by itself. It has a cadence of its own and Karunatilaka clearly revels in it. He is also pushing the boundaries of what a reader might expect from a short story with the piece from which the book gets its name. It is a listing of 42 people – or, are they one person reincarnated 42 times with no sign of nibbana? — born in different circumstances, eras and species. And as you read the list, you realise this is the underlying theme of the book. “None get to choose where they are born. Many try to steal the credit”, as the epigram at the beginning says.

Karunatilaka pulls it all together in one story in this collection, which is again less a story than a reflective essay of what might have been. Titled Hugs, the two-pager is a chain of what ifs that were not — “a tale of horseshoe nails” — that goes quickly over Sri Lanka’s recent history with the narrator finally urging the geeks of this world to make an app that counts hugs instead of steps and calories, and asking, “Could we prevent riots and terror by replacing knee-jerk kicks with strategic hugs?”
First published on: 04-02-2023 at 10:00 IST
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