Book Review by Somdatta Mandal
Title: The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises
Author: Shehan Karunatilaka
Publisher: Hatchette India
When Hatchette India sent the reviewer’s copy of Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka’s collection of short stories, The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises, it had two eulogies on the cover, namely “From the Commonwealth Book Prize Winner” and “Booker-Shortlisted author,” assuming both would add to the USP of the volume. Karunatilaka’s debut novel Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew had received a lot of critical acclaim when it was first published in 2010 and received the Commonwealth Prize. In the meantime, on 17 October 2022, the author did manage to win this year’s Booker Prize for his third novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, set against the backdrop of the civil war in Sri Lanka. This award definitely garners more attention to read this new book of short stories. According to the publishers, The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises offers a pointed conversation “about religious fanaticism, social prejudices, and the devolving state of democratic order in the Indian subcontinent”. Replete with unexpected twists, it is a “vivid and engaging commentary on privilege, class, and societal ills” and offers a collection of fantastic short stories that serves up fantasies for both doomsday and everyday, marking the return of one of South Asia’s most compelling storytellers.
As a writer with an English literature background and having studied in Sri Lanka and Australia and lived and worked in London, Amsterdam, and Singapore, Karunatilaka’s style of writing is unique. He has not only written about the Tamil-Sinhala conflict plaguing the island nation both from an insider and an outsider’s point of view but has, at the same time, experimented with the postmodern literary form where many entries resemble the magic realistic mode of narration. Ranging from short entries of half a page to stories covering several pages, it seems that the author has put together all his assorted unpublished writing within the two covers of this volume. In an interesting entry at the beginning titled ‘How to Read This Collection’ the author with all his blessings to the readers prescribes seven different categories in which to read his work and clearly tells us not to read them in sequence – “I don’t with other people’s work. Why should anyone with mine?” He then tells us, “If you like stories with twists, try …. If you prefer tales where things happen, go for …. If you enjoy fiction, where nothing happens, start with …. If you’re okay with tales that force the author’s worldview down your throat, read …. If you prefer stories that hope there’s a God, try …. For ones that allow you to accept godlessness, read ….and if you like stories that everyone hates, start with ….”
With such a prescription, it becomes clear that the author himself is at a loss to classify the multifarious nature of the thirty stories of differing length under specific categories. There is the story of unpleasant truths that await a Sri Lankan president in the back of a London cab. In ‘Small Miracles’, an advertising agency must come to terms with a blown-up collection of pictures of the employees’ penises. ‘If you’re Sad and You Know It’ talks about suicidal tendencies in poetry form. A man presumed missing, quietly journals by the sea – “while he sat alone, free of noise, on an island not far from here, writing his story in a yellowing journal…Staring at sunsets through large binoculars, surrounded by books and fruit and no one.”
Written in an interesting format in the nature of mobile text messages, ‘Easy Tiger’ has a husband and wife cheating each other while attending a movie show on Sylvester Stallone with someone else. With the background firing in the movie, the man pretends he is in the war front where the shooting has started and his phone would die soon; he knows adultery is a crime but doesn’t want a divorce, but his story of being in the warfront in the east is busted by his wife who came to watch the same movie with her paramour and a special camera and films her husband with another woman and asks, “Who’s the hag next to you?” Looks like everyone texts at the movies these days.” In ‘The Colonials’, an Englishman, a Dutchman and a Portuguese walk into a Ceylon bar and profess their grand narcotic designs and counter proposals–“Let us plant our poppies while we can.”
Karunalilaka experiments with the narrative mode once again in the title story ‘The Birth Lottery’ where he tries to depict the historical past and present condition of Sri Lanka through the point of view of forty-two different men and animals each written in the first person. For example, in entry number 27, we read:
“It is the first alliance between the Tamils, Cholas, Moors, Malays and Sinhalese, and I, the Great Arasaratnam, am charged with leading it. With an army of four thousand, we rout the Portuguese and hold the Sithawaka kingdom for three hundred moons. Then they return with bigger cannons, eviscerate us all, and erase our names from history.”
Entry number 29 states:
“I am the justice who signs as a witness the agreement between Wimaladharmasuriya and Joris Van Spillbergen. The one that hands the coast to the Dutch and the kingdom to Ceylon. A treaty that both parties break. I never marry, never amass wealth, never create. Never do anything aside from putting my name on a document that will outlast anything you have ever touched.”
The plight of indentured labourers becomes clear once again in entry number 32:
“I am brought to the hill country as a slave and made to pluck the sweet leaf. I am imprisoned with coolies from South India, even though my family has lived here for centuries. I bear children for five different masters, and each are taken from me. I take my life before my ovaries dry up. I am not unhappy to go.”
Wry humour is also revealed in entry number 37:
“I am an elephant in the Kandyan kingdom, and every few months, to celebrate being conquered by foreign invaders, they parade me in chains and walk me miles carrying burning objects that scald. I don’t mind, because I get to go home to Ravani, who lives with me all my life and bears me many calves.”
It is not possible to point out further details of other stories within the short span of this review. But one needs to mention two excellent long entries, ‘Time Machine. I have Built A (Part One)’ and ‘Time Machine. I Have Built A (Part Deux)’. In the first part the author speaks about stealing the time machine though he was not the one who built it. That credit belongs to Professor Cyril Ponnambalam, Dr Kumar Thiruchelvam and Chancellor Sivaram Duraiappah. Though some would say not. …All three resigned from their posts in 2004 to return to Sri Lanka, though not with their families. Two were executed by the Tiger leadership a week before the end of the war, five years later. One was reported missing in action.
“They weren’t the only scientists, engineers, financiers and logisticians from the diaspora to return to Sri Lanka following the 2002 ceasefire. Many came on humanitarian missions or for peace conferences, most to assist with reconstructing the north and the east, fractured from decades of war and about to be pounded by a tsunami. A majority were recruited by the LTTE, some by force, some by extortion, some by the memory of wrongs.”
The author’s political allegiances become clear in several places in the narrative. He says he “pondered whether this government would want to share examples of Tamil brilliance, when they were trying to convince the world of the enemy’s savagery.” Again, in another place he writes, “The Sinhala bullies had over the decades chased some of the brightest Tamil minds from the island and Prabhakaran had electoral rolls in 75 countries and conscripts to track down long names ending in consonants.”
Karunatilaka ends the story by saying that he does not have any clue how time or history moves. If he assassinates a Milosevic, a Pinochet or a Cheney, how sure would he be that another butcher would not rise in their stead? Maybe certain destinies are made to play out as written and it is not their place to meddle. So he concludes, “Maybe the only thing I can affect and take responsibility for is my own could-have-been-better life.”
Karunatilaka begins the second part of the story with a more personal and direct statement:
“The history of Sri Lanka since 1945 is a catalogue of me missing out on sex. In 1958, when SWRD was sprouting the vitriol that would divide a nation, I was going to Aunty Sumana’s piano class. She used to put her hand on my shoulder as I played Chopin…. When the 1962 military coup was taken down with whimper and without bang, I was also whimpering and not getting banged in my first year of cadetting…. When the 1971 insurrection happened, I had a girlfriend in Polonnaruwa who only let me touch them under the umbrella. When the island changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka in ’72, I fell into a whorehouse in Nikaweratiya along with nine other cadets and even though I ended up with the prettiest I was unable to spark the flame. By the time the ’83 riots came along, I was married with three, transformed into my wife’s peon and unable to raise a flag nor fire a gun.”
In an interview Karunatilaka had admitted that he took almost two decades to finish the entries in this book. The oldest story was written during the millennium bug and the newest during a global pandemic. These were stories that he wrote while procrastinating on things he never finished, or to win prizes that he never entered, or to try out ideas that wouldn’t leave him alone. All in all, Karunatilaka’s love and concern for his homeland comes out in different ways through these multifarious vignettes and he can certainly be labelled as a current spokesperson of this small, beleaguered nation of Sri Lanka, a strong and concerned South Asian voice indeed. Reading the book is surely recommended.
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Somdatta Mandal, critic, reviewer, and translator, is a former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India.
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