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Contents

Borderless, November 2022

Art by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

We did it! … Announcing our first anthology … Monalisa No Longer Smiles… Click here to read.

Conversations

Suchen Christine Lim, an iconic writer from Singapore in conversation about her latest book, Dearest Intimate. Click here to read.

Blazing trails, as well as retracing the footsteps of great explorers, Christopher Winnan, a travel writer, delves into the past, and gazes into the future while conversing with Keith Lyons. Click here to read.

Translations

Rows of Betelnut Trees by My Window by Nazrul has been translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

A Day in the Life of the Pink Man is a story by Shankhadeep Bhattacharya, translated from Bengali by Rituparna Mukherjee. Click here to read.

The Clay Toys and The Two Boys is a story by Haneef Shareef, translated from Balochi by Fazal Baloch. Click here to read.

Saturday Afternoon is a poem by Ihlwha Choi, translated from Korean by the poet himself. Click here to read.

Tagore’s poem, Tomar Shonkho Dhulay Porey (your conch lies in the dust), has been translated from Bengali by Mitali Chakravarty as The Conch Calls. Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Jared Carter, Asad Latif, Rhys Hughes, Alpana, Mimi Bordeaux, Saranyan BV, Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, Quratulain Qureshi, Jim Bellamy, Sourav Sengupta, Ron Pickett, Davis Varghese, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Jonathan Chan, Terry Trowbridge, Amrita Sharma, George Freek, Gayatri Majumdar, Michael R Burch

Poets, Poetry and Rhys Hughes

In Infinite Tiffin, Rhys Hughes gives an unusual short story centring around food and hunger. Click here to read.

Musings/Slices from Life

The Scream & Me

Prithvijeet Sinha writes of how Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream, impacts him. Click here to read.

A Fine Sunset

Mike Smith travels with a book to a Scottish beach and walks in the footsteps of a well-know novelist. Click here to read.

The Death of a Doctor

Ravi Shankar mourns the loss of a friend and muses on mortality in his experience. Click here to read.

My Contagious Birthday Party

Meredith Stephens writes of her experience of Covid. Click here to read.

Dim Memories of the Festival of Lights

Farouk Gulsara takes a nostalgic trip to Deepavali celebrations in Malaysia. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Strumming Me Softly with His Guitar…, Devraj Singh Kalsi talks of his friends’s adventure with the guitar. Click here to read.

Notes from Japan

In Therese Schumacher and Nagayoshi Nagai: A Love Story, Suzanne Kamata introduces us to one of the first German women married to a Japanese scientist and their love story. Click here to read.

Essays

My Favourite Book by Fakrul Alam

The essay is a journey into Fakrul Alam’s evolution as a translator. Click here to read.

The Ultimate Genius of Kishore Kumar

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, an eminent film critic, writes on the legend of Kishore Kumar. Click here to read.

T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land: Finding Hope in Darkness

Dan Meloche muses on the century-old poem and its current relevance. Click here to read.

The Observant Immigrant

In Piano Board Keys, Candice Louisa Daquin talks of biracial issues. Click here to read.

Stories

The Funeral Attendee

Ravi Prakash shares the story of the life of a migrant in rural India. Click here to read.

A Letter I can Never Post

Monisha Raman unravels the past in a short narrative using the epistolary technique. Click here to read.

Red Moss at the Abbey of Saint Pons

Paul Mirabile takes us to St Pons Abbey in France in the fifteenth century. Click here to read.

You have lost your son!

Farhanaz Rabbani gives a light story with a twist that shuttles between Dhaka and Noakhali. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

An Excerpt from Manoranjan Byapari’s How I Became a Writer: An Autobiography of a Dalit, translated from Bengali by Anurima Chanda. Click here to read.

An excerpt from Evening with a Sufi: Selected Poems by Afsar Mohammad, translated from Telugu by Afsar Mohammad & Shamala Gallagher. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Reba Som has reviewed Aruna Chakravarti’s Through the Looking Glass: Stories. Click here to read.

Somdatta Mandal has reviewed Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises. Click here to read.

Basudhara Roy has reviewed Afsar Mohammad’s Evening with a Sufi: Selected Poems, translated from Telugu by Afsar Mohammad and Shamala Gallagher. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Rahul Ramagundam’s The Life and Times of George Fernandes. Click here to read.

On World Tolerance Day, we invite you to the Book Launch of the first anthology from Borderless Journal, “Monalisa No Longer Smiles”

Borderless Journal Anthology

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Categories
Review

The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises

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[1] 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.

[1] Unique Selling Proposition

Somdatta Mandal, critic, reviewer, and translator, is a former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India.

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