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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entries of half a page to stories covering several pages, it seems that the author has put together all his assorted unpublished writing within the two covers of this volume.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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

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Interview

Rhys Hughes Unbounded

In conversation with Rhys Hughes

I have always wanted to interview Ruskin Bond who lives in Landour, near the hill-station of Mussoorie in India. Bond, now 87, grew up in Dehradun, tried a stint in England and returned to the country that had nurtured him to write stories that make us laugh and yet bring out the flavours of love and kindness in the Himalayas. Sadly, no one seems to be able to get me an online interview with him. So, I did the next best thing…

I interviewed Rhys Hughes.

Rhys Hughes in Srilanka

You have to see it from my perspective, here was a humourist migrating from UK to India, just like Bond. Both their names begin with R — Ruskin wrote of monkeys conducting a fashion parade in colourful pyjamas borrowed from him, perhaps permanently and Rhys wants to interview a monkey who took a bottle of coconut oil from his current home. Only, Hughes’ monkey happens to be in Sri Lanka and Bond’s monkeys were in India. In fact, I told Hughes he could be the next Bond and could perhaps get into an apprenticeship. He has the basic compassion and humour in his writing that endears Bond to so many hearts. However, Hughes has not made it across to India as yet. He waits on the lush shores of Sri Lanka to make a landfall on the Coromandel Coast or … maybe the Himalayas… as the pandemic continues to upheave in tsunami-like waves. Maybe, Rhys Hughes will become the Ruskin Bond of Sri Lanka! Let us tread into the world of Hughes to check out what he thinks.

Tell us since when have you been writing? What gets your muse going?

I began writing when I was six years old or so. My earliest stories were inspired by films and comics I enjoyed and mostly were about monsters, adventures, space travel, robots, dinosaurs and ghosts. I doubt if any of them made much sense.

The first short story I wrote with a plot I remember was about a man who jumps off a cliff so that he will turn into a ghost and can create mischief in his village, which he does, but the twist is that he survives the fall and only thinks he is a ghost. The enraged villagers chase him back over the same cliff, and he isn’t frightened because he believes he can float on air, but he can’t and this time he doesn’t survive. I was about ten years old when I wrote that. But I didn’t begin writing short stories in earnest until I was fourteen. That was the real beginning of my writing career. I have been writing regularly ever since. I don’t require prompting to write these days. It has become a habit, a reflex, something I just do. I still write about the same old things as always, monsters, adventures, space travel, etc, but I have added a few more themes since I was a young child and my style has improved considerably. At least I hope it has!

That story you wrote as a ten-year-old definitely has potential! And we enjoy your writing as we read it now.  Now tell us why do you write?

Ideas come unbidden into my mind and they won’t leave me alone unless I put them into stories. The moment I embody these ideas in a work of fiction they stop bothering me. I get ideas all the time, especially when I am walking or travelling somewhere, but also in the middle of the night. I try to make notes so I can use them later but sometimes I neglect to note them down and I forget them. Then the ideas go away temporarily but return days, weeks, months or years later and bother me again. Only when I pin them down into a narrative of some kind will they go away forever. So writing is a compulsion for me as well as a voluntary activity. It wasn’t always like this.

In the beginning I found it difficult to come up with original ideas. I had to work hard at it. I would say that most of my ideas back then were fairly ordinary ones and only occasionally truly original. But I persisted and exercised my mind, and just like muscles do, the parts of my mind responsible for the invention of original ideas got bigger and stronger, and now the ideas come without effort. As it happens, not all these ideas turn out to be as original as I like to think they are. Sometimes I get excited that I have come up with a totally new concept only to later discover that some other author beat me to it years ago. But I do believe that originality is possible.

The oft-repeated maxim that there are no new ideas simply isn’t true. If originality is impossible, how were any ideas generated in the first place? I don’t mean to say that originality is the ultimate objective of writing, of course not, there are a great many other reasons to write, but I am talking about it from my own particular point of view. And all I am really saying here is that practice is the most important thing, the only essential thing. I write a lot and the very act of writing regularly seems to make writing in the future easier and smoother.

What is your favourite genre for writing and for reading?

The genre question is a difficult one to answer but I am going to say that if I had to choose only one genre to describe my own writing I would answer “comedy”. This doesn’t mean that everything I write is comedic, but a large percentage of it certainly is. And I don’t necessarily mean laugh-out-loud comedy but other types of comedy too, whether subtle irony, philosophical farce, absurdist and surrealist works. There are many grades of comedy, from wit to parody, and I enjoy most of them. When it comes to reading, I still have a focus on comedy, I suppose, but I will read very sober and serious works too. If I made a list of my favourite works of fiction, comedic works would be at the top of the list.

Broadly speaking there are two types of humorous literature, one in which incidents are funny and one in which it is the telling that is comic. Writers who combine both types tend to win my deepest admiration. Yet quite a few of my favourite books have no comedy in them at all, neither in subject nor in style, for example The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis ( 1993, translated by Edith Grossman, 2002) which is a sequence of tropical and troubling narratives, often sombre in tone, that nonetheless remains an enthralling and uplifting read.

Which writers have influenced your work? Are you influenced by other art forms?

I wanted to become a professional writer because of Robert Louis Stevenson. It was Treasure Island (1883) that opened the gates into the entire world of literature for me. I still admire him hugely but I have had much bigger influences since then. Delving deeper into the novels and short stories that were available to me, I was lucky enough to find authors who resonated with some deep part of my being and made me not only want to continue trying to be a writer, but to be a writer who wrote as they did. Of course, it’s better to develop one’s own style, but I suspect that ‘distinctive’ styles are really the result of amalgams of influences, a blend of prior styles. Italo Calvino (1923-1985) has been my favourite writer for more than thirty years, with Donald Barthelme (193i-1989), Boris Vian (1920-1959), Flann O’Brien (1911-1966) and Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) not far behind. At the moment I am a keen reader of the work of Mia Couto (1955-2013). Alasdair Gray (1934-2019) is another favourite.

To answer the second part of your question, I have definitely been influenced by art forms other than writing, in particular music and visual art. I might even say that the paradoxical imagery in the artwork of M.C. Escher (1898-1972) has been at least as big an influence on me as the prose of any author. I was astounded and captivated when I first saw his graphic designs and have loved them ever since.

You have travelled to many places. How many countries have you visited? Has travel impacted your writing? How?

I have lost count of the number of countries I have visited. I used to keep a map and colour in the countries that I had been to, but I lost the map years ago. The truth is that probably the total isn’t as high as I think it is. Most of my travelling has been done in Africa and Europe, and I have only really dipped my toes into the vastness of Asia, and I haven’t even been to the Americas at all. No one is so well-travelled that they really know the world.

Travel has certainly impacted my writing, though. I can state that with confidence. I am often inspired to write stories set in the places I have visited and I guess I probably wouldn’t do so if I hadn’t been there. Having said that, I do occasionally set a story in a location I have never visited. Such stories can work well but there is nearly always a vital element missing, some immediacy that a certain level of familiarity gives to a work of prose. It’s far easier to create a convincing atmosphere when you are writing from experience rather than from research. Little details will give some solidity to the evocation of scenes, details that can’t be easily imagined without first-hand experience. This doesn’t mean that I think travelling is necessary for the creation of good fiction. Good fiction can be centred in nowhere, almost in no space or time if the author is talented enough. And there’s a paradox in the nature of travel, which is that even though the particulars of your surroundings might change, the essentials remain the same. We can put a lot of effort into the act of travelling only to discover that people are people everywhere. And would we have it any other way?

Tell us a bit about the world you grew up in — we have an interesting piece by you called ‘Dinosaurs in France’ — which claims you grew up in a world of different value systems. Would you see those as better or the present as better?

The past is another country. That’s one of the pithiest and truest maxims anyone has devised. In only half a century I have seen many changes, but in fact most of these changes came so gradually I didn’t notice that things were changing at the time. Only now, looking back, do I see the vast gulf between the present and my past. I was youthful in a world where information was much more difficult to obtain. There were rumours and suppositions and often no way of confirming or refuting them. People believed strange things and adjusted their attitudes to match these odd beliefs. People still do the same now, of course, but it somehow feels different. One can more easily check assertions now than before and learn much more quickly if they are true or false. The world I grew up in was one in which you had no choice but to take another person’s word at face value. So if a supposedly responsible adult, like the postman, told you with a straight face that he lived in a house made entirely from marshmallows, there was no easy way of disproving the claim. You had to take his word for it. I can’t say it was a better world and I don’t want to suggest it was a worse one. It was simply different, a world lacking ready access to information.

You have written a lot of humour. Not too many people do that nowadays. Could you tell us why your funny bone is tickled to create humour as it does? Do you think humour is a good way to address major issues?

Humorous writing has gone out of fashion to a certain extent in the anglophone world, yes, but it’s still there, in the background. There was a great tradition of British humorous writing that lasted about a century or so, and I was fortunate enough to grow up at the end of that phase. I am talking about a particular type of humour, dryly ironic but also theatrical, a sort of blend of surrealism and the old musical hall routines. J.B. Morton (1873-1979) was one of the masters of the form, and he was an influence on many of my favourite comedic writers, such as Spike Milligan (1918-2002), Maurice Richardson (1907-1978) and W.E. Bowman (1911-1985). These humorists also took the language and played with it a little, transforming it into something new, though I feel ultimately that such comedy derives more from the rhythms than the melodies of wordplay.

The entire range of comedic devices might be used but new ones invented as well. There can be over reaction to minor incidents and under reaction to major ones, constant misunderstandings, amplification of repetition, parody of existing forms. W.E. Bowman’s The Ascent of Rum Doodle is my favourite humorous novel, and its sequel, The Cruise of the Talking Fish, is also high on my list of best comedic literature. Bowman apparently wrote a third volume in the series that remains unpublished and is in the safe keeping of his son. If this is true, I hope it will appear one day.

Are you influenced by any specific humourist? If so, who?

Flann O’Brien is probably my biggest influence in terms of comedic prose. His work is quirky, inventive, curiously erudite, absurdist and often metafictional. I am staggered by the wealth of invention in his novels, the supremely silly but also highly ingenious conceits and concepts, and the bone-dry irony contrasted with farcical exuberance, the light touch and the dark tone. W.E. Bowman and Maurice Richardson are another two favourites. That is prose but when it comes to poetry I love Don Marquis (1878-1937), Ogden Nash (1902-1971) and Ivor Cutler (1923-2006) best, all of them with radically different approaches to comedy. Marquis in particular pushed humour in his free verse to a point where it often became profound, serious and socially critical. You asked if humour can be used to address major issues. Yes, sometimes it can, even with great force, but it doesn’t have to.

Tell us the extent of your work. How many books have you written?

I have published many books. The question is how do I count them. I tend not to count the self-published books. It seems to me that self-publishing is too easy. On the other hand, traditional publishing is maybe too difficult. I have forty or so traditionally published books and twenty self-published books out there, so I am going to give forty as my answer. Most of my books are collections of short stories. I have only written a few novels. My poetry collections so far have been self-published with the exception of one single volume called Bunny Queue.

It is one of my goals to have all the short stories I have ever written appear in my books. At the moment there are many of my short stories that exist in magazines and anthologies that have never been collected. And there are many unpublished short stories in my files too. My plan is to write exactly a thousand short stories and consider them as part of one big story-cycle. This project is almost done. In a few more months, with luck, I will finish writing my thousandth story. Thirty years in total it has taken. When that last story is finished I will devote myself entirely to novels, plays, poetry and articles. No more short stories! So, in reply to your question, I can say that I have written a great deal of work, maybe too much, but as I said earlier, writing has been something of a compulsion for me.

What are your future plans?

I plan to finish my big story-cycle of one thousand stories. Then I will write a few novels that I have been planning for a long time. One of these novels will be called The Hippy Quixote and will be about a young, deluded fellow who in his mind is living in the 1960s. He takes a guidebook written in that decade and follows the old hippy trail to India, blissfully unaware that so many things have changed in terms of societal attitudes and geopolitics. This idea seems to me to be a fruitful one for the creation of comic scenes.

I also have to finish a novel I began a long time ago, The Clown of the New Eternities, sections of which have already been published. It’s long overdue for completion. This novel is about a highwayman who has accidentally outlived his own age and is forced to adjust to the modern world. Another variant of Quixote, I suppose. I think that many or most of my longer narratives are a blend of the Quixote and Candide models with a bit of Gulliver thrown in. We can talk about our future plans all day, of course, but whether we are lucky enough to have a chance to make them real is another question altogether. I intend to do my best, as I have always done, but nothing is certain in this world of ours.

Thanks Rhys Hughes for your time and lovely answers.

Click here to read prose & poetry by Rhys Hughes.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL