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Book Review

To Sri Lanka, with love

Published : Dec 01, 2022 10:25 IST

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To Sri Lanka, with love

Shehan Karunatilaka’s complex relationship with home infuses the stories in this book with heart.

The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises is funny. Not ha-ha funny, but full of the kind of bitter humour that makes you wince or shake your head at its dissonance and discomfort. Shehan Karunatilaka, the Sri Lankan author recently awarded the 2022 Booker Prize for fiction for his second novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, casts a wide net with this collection of short stories released in September this year. The stories have been written over a period of 20 years, and swing wildly, from tiny vignettes—barely a page long at times—to sprawling tales of political strife and internal conflict spread over decades.

The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises
By Shehan Karunatilaka
Hachette India
Pages: 272
Price: Rs.599

We get a self-driving car, seconds away from an accident, making calculations with a mechanical coldness about the number of casualties it will result in and the trolley-problem ethical dilemmas of that moment. “Are they productive or expendable? Are they a wealthy philanthropist or a bankrupt child molester?” it asks of its passenger. “Simply select filter.”

“Assassin’s Paradise”, a formally inventive, epistolary-ish short story, is presented at first as a preface to the first edition of a banned book, about political killings in Sri Lanka written by one of its two authors. Soon, we jump to the foreword of the revised edition by the co-author (the first author has been killed by now). And then a government version; then an audio book introduction featuring the children of the two authors. Each version intensifies the tragedy facing the Sri Lanka of this story, and with every passing edition, the miserable farce escalates. Until a few crisp pages and 60 years later, we are in 2049 and nothing makes much sense any more.

A surprisingly poignant story told through the eyes of a cat caught in a prison riot and a prison break. A group of domestic workers in the Gulf who speak in Sinhala, squabble with one another, and wonder if they are destined to a life of confinement and misery at the mercy of their rich, sinister bosses. Three colonial men at a bar in the Ceylon of the past, gossiping and trying to schmooze one of them in the hope of striking a business deal. An advertising company where the photos of the penises of several employees have been leaked, and the hijinks that ensue. Karunatilaka excels at creating revelatory, cascading set pieces where the frantic, often ludicrous, action runs parallel to the characters and their motivations. He is at once both maximalist in his storytelling and deeply invested in the minute emotions of the people he is writing about.

A Lanka away from Lanka

At the centre of it all, though, lies the character of Sri Lanka. A Sri Lanka that is both real and imagined, past and present and future. A Sri Lanka away from Sri Lanka, like the Orwellian dystopia he creates on “Ceylon Islands”. The Lankan Civil War, which went on for decades and remains the source of unfathomable tragedy for so many on the island, remains a persistent strain throughout. “Brother will kill brother, and sister will maim sister before we are done with this madness.”

The two-parter “Time Machine” merges the internal foibles of its titular character with the science fiction of a time machine and the conceit of war. In “Assassin’s Paradise”, Karunatilaka writes: “Criticising your country is not an act of treason. It is an act of love.” That perhaps sums up his complex relationship with home. He writes of Sri Lanka fondly, with a lot of love and care, a sense of personal investment—of wonder and amazement, and often despair at the futility of ethnic differences or war—and that spirit infuses these tales with heart.

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In the story “Endthology,” he writes in Lankan onomatopoeia: “So, army brings whole jing-bang, and 13 get shot dading biding, and down south thousands are burned alive. All because of a dirty toenail. Hoo.” At moments such as these, the sentences on the page sing out loud—often dirges of anguish, but musical nevertheless.

Karunatilaka is also adept at transporting readers into ominous atmospheric spaces. In “The Capital of Djibouti,” he crafts a prickly air of dread and anxiety. The President of Sri Lanka, whose husband was assassinated, is travelling in London in disguise in a taxi. The taxi driver, as it happens, is Lankan, and has lost people back home to the war. He is not a fan of the new President one bit. Will he figure out who the lady is? What happens if he does? She can defend herself, if it comes to that, but she is wearing sports shoes instead of heels, and she forgot her phone at the hotel.

Karunatilaka excels at a constant sense of whiplash that he induces in readers. Several of the stories here end with bizarre twists, sometimes used as a comedic device and at other times has a chilling effect of horror, often in the space of merely a sentence or two. He is able to pack in substantial details, both emotive and tangible, with a graceful economy of words that is not quite subtle, nor flashy.

Bizarre twists

“This Thing” is a tense account of a rock concert and the simmering conflicts—which may or may not explode any second—between rival bands, between band members, between reckless rock ‘n’ rollers and disciplinarian organisers. Here, Karunatilaka presumably draws on his own experiences as a bass player with a couple of Sri Lankan bands in the past, drawing a rich portrait of the hubris and the jealousies that define so much of creative pursuit in small arts scenes. With a resentful singer who views art as something meaningful and profound, bitter at the world for not recognising his value, and a hot young guitar virtuoso who is in it as much for the music as for the fame and the girls and the drugs, “This Thing” is a sparkling story of interpersonal dynamics and creative friendships.

To continue with the music metaphor, The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises is less a concept album—a cohesive selection of stories with a narrative consistency and a thread tying it all together—than a non-linear compilation album. Not everything works, but then not everything is supposed to. He almost admits as much, opening the book with a section titled “How to Read This Collection”. “Never in sequence. I don’t with other people’s works. Why should anyone with mine,” he says.

Shehan Karunatilaka, winner of the 2022 Booker Prize for fiction.
Shehan Karunatilaka, winner of the 2022 Booker Prize for fiction. | Photo Credit: Alberto Pezzali/AP

This is followed by a guide of sorts, offering themes behind the stories, and what might appeal to readers. For the titular story, Karunatilaka writes: “If you like stories that everyone hates, start with The Birth Lottery.” The story is a challenging one, presented as an expansive collection of different births across generations, even centuries. He creates dozens of captivating characters as small sketches and then wilfully abandons them with each new paragraph.

Karunatilaka wears various hats, trying out clever formal experiments as in “No. One. Cares.”, written entirely via the medium of the self-destructive meltdown of Ranjana Wilatagamuwa on social media at nearly four in the morning, and the ensuing comments and all-round shenanigans. Hilarious at first, the story takes a dark turn soon as the gravity of the situation and the imminent sense of tragedy become clearer.

Karunatilaka crams The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises with ideas big and small, narrow and expansive, emotionally fraught, tragicomic, and farcical. There are moments that might not work—several parts of the sci-fi world creation of “Time Machine” left this reviewer cold, though that may be more my distaste for science fiction—but even at such times, you sense that the writer is having a lot of fun. And so along with it you go, and you get all manner of surprises.

Akhil Sood is a freelance arts and culture journalist from New Delhi.

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