By Harihar Swarup
Up until October, Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka, 47, was quite content living in the quiet life. Cocooned in his room at his Colombo home, surrounded by books and his stories, he’d at most of his day talking to no one apart from himself and his characters. He’s an involved husband and parent to kids and a freelance advertising professional, fitting writing into his life. It kept him only as busy as he likes. “it’s a good life, the usual life of a writer”, he says.
That life has been dramatically upended after Shehan’s second novel. The seven moons of Maali Almeida (2020) won the 2020 Booker prize. The book is part thriller, part, political satire set in 1980 Sri Lanka. It follows a dead photographer over a one week as he moves between the world of living and dead to solve the mystery of why he died. The story bursting with his trade mark of mordant humour, weaves in brutalities of Sri Lanka Civil War. After his Booker win, he has been flooded with request from publishers agents, publicist and journalists from round the world.
“It’s strange that when you get some success, you are expected to be a talker and a performer”, he says. “I know it’s a big deal and I’m glad the book is getting attention and will be read more widely than my previous works. That’s why you write. But you want the book to get attention and will be read and not necessarily yourself.”
Shehan is the first native Sri Lankan writer to win the coveted literary award. Sri Lankan born Michel who picked up the 1992 Booker for the English Patient lived in Toranto, Canada since 1962. Life after Booker is “one long leftist” South African novelist Damon Galgut who won the prize last year for the prize told Sheshan when the two met at a literary festival recently. “You may not write another word, my friend,” Galgut warned him. “He was very kind, but he also looked very tired, so I think that’s the reality,” Shehan says.
Meanwhile in Colombo, Shehan’s calendar is full for next two years. He he’ll be travelling, talking about his work at book at gatherings and literary events. And, he is hoping there will still be time to write. After all, Sri lanka has several stories to tell. In his acceptance speech last month, Shehan expressed hope that Sri Lanka “learns from his stories and that its novel will someday be seen as a work of fantasy instead of a political satire.
It’s a long road ahead. The economic crisis has established, but the nation’s problems are far from over. “The strange thing about Sri Lanka is that we are always hopeful”, the author says. “ So like every Sri Lankan, I am optimistic. We have to be. However, I have lived in this country for a long time, so I know that we have our horse drawn on hope”
Weeks before the prize was announced, Shehan released his third book. The birth Lottery and other surprises. It’s a collection of 30-odd short stories he had written over 20 years for short story competition. The tales drawn on Sri Lanka’s history, myths and folklores, never got a commendation for them, nor was long listed for any short story award. (IPA Service)