The Legend of Pradeep Mathewby Shehan Karunatilaka
Winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize
* Winner of the $50,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature *
* A Publishers Weekly "First Fiction" Pick for Spring 2012 *
"A crazy ambidextrous delight. A drunk and totally unreliable narrator runs alongside the reader insisting him or her into the great fictional possibilities of cricket."-/i>/i>/i>/b>… See more details below
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Winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize
* Winner of the $50,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature *
* A Publishers Weekly "First Fiction" Pick for Spring 2012 *
"A crazy ambidextrous delight. A drunk and totally unreliable narrator runs alongside the reader insisting him or her into the great fictional possibilities of cricket."--Michael Ondaatje
Aging sportswriter W.G. Karunasena's liver is shot. Years of drinking have seen to that. As his health fades, he embarks with his friend Ari on a madcap search for legendary cricket bowler Pradeep Mathew. En route they discover a mysterious six-fingered coach, a Tamil Tiger warlord, and startling truths about their beloved sport and country. A prizewinner in Sri Lanka, and a sensation in India and Britain, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka is a nimble and original debut that blends cricket and the history of modern Sri Lanka into a vivid and comedic swirl.
- Graywolf Press
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Read an Excerpt
The Legend of Pradeep Mathew
By Shehan Karunatilaka
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2011 Shehan Karunatilaka
All rights reserved.
'I think the word 'great' is overused. It should only be used for the real legends of the game. We keep saying, 'It's a great goal', 'It's a great save', 'It's a great shot through the covers', when we are talking about orthodox, normal things that happen in every game. I think it denigrates the word.'
Geoff Boycott, England batsman (1964–82)
Begin with a question. An obvious one. So obvious it has already crossed your mind. Why have I not heard of this so-called Pradeep Mathew?
This subject has been researched lengthwise and breadthwise. I have analysed every match our man has played in. Why, you ask, has no one heard of our nation's greatest cricketer?
Here, in no particular order. Wrong place, wrong time, money and laziness. Politics, racism, power cuts, and plain bad luck. If you are unwilling to follow me on the next God-knows-how-many pages, re-read the last two sentences. They are as good a summary as I can give from this side of the bottle.
I made my decision after the 1996 World Cup. The last years of my worthless life would be dedicated to a worthy cause. Not world peace or cancer cures or saving whales. God, if he exists, can look into those. No. In my humble opinion, what the world needs most is a halfway decent documentary on Sri Lankan cricket.
No one knows about this visit to Nawasiri Hospital. Not Sheila, who has begun to notice my falling hair, my swollen fingers and the rings under my eyes. Not Ari, who has remarked on how my hand shakes as I pour. Not even Kusuma, the servant, who wakes up every other morning to clean up my acidic, bloodstained vomit.
The doctor is younger than my son and has a put-on smile that does not soften the blow. 'Mr Karunasena, your liver is being destroyed. And it will get worse.'
'At least I have my heart.'
My giggle is as pathetic as my attempt at humour. He ignores it and begins scribbling.
'Can't you give me pills?'
'I can give you pills for the nausea and the fever. I can also refer you to our alcohol counsellor.' The doctor tears off a chit branded by a pharmaceutical company I have not heard of. 'The rest, Uncle, is up to you.'
'How much time?' I keep my tone even and my eyes fixed, hoping the pup won't see that the old dog is ruffled.
'If you stop drinking and start eating, exercising, Uncle can bat on for another ten, twenty years.'
The things they don't teach you at school. How to love. How to die. How to stage a dramatic comeback.
Is it possible to hammer 3 goals in extra time after trailing 2–0? Or to land a knockout punch at the end of the 12th? Is it too late to score a 10 an over and turn a paltry 170 into a magnificent 300?
In my life I have seen beauty only twice. I'm not talking Tharuniya magazine front-cover beauty. I'm talking staggering beauty. Something so beautiful it can make you cry. Sixty-four years, two things of beauty. One I have failed to cherish, the other I may yet be able to.
Sheila at the Galle Face Hotel, 31st Nite Dinner Dance, 1963.
PS Mathew vs New Zealand, at Asgiriya, 1987.
'What if I cut down to two drinks a day?'
He doesn't look surprised. But at least he lets go of the smile. 'A year or two. Maybe more.'
Thus it was settled. I would attempt to do a halfway decent documentary on Sri Lankan cricket. There is nothing more inspiring than a solid deadline.
'I don't mind you writing as long as you don't depress people.'
My beloved wife is making me sweep the kitchen. The last time I held a broom, Diego Maradona was a thin, teetotalling teenager.
'You used to be a poet, Gamini. Now you're just a grumpus.'
She says I cannot spend my retirement in my room reading about cricket and drinking. So I have chores, which at sixty-four, I find abominable. But as long as I am helping around the house, we are not talking about my drinking, and in my retirement such mercies are welcome.
'Don't talk rot, Sheila. When we were young anger was fashionable. Angry young man and all. Now I'm a grumpus?'
'That's not a cricket bat, Gamini. Sweep properly.'
It is true. The world has changed and I have not. As with everything, my fault entirely.
'Heard from Garfield?'
'Just go, men.' Sheila is cutting onions and not crying. She keeps jabbering. 'He's doing well. You better stop this business and talk to him. He's calling tonight.'
'Tonight I will be writing.'
'Do whatever the hell you want.'
She adds the red chilli to the dry fish.
I say nothing, keep sweeping, and decide to do just that.
Another question. Why am I chasing a man who played only four test matches for Sri Lanka? A man who denied me interviews, delighted me on occasion, disappointed those he played with, and disappeared three years ago. A man whose name is remembered by a minority smaller than our tribal Veddah population.
I ask myself this right after my bath and my morning tea. My tea is taken milk-less with three teaspoons of sugar and five tablespoons of Old Reserve. As you will soon see, I take arrack with a lot of things.
So when did Pradeep Mathew stop being just another Lankan spinner of the 1980s? When did he become something worth obsessing over? A cause I would champion? To answer that I will take you to a boxing match between two men in dinner jackets. One was my dearest friend; the other, my oldest enemy.
The word wicket can refer to the three stumps that the bowler attempts to hit. 'The ball almost hit the wicket there.'
The surface they are playing on. 'The Eden Gardens wicket is dry and difficult to bat on.'
The bowler's performance. 'Laker's taken 7 wickets in this match so far.'
The batting line-up's mortality. 'South Africa lose 5 quick wickets.' Its versatility is bettered only by a four-letter word that serves as noun, verb, adjective, adverb, and expletive.
The simplest dismissal is when the bowler knocks over the batsman's wickets. Mathew did this with most of his victims. He sent left-arm chinamen, googlies, armballs and darters through pads and feet. Here is a not-so-random sample of batsmen whose bails he dislodged. Border. Chappell. Crowe. Gatting. Gavaskar. Gower. Greenidge. Hadlee. Imran. Kapil. Lloyd. Miandad.
You are shaking your head. You are closing the book and frowning at the cover. Rereading the blurb at the back. Wondering if a refund is out of the question.
Punch-up at a Wedding
In the buffet corner, weighing over 100 kilos, from the bridegroom's hometown of Matara, sports journo, talent broker, amateur coach: Newton 'I came to eat, not to be insulted' Rodrigo.
In the champagne corner, weighing under 180 lbs, teacher, preacher, video fixer, uninvited guest: Ariyaratne 'I have watched every test match since 1948' Byrd.
Ari is my neighbour and my drinking partner. I have smuggled him in and he has smuggled in a bottle. The Oberoi wasn't Ari's usual watering hole. He has tanked up already at somewhere far less plush. I should have expected trouble.
We are at the wedding of the Great Lankan Opening Batsman, or the GLOB as we shall call him. The GLOB is a man of the people and has invited to his wedding members of the press, ground staff, and a sprinkling of international cricketing celebrities.
Thirty tables away, Graham Snow and Mohinder Binny are swooning over a gaggle of girls. Both were former players who became commentators and then became players. The buffet table has seven types of buriyani. Next to vats of chicken, Tyronne Cooray, the Minister for Sports and Recreation, is laughing with Tom Whatmore, the then coach of the Sri Lanka cricket team.
And this is where it begins. At the Lanka Oberoi in 1994. With Ari Byrd, Thomian blazer torn along the creases, pressing a chicken drumstick into the face of Newton, shrieking, 'You came to eat, no? I thing kaapang! Eat!'
I have seen many fights. Boxing bouts in Kurunegala, barroom brawls in Maradana. Never have the combatants been less skilled, more drunk, or better dressed.
A waiter guards the buffet table as the men in torn suits roll against empty chairs.
Newton takes a hard bite on the chicken, chomping down on two of Ari's fingers.
Ari's scream is high and girlish. Our table, composed of inebriated journalists like myself, chuckles, sips and gazes around with pleasure at sari-clad women, exotic dancers and international celebrities, who, thanks to Ari's scream, are gazing back, though perhaps not with as much pleasure.
Most observe from the dance floor. Disapproving aunties and jolly uncles push through the has-beens and never-will-bes. Hand on mouth in mock shock. 'This is what happens when you invite the riff-raff,' cackles a crow in a sari. No one for a moment considers stopping the fight just then. Not even us.
Two reasons: (a) Sports journalists rarely see anything in the way of entertainment, especially these days, especially on the cricket field. (b) We all dislike Newton and feel he deserved this bludgeoning with buriyani chicken.
Newton has made a lot more money than any of us. 'For me, of course, journalism is a hobby. A calling. Pocket money.' Newton brings young cricketers to Colombo and sells them to clubs; he also studies race sheets, politically and literally backing the right horses always. I know this pudgy man as well as I know the gentleman who was dousing him in gravy.
'Shall we do something?' asks Brian Gomez, TV presenter and prankster. Brian once typed a letter on Oxford stationery asking Newton to visit the British High Commission to receive his Queen's scholarship. The next day Newton wore a suit to work.
'Let them be,' says Renganathan, Tamil cricket writer. Renga is a good bugger, but unhealthily obsessed with Roy Dias. When he was editor at the Weekend, he ran one issue with seventeen articles on this wristy batsman of the 1980s.
Newton gains the upper hand. He smears rice in Ari's eyes and crawls under the table. Elmo Tawfeeq of the Daily News tries to separate them, gets elbowed twice, and decides to sit down. Elmo once told us that he hit Imran Khan for a 6. In actuality, he played club cricket with a Bangladeshi who Imran once hammered for 6.
These are the men I have spent my years with and they are all drunk. Failed artists, scholars and idealists who now hate all artists, scholars and idealists. The band has stopped playing and I hear raised voices in the distance. Newton and Ari knock into veteran scribes Palitha Epasekera and Rex Palipane and I decide to intervene.
I gulp down the last of my rum, but before I can offer my services, the bride of the GLOB enters, shining under yellow lights. A delicate petal, bouquet in hands, tears in eyes.
In the distance, her husband advances with concern smeared across his brow, thinking what I am thinking: that these animals would tear his flower apart. The flower drops her bouquet and screams in an accent that sounds like Sydney but could be Melbourne, in a voice that is anything but petal-like: 'Get the fuck out of my wedding! You fucking arseholes!'
We can take a fist from a brute, but not a curse from a bride. The waiters assist us in packing up the fight. Released from Ari's gin-powered grip, Newton picks up a mutton curry with intent.
'Put that down!' The GLOB descends on the scene. 'Yanawa methaning! Get out!' Both Newton and Ari heed the great man. With the GLOB is Ravi de Mel, has-been fast bowler. He looks for the softest target, finds it, and snarls. 'Ah, Karunasena. Who else? Kindly take your friends and bugger off.'
Fearing unfavourable press, the GLOB puts on his man-of-the-people smile and pats me on the back. 'Don't get angry, Mr Karuna. Wife is bit upset. Don't you know?'
As we are led out, I see a dark man with a crew cut. He is leaning on table 151, surrounded by sycophants. Indian captain Azharuddin is chatting to him, though the man doesn't appear to be listening. Our eyes meet and he raises his hand. I return the wave, but he has already averted his gaze.
That may or may not have been the moment that started what you are about to read. But it was most certainly the last time I ever saw Pradeep Sivanathan Mathew.
Today Newton looks like a hippo, those days he was more like a rhino. Mathew may have caused the fight, but it was started by Newton. He had issues with me that went beyond cricket and provoked me knowing I would not respond. He didn't count on noble, smashed-on-stolen-gin Ari leaping, quite literally, to my defence.
The ballroom smells of flowers, buriyani and thousands of clashing perfumes. Strategic buffet tables separate cricket refugees from social parasites. The deluxe section features the national team, some minor celebs film stars, models and people wealthy enough to own film stars and models.
The middle section is filled with aunties and uncles, media and business types. They have the best view of the dance floor and the band, neither of which seemed to interest them. And then there are us. The journalists, coaches, ground staff, B-grade cricketers, C-grade friends.
Our table sits ten: me, Ari, Newton, Brian, Renga, Elmo, a Pakistani from the Associated Press, his friend and a young couple who look lost. At the other end of the room, there is a bar serving scotch, vodka and champagne. Our table has a bottle of arrack and several glasses of passion fruit cordial. We are men of simple tastes: anything, or even with nothing, with arrack will do.
'I should be drinking Chivas with Snow and Sobers,' says Newton. 'They must've misprinted my ticket.'
'So go, will you,' says Ari. 'Maybe Mohinder Binny will ask you to dance.'
The band plays a synthetic love song and the happy couple hold each other and move from side to side. We make quick work of the booze. Everyone whacks two shots, Ari and I whack four. The Pakistanis, Allah be praised, do not drink. As the lights dim, I explore unoccupied tables for bottles to steal. When I return with gin, the conversation has turned to cricket.
Brian Gomez, ever the patriot, proclaims that this Sri Lankan team could be our greatest. Ari says they are OK, but nowhere near the true greats like Lloyd's Windies or Bradman's Invincibles. 'Clive Lloyd's team is the best I've ever seen,' proclaims Renga. We hide our smirks. Every time Renga sees a film or witnesses a cover drive, he proclaims it to be 'the best he's ever seen'.
The Pakistani journalist talks of an all-time football XI featuring Zico, Best and Maradona. We sip stolen booze and begin fantasising. What if Ali fought Tyson? Or Navratilova played Billie Jean? It's a good way to pass the time. Better than staring at the dance floor, pretending to grin.
We agree that Lloyd's team were literally head and shoulders above the rest. Elmo offers that Bradman's Invincibles were invincible only because of Bradman. 'You eliminate him, good team. Invincible? That I don't know.' We all drink a toast to Clive Lloyd. The young couple slink off to another table.
Newton is petulant throughout. 'Our team couldn't even draw a two-day match with Bradman.'
'Don't say that,' says Brian. 'We beat New Zealand.'
The dance floor writhes with famous names and dolled-up women who do not belong to them. From the roar of the house band and the machinations of the dancers, it is evident that the alcohol denied to our table has been flowing freely on the other side of the room. Understandable. Dolled-up women prefer to have their bottoms pinched by international cricketers and not by those who write about them.
The Pakistani journalist begins scribbling on napkins. As the only man at the table with an education outside of Asia, he convinces us with diagrams and eloquence that the perfect cricket team should be composed as such:
Two solid openers
Three aggressive batsmen
Two genuine all-rounders
One agile wicketkeeper
Two unplayable fast bowlers
One genius spinner
Seduced by his Parthan lilt and logical arguments, we nod collectively The Windies were great, but not perfect. No spinner. No all-rounder. Lloyd had four types of hurricanes at his disposal: the elegant Holding, the belligerent Roberts, the towering Garner and the fiery Marshall. Who needs spinners, counters an argumentative Newton.
Booze flows and conversation splinters. Graham Snow toasts the GLOB and his bride, who begin doing the rounds of the ballroom. Ari and the Pakistani journalist whisper and scribble on napkins. The rest of us charge our glasses and clap as the band switches to traditional baila and a bald man with a moustache commandeers the mic from a bearded man in a hat. Both are middle-aged, potbellied and wearing leather trousers.
Ari and the Pakistani journo silence the table with an announcement. Elmo, Brian and Renga listen while wiggling their bellies to the bajaw beat.
'Gentlemen. We have constructed the world's greatest cricket team.'
Ari and the Pakistani have prepared a slide show of napkins. Dinner arrives at the table, but is pushed aside for the presentation. 'Of course, I don't agree with some choices,' says the Pakistani.
Excerpted from The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka. Copyright © 2011 Shehan Karunatilaka. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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