Cricket has a certain charge in writings on the postcolonial world as a site of political contestation between decolonized subjects and their former colonial masters. Scholars such as C. L. R. James, Arjun Appadurai, and Simon Gikandi have written of cricket as a central part of the “colonial ecumene” (Appadurai) in India and the West Indies, while films such as Fire in Babylon (2010) and the epic Hindi historical drama Lagaan (2001) not only politicize but also aestheticize cricket as its own kind of “beautiful game.” In all these works, cricket encapsulates the ironies of colonialism: it starts out as an instrument of cultural hegemony, transmitting British values to undisciplined colonial subjects, but is then reclaimed by those same subjects to represent the victories, however ephemeral, of postcolonial liberation.
Shehan Karunatilaka’s 2012 novel, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, explodes these earnest convictions. It is a novel about cricket that avoids the righteous sentimentalism of postcolonial self-actualization and the precious, flowery writing of many recent South Asian novels. It is a novel about cricket that is also about aging and its attendant powerlessness, told from the perspective of a grumpy, middle-age alcoholic living in Sri Lanka, intent on destroying his few remaining relationships and on depleting his body by filling it daily with whiskey, his siren and muse. This is a novel about decay, the damage we willingly do to our lives, people who are forgotten, and people who die.
It is also a novel about cricket—a cricket rife with racism and rivalries between Sri Lanka and India (or Sri Lanka and Pakistan, or Australia, or New Zealand), rather than between postcolony and erstwhile colonial master. The Legend of Pradeep Mathew presents cricket as a woeful victim of Sri Lanka’s ethnic cleavages, with Tamil players bearing the brunt of racism from within their own team. But despite this, it also depicts cricket as a national obsession. Rather than functioning as a site of postcolonial retribution or national healing, cricket in The Legend becomes the impetus for a spirited joyride to find the whereabouts of a one-time “Chinaman,” or left-armed spin bowler, the great Sri Lankan cricketer Pradeep Mathew.
The real pleasure of the novel lies not in the details of the quest but in the narrator’s combination of farcical action, sardonic commentary, and sports nerdery.
The protagonist of this quest is W. G. Karunasena, once Ceylon Sportswriter of the Year, now part of an aged generation of “failed artists, scholars, and idealists who … hate all artists, scholars, and idealists.” Against conventional wisdom, W. G. believes that Mathew was “our nation’s greatest cricketer” and is determined to write his biography, to seek out the truth behind his underappreciated legacy, beyond the standard explanations of “wrong place, wrong time, money and laziness. Politics, racism, power cuts, and plain bad luck.” His companion in this quest is his longtime friend Ariyaratne Byrd (Ari), and the cast of characters who aid them includes Jonny Gilhooley, a British cultural attaché accused of pedophilia; the trishaw driver Jabir; the savvy midget Uncle Neiris and his fortune-telling wife; and a six-fingered cricket coach. Their quest for Mathew leads to some unsurprising discoveries, including widespread corruption, match-fixing, and the vast tentacles of the Tamil separatist network. Most of their leads turn out to be red herrings, and the real truth about Mathew remains beyond their grasp.
The real pleasure of the novel lies not in the details of the quest but in the narrator’s combination of farcical action, sardonic commentary, and sports nerdery. Absurd images and irreverence abound. At one point Ari breaks his glasses and can function only by carrying around a magnifying glass: “Ari scrutinises my scribbling through the glass, like Sherlock in a sarong, one eye thrice the size of the other.” When a former cricket player describes the loss of his bachelor youth, W. G. “look[s] at [his] belly, man breasts and tennis ball haircut, and nod[s] sympathetically.” Add to this a litany of cricket trivia—the technicalities of chucking, the double bounce ball, the floater, picking the seam, the lissa—and you have the distinctive blend of passion and irony that is W. G.’s narrative voice.
Some readers might disagree, but to me, W. G.’s lack of sentimentality does not make him unlikeable; it covers up a clumsy, boorish good-heartedness whose existence the character himself is at pains to deny. I found myself cheering for
W. G., and not only when he aims to redeem himself by giving up drinking, resolves to make peace with his estranged son, or embarks on a manuscript about Mathew, which he admits he might be writing to bolster his “withered ego.” I also liked him for the many times he admits to being nothing more than “an angry young man, a petulant father, and a sad old bastard.” His embittered perspective ends up illuminating the world in unforeseen ways. For his honesty and his moments of surprising insight, I ended up sympathizing with W. G., flaws and all.
Despite its digressions, its cynicism, and its mistrust of political allegory, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew flirts with nihilism, but does not succumb to it altogether. The novel’s opening pages express a sentiment that would appear to animate the entire project: a desire to remind us of the sheer pleasure of seemingly valueless pursuits, including the reading of this digressive, left-handed, double-bouncing novel-within-a-novel: “Left-arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children or cure you of disease. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there may be no practical use in that, there is most certainly value.”