Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew

I believe I’ve passed the stage where it was just a super-cool story, a famous author name and paper turning thrills that drew me to a book. These days there are different things, mostly little ones. Like the language, the choice of words, the metaphors and a myriad little things that I can relate to. Sometimes tiny paragraphs that make you want to re-read them, just for the joy it gives you! Sometimes the book is a plod, like ZAMM, but when you can relate to it, it just moves somehow at whatever pace. I guess eventually, you measure a book by what it has than the number of pages in it and they are never linearly related.

A gift from my sis meant that I started reading this book : Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka. I don’t think I’ll be doing a proper review kind of post for it, but will leave you with this excerpt.

Squirrels and Rats

Two similar problems. Two very different solutions.

Ever since the sparrows vanished from de Saram Road, squirrels have taken their place, scurrying into our homes and helping themselves to fruits. Kusuma and Sheila position a stool under the araliya tree and place  a tray of nuts upon it. They convert a broken clock into a makeshift bird bath. As the man of the house I should be helping, but I have typing to do. They sit on the veranda and coo at the bushy tails helping themselves to my beer snacks. ‘Aney darling, sweet, no?’ says Sheila.

Rats have been enjoying free dinners from our kitchen bin. Every other evening we hear Kusuma’s shrieks as a well-fed pig-rat escapes into the pantry. We respond with carpenters who mesh-wire the windows and lay poison behind the cooker and rat-traps in the cupboards. Three days later, when the kitchen starts to smell of corpses, I am called to locate and dispose of twitching bodies.

It is while scraping bloodied fur wrapped in tail and innards into rubbish bags that I spy three squirrels fighting over my manyokka crisps. I realize that humans respond to squirrels and rats on a primal level. One makes us want to squeeze cheeks and go aney, the other makes our skin curl.

Sheila and Kusuma tell me that rats are disease-carrying vermin and that squirrels are nature’s little gatherers. But these are not true reasons. We post-justify our prejudice. We respond to rats with revulsion as we do to certain people, without any idea why. We gravitate towards humans with bushier tails for reasons we cannot fathom. Puchipala may get away with murder, while my friend Jonny may be falsely accused of it.

Ari plays me a spool of an Indian batsman complaining to the umpire that the crowd is shining mirrors at his eyes. The umpire’s response is clear and his voice is somewhat familiar. ‘Play on. This is not Calcutta.’ The sound quality breaks up and we hear a young Sri Lankan voice insisting that the umpire apologize to the batsman. Ari claims the voice belongs to Pradeep Mathew. I am sceptical. We hear the Skipper’s voice asking the bowler to shut up. The spool is marked ‘Indya test seris 85’.

Pradeep Mathew was perhaps more rat than squirrel. Not so much the polecat beast that roams our roof, but more akin to the grey kitchen mouse that no one fears, but no one wants to touch. The world mistook his shyness for contempt and misinterpreted his passion as belligerence.

There have been many times in my life when I have wished I was more of a squirrel. These days I’m glad I’m not.

I guess what differentiates and stands out authors is not so much what they say, but how they say it. When you have two wizened old drunks trying to make sense of their lives through cricket and the pursuit of a mysterious bowler who played a few games for Sri Lanka, its a heady cocktail that you just can’t shouldn’t miss. 

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