Dec/Jan 2008

BATSMAN RETURNS

Mukul Kesavan


Two-thirds of the way through The Match, an exacting yet tender novel about expatriate life, its protagonist, Sunny Fernando, visits Sri Lanka for the first time since childhood. He goes to look for the house he grew up in and finds it gone: “None of the things that had made up his early world, imprinted as images on his brain, existed any more. Everything had been violated. There was no past—no place, no people—except what he remembered. It frightened him.”

Romesh Gunesekera writes from experience about the dislocations of living “away.” Like Sunny, he grew up in the Philippines and lives in London. Sri Lankan writers living elsewhere have produced some remarkable novels on the theme of the migrant and the lost homeland: Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost and Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy are notable examples, and Gunesekera himself visited this ground in his fine early novel Reef (1994). Sunny’s biography follows the expatriate author’s closely, the failed photographer taking the place of the successful writer.

Sunny lost his “early world” when his mother died and he and his father moved to Marcos’s Philippines. He grew up in a gated compound in Makati with an assortment of companions united by privilege and the derivative lifestyle of a postcolonial elite: the Doors, the disco, Coke and coke, and an English spiced up with Tagalog: “As a teenager in Makati’s shallow wonderland he found the void created by that abandoned world almost too scary to think about.” Through his teenage years in Makati and his life in London as a father, Sunny tries to firm up this uncertain sense of himself with two binding agents: cricket and photography.

Cricket was a talismanic part of his childhood, and he uses it to reach out to his father and, later, his son. He hopes to reclaim the country that has changed beyond recognition in the years he was away, to reassure himself that the loyalty inspired by the Sri Lankan cricket team among both Sinhalese and Tamil fans is a sign that his homeland’s sectarian wounds can heal. As for photography, if the medium glosses all modern lives, for the expatriate it bears especial witness to the slippery past. In London, photog­raphy becomes not just Sunny’s way of making a living but his claim to self-expression, as well as a way of holding on to the past and the vanishing present. The camera is a refuge, a way of turning his gaze away, both from personal failure and from the public images of the ethnic killing that destroyed the Ceylon he thought he knew.

Ironically, when Sunny moves to England, leaving his father behind, he stops playing cricket. In the country where cricket began, his foreignness makes it hard for him to latch on to a local team. The section that describes his early years in England—a time when he learns to play the awkward role of adult outsider in a half-familiar country, falls in love with an English girl, Clara, and lives the hectic, unnostalgic life of young manhood—is both cricket and camera free.

As a married man and a father, Sunny ekes out a living shooting photographs and videos, recording birthdays and anniversaries, and sets up a secondhand shop for cameras. As he flirts with alcoholism and failure, he realizes that his life with Clara is coming unglued. He revisits Sri Lanka, but instead of reconciling with his past, he is haunted by the speed with which his son is escaping childhood’s orbit: “Soon the kid would be in double digits. Then nothing of those earlier days would remain, except what Mikey might remember, and the pictures Sunny took, or regretted having failed to take.”

Back in London, Sunny’s world continues to unravel, but not all the news is bad. Reports of a ceasefire in Sri Lanka lift his spirits, and in a mood of wobbly optimism, he determines to turn his life around by entering and winning a photography contest that carries a prize of five thousand pounds. Thus the book’s last section is lit up by Gunesekera’s loving account of Sunny’s life as spectator and photographer at a series of cricket matches played by the Sri Lankan team in the summer of 2002. Sunny decides that his winning photograph will capture a sublime cricketing moment, and he stalks the games. (Like any number of middle-aged South Asian men, Gunesekera is a fan; the cricket players in the novel are real.)

Sunny finds his perfect picture in the last contest the Sri Lankan team plays in England that summer, a match against India. Tendulkar, the great Indian batsman, drives the ball hard—and right into a pigeon. Sunny knows that this is his moment. He rushes down to the boundary edge of the field to take a picture of the dying bird:

There was something significant happening here, he knew, no matter what the outcome of the game would be. Perhaps it was the power to silence that comes with death, however small the life, and our need to overcome it. To find some brief moment of care. Hope. The tender possibility of renewal. This man, this game, this bird was salvation.

Walking home with the image caught in his camera, Sunny has an epiphany. He accepts the dislocations of his life, and all the people in it, good and bad, as being necessary to its making. Gunesekera’s achievement in The Match is to have set Sunny’s immigrant life against the large histories that shape it without diminishing Sunny; we feel a huge affection for this unlikely, procrastinating hero. The story ends on a note of muted hope, as Sunny and Clara, nearly estranged, are nearly reconciled. In this acute, humane novel, Sunny doesn’t win, but neither does he lose. He manages what life and cricket allow, a draw: an honorable, inconclusive end.

Mukul Kesavan is the author of the novel Looking Through Glass (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995). A volume of nonfiction, Men in White: A Book of Cricket, was published by Penguin Books India last spring.

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