The short stories in Shehan Karunatilaka’s collection were written over a period of 20 years. “These are stories that I wrote while procrastinating on things I never finished, or to win prizes that I never entered, or to try out ideas that wouldn’t leave me alone,” Karunatilaka has said. “The result is a strange mix of genres, characters and styles. I tried my hand at writing thrillers, love stories, sci-fi epics, tales small enough to fit on teabags and wide enough to span 2000 years.”
The result is also a collection that is uneven and odd. Included are stories that seem like plans for stories, project outlines that did not finally live and breathe on the page; pieces that read like jottings from a diary; (a not very good) poem masquerading as a story: stuff that stays in a writer’s drawer (or hard drive) and should be left there.
Having said that, there are many things to enjoy about The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises. One big theme running through the book is Sri Lanka: its wars, violence, inequalities, repression and corruption. Karunatikala writes about all these things – about everything, really – with a sort of gallows humour. His throwaway, acerbic bon mots light up nearly every page.
This is from the searing story, “My Name is Not Malini”: “The gathering has secured a liquor permit for traditional Sri Lankan wine, even though no such thing exists.” And then, on the next page, we get this: “Nothing brings Lankans together like a spot of shared prejudice.” Here is he on Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans in a terrifying, fable-like story, “Assassin’s Paradise”: “We are prolific in our slaughter and consistent in our indifference to it.”
An intellectual playfulness, inventiveness, and irreverence run through the collection. “Easy Tiger”, a funny, scary story that ends on a note of high surprise, is done in the form of text messages exchanged between a husband and a wife. “No.One.Cares.”, about what happens after a man announces his death wish on social media, is laid out entirely in the form of social media threads and feeds.
The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises is at its strongest in a bouquet of terrific stories. ‘This Thing’ is a poignant chronicle of friendship, betrayal, and the music scene in Sri Lanka. “My Name is Not Malini” tells us about a group of women house helps in the United Arab Emirates, lonely, vulnerable, exploited women, looking after the children of their employers while the employers enjoy themselves at a drunken party. Its conclusion is like a blow to the solar plexus. In the hilarious yet poignant “Small Miracles”, “an advertising agency that had grown as most businesses grow, by acquiring clients and discarding standards” has to deal with the fallout of a blown-up collection of pictures of its employees’ penises being tacked to the wall.
These stories remind us of the author of the DSC Prize winning Chinaman and the Booker Prize winning The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (initially published in India as Chats with the Dead). If only there had been more such glimpses.
The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises
By Shehan Karunatilaka
pp. 257, Rs 599