Conversations with Booker Prize Winner Shehan Karunatilaka

Arun Sharma

This lean short man walks up to the podium and picks the mike. Sporting beard with black and   white interspersed hairs he is in bluish shirt with a pony tail, he portrays a poet’s persona. I always wonder: why the poets, writers, philosophers (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Tagore, Hemingway and others) loved to grow beard and a long hair (also Michael Jackson)? Is it to look distinguished, a star, celebrity, philosopher or what? Yes, looks are important. Maybe it is about giving an impression, an aura, seek attention and attract a crowd?  I remember Shail Upadhyay (Nepali designer in New York 1960-90s) once said, the very first thing in the fashion/celebrity world is: to attract a crowd, you must look different stars, designers, artists do that. “Grab the attention. Get people to notice you, as they throng around, you get to impress them with a smile, charm and, demeanour. It’s all about creating curiosity, a mystery surrounding you! Yes, charm is the beginning and, the core of a relationship. That is WHY, I guess!

I have seen and heard J. Nehru at BHU, India. when I was barely a teen, Indira Gandhi in the proximity of a few feet in Ghat at Varanasi in early 60’s, Bill Clinton playing volley ball in a beach in California, Pope in Vatican blessing the massive crowd that was such an emotional outpouring of love and devotion. I had these surreal feelings, the crowd had a mesmerizing, overpowering effect on me. I have spent times with BP Koirala, Bal Krishna Sama, Manisha Koirala, Lain Singh Bangdel, listened to Nobel Laureates in a conference/auditorium setting. When the opportunities come to experience celebrities from close quarters, I usually grab it and yet I am quite selective. I’m aware: it’s only one single dimension of them is intriguing otherwise they are all ordinary humans just like us.

When a conference, symposium a literary program in held in a place is like Pokhara (as was the case) right next to a magnificent lake, or Santa Barbara, California, next to glittering waves of Pacific Ocean, I struggle: where should I spend time in the golden sunny shiny beach, majestic mountains or inside a hall listening to some top brains?  Lectures, I can hear any time (if recorded) but this piece of natural beauty at this moment, the sun, fresh air, shiny glittering peak on the horizon, the galloping whale in the ocean is coming only once my way. I sure don’t want to miss it. Yet I do compromise! I blend the two as much as I can.

After listening to Booker Prize winner’s short 15 minutes lecture in December 23rd, 2022, I had stepped out of this enclosed tent. Within a few seconds Shehan whisked close by and stood right next to me soaking in the morning sun just as I was. Shortly thereafter a lanky, thin lady too came close by. Quite skinny she was with a light chocolate-coloured skin, taller, may be 40 years old as she walked closer to the man.  I said “Hi” and got a bit closer to them. With firm shake I felt connected. With a baby’s smile the little man looked simple, down to earth, pleasant and approachable with whiskers of white hairs; poet’s look.

“A beautiful day on the lake” I said.

“Yes, wish we all were on a boat feeling the air and soaking sun.” He smiled.

“I’m Arun Sharma” I moved my hand

“Nice to meet you. Are you from here?” He softly asked.

“Yes, I’m. Came back home from the West.”

“Great! Such a gorgeous place! What do you do?”

“I too am a writer but not a famous one. No prize yet.” I just joked, “How is it to be so famous?”

“Oh fame?  Overwhelming, all the attention, ringing of phones, the media, press, the agents. Toning it down and coming back to the real world. It was all so sudden.”

“How is the world after winning the coveted prize? Anything you miss?”

“Well, my privacy. My time with the family. The kids.” He pats the kids, a daughter and a son both may be 6-7 years old (my guess) “Feels like someone stole my time.”

“There is cost to everything.”

“Heavy one, you miss being yourself, the private you. I need time to talk to myself.”

“But what is important is control over my time and the love of my family and a very few friends.” Some author said. “It’s so true! So real!”

He looks at his tall, skinny lady next to him. She has this adoring soft, infectious smile’

“This is Arun, a writer too from here.”


“Wish we had time for a hot cup of coffee.”

The writer talked about how becoming a Booker winner has changed his life so dramatically: the ringing phones, lectures, interviews and invitations pour in. It’s interesting yet hallucinating. How just after just a few days you long for your normal old self and quiet moments!

The second encounter was also quite similar, again soaking the sun outside. The family was walking together. I said, “Hi”. He waved. Came slightly closer. I was holding a thin book, “The Best of Leo Tolstoy.”  I opened the front page. “Maybe you can autograph this book. Wish I had your book.”

“Oh! No problem!”

He writes, “With all my blessings. Let us both hope we can come close to the great Tolstoy” He scribbles his signature.

I beam, “Hope so”.

He smiles softly. The lady comes closer. I just noticed she wore a slipper that was very bright shining gold colour and the morning sun and enhances the glitter.

Shehan excuses himself for a minute and walks away. He kids are clutching the arms of the mother. A safety, security only a mother’s arm can provide.

I say Hi to the kids. They softly replied gripping the mother arm tightly.

“How about a boat ride on the lake?’

They both nod.

“We need to take them around, such a beautiful place:  the mountains, the water and the green hills surrounding.” She quips!

She softly asks me, “Arun, do you know if there is a church around?”

“A church?” I ask her.

“Yes. I’m a Christian. I like to take my kids to the service.”

“We will find one.” I reply, I also realize this was a Christmas Eve.’

On her own she mentions, “Shehan is a Buddhist. We also take the kids to Buddhist temples.”

“So Great! That’s beautiful. We have perfect harmony here between Hinduism and Buddhism. We all go to both temples, Hindu and Buddhist.”

“So wonderful that is. Your country is so pretty.”

Shehan is back. “Tell me about Nepal.”

“Beautiful country, the innocent people, religious harmony and peaceful but economically, politically mismanaged.”

“Tell me about it. That’s great. Keep it that way of course except the management part!”

“How about your country? Recovering?”

“Recovering is a good word. You know how troubled we have been.”

‘Yes, I do!”

Shehan was awarded with 2022’s Booker Prize for his novel The Seven Moons of Mali Almeida which to the Booker Committee is ‘an afterlife noir that dissolves the boundaries not just of different genres, but of life and death, body and spirit, east and west’.

While the world talked of Ukraine and Palestine and the climate crisis he asks, “Is no one going to mention that this country in crisis and on the brink? Don’t forget this tiny country. It’s my home.”

My last brief conversation he repeated again, “Let’s share our stories. Let’s listen to each other!”

And, he said, “Lucky you! You have a beautiful country and you live peacefully and in harmony. Keep it that way. And be in touch.” He gave his email.

With smiles we shook hands!

(Arun Sharma is an engineer and a writer.)