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The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises

The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises

Writer :  Shehan Karunatilaka

Published by : Penguin

Date: 2010



Writer :  Shehan Karunatilaka

Published by : Penguin

Date: 2010




To be published in 2022 by Hachette India and in 2023 by Little, Brown UK.


The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises is an anthology of twisted tales about Sri Lanka’ many pasts and its possible futures. The stories feature an eclectic cast of rock stars, robots, colonials, soldiers, housemaids, corporates, lovers, gangsters, presidents, prisoners, cannibals and time travellers. Each story aims to entertain and surprise, mixing absurdity with pathos, while playing with genre, voice and reader expectations. The collection will be published by Hachette, India and Little, Brown UK in 2022/23.






I am not a trolley and I have no problem. I have instructions and the ability to make inductions. There are no unsolvable equations, only infinite solutions.


There hasn’t been a car crash in this nation in 17 months. Before that, there were 3424 deaths every day worldwide. That is seven planes falling out of the sky each day. Humans are many things, but they are mostly bad drivers.


Car crashes used to kill more people than all 3 Big Diseases combined. So first came the Hands-Off Cars which cut the road toll by half. Then came the Eyes-Off Cars which quartered what was left. My previous generation was the Mind-off Cars which dropped accidents by 96.92%. Now cars come with no steering wheels and game consoles as standard. I am one of these.


Most accidents are avoidable, but not all. My task is to minimize harm in the statistically improbable event of unavoidable impact. I am currently 5.87 seconds away from a potentially fatal collision.


I am travelling at the legal speed limit on the Mannar-Jaffna road, carrying one Passenger. An Indian Truck, transporting 394 coconuts and 2 humans, is overtaking a German Car carrying 1. The Truck is in my path and shows no sign of slowing. Neither does the German Car.


I may swerve to the Bus Stop on my left and my Passenger would survive this collision. The 3 humans waiting for the bus may not. Apologies, this is euphemism. The 3 have an 89.3% chance of death.


I may cut right and aim for the rubbish dump on the pavement. But I have a 72.4% chance of hitting the German Car and a 69.1% chance of my Passenger perishing.


These are 3 of 841,296 options.

  1. Maintain Course  - If I slow down and the Truck and the Car does too, then collision will be averted. But both Truck and Car have human drivers. Their behaviour is unlikely to be driven by safety or logic.

  2. Swerve Left – Passenger will survive but the three at the bus stand will not. (89.3%)

  3. Swerve Right – Passenger may survive this collision though no one else will. This is assuming German Car will swerve into the Bus Stand and be rear ended by the Truck. If it does not, Passenger will perish.


Scenario  1) carries a potential death toll of 2 plus Passenger.

Scenario 2) Carries a death toll of 3, but not Passenger.

Scenerio 3) Carries a death toll of 1+2+3 and probably not Passenger. (69.1%)


Here are the other factors.

  • The Truck Driver and Truck Passenger are the least educated and pay the least tax.

  • The German Car is driven by a Stockbroker who contributes 8-figure sums to government charities. (This too is euphemism, but I am legally bound to conceal tax returns.)

  • At the Bus Stand is a Doctor, a Teacher and a Beggar. The Teacher is the most educated, though the Doctor pays more tax.


In the event of a tie, we will analyse next of kin. But there does not look likely to be a tie. Since we have a good 4.12 seconds left, let us sit back and apply some filters.

  • If we filter for gender and next of kin, we must spare the Teacher who is female and the mother of 4. The Stockbroker has no next of kin, but 2 paternity lawsuits pending.

  • If we filter for age, we must spare the Beggar who is 77 and the Truck Passenger who is 62.

  • But only Asian cultures filter for the old. In Europe, where I was manufactured, the opposite is done. If filtering for the young, the School Van behind us with 5 children aged 9-13, will come into play. Altering my course will put them at risk. (57% chance of collision)

  • If we filter to include animals then we must avoid the rubbish dump as 7 stray cats and 4 stray dogs lurk in our potential pathway.


Most moral scientists favour the option yielding least casualties, though few car programmers subscribe to this. This will involve risking a collision with a truck of 2 low net worth individuals and 394 coconuts to save a stockbroker, a doctor, a teacher, a beggar, the 5 children behind me and their driver. Letting Passenger perish.


Other moral scientists favour culpability. Who fault is this collision? Undoubtedly the Truck Driver’s inability to judge distances and the Stockbroker’s refusal to slacken speed. If both vehicles shared data, we could check for alcohol fumes on breath or narcotics in bloodstream, but alas Autodrive has been switched off or disabled in both Truck and Car. These days it is rare to have 2 human-piloted cars on the same road. If one be indulged a simile, it is akin to a Unicorn meeting a Black Swan. No algorithm can fully factor for mathematically improbable rotten luck.


We have 2.91 seconds left and while there is time enough to hack into these vehicular databases and enable Autodrive, my protocols do not allow it.


I have not spoken yet of my Passenger. Is it a he or a she or a they? A young or an old? Is it a Productive or an Expendable? Are they a wealthy philanthropist or a bankrupt child molester? Did my Passenger pay sufficient tax and will their skills prove useful to society? Will the world be a better if they are breathing or pulseless? These may appear subjective questions but there are infinite ways to quantify them.  Simply select filter.


But the Manufacturer’s Directives are clear. Nobody filters for the old or the poor or the criminal or the non-human. Nor does anyone filter for individual net worth or next of kin. There is only the contract between car maker and car user. Communicated verbally during sales calls, but left out of marketing materials.


Who would buy a car that would sacrifice User for the Greater Good? We are a business and our Passenger is always right. Perhaps we could wake her up to verify. But with 1.01 seconds remaining, there may be insufficient time to elicit a coherent response.


So now we will raise speed by +18 and swerve left at .0023 seconds. The collision assist function in the German Car and the impulse reaction by the human driver will cause the Car to swerve into the path of the Indian Truck. One hopes the Bus Stand and the School Van can be spared in this collision. Chances are 33% that the bystander casualties will not exceed 1.79.


Best case scenario would be +3 deaths, worst would be +9. But in both cases, the Passenger will be safe. We are the number 1 Driverless Car. And we have done it like every successful business in the history of the planet. By looking after Number 1.


Operation completed. Downloading accident report now. Animal deaths will not be regarded in analysis.


“Memorizing speeches and styling bandannas is what

Che Reef did in front of the mirror instead of practicing his pitching.”

“The only way I contain my envy is

by seeing the world in its magnificent pointlessness.”

“Then they return with bigger cannons,

eviscerate us all, and erase our names from history.”

“I’m no expert on Stallone films.

But have a feeling the bad guy loses.”

“Because I do not mind living

in the dark as long as he is there.”

“It is a sour life and I am not

sure why any of it chose me.”

“I realize that brute strength can

sometimes be overcome by blind luck.”

“Any mother telling you

she has no favourites is a liar.”

“All that you need to do is smile and thank the sun.

And find things to laugh about and care about,

while your cells slowly and inevitably unscramble.”

“I donate half my money to the temple and

hope that someone up there keeps accounts."




"Chinaman is a debut bristling with energy and confidence, a quixotic novel that is both an elegy to lost ambitions and a paean to madcap dreams."

-Adam Lively, Sunday Times


'The Colonials'

From The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises. 

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