Of rewards and remembrances

Print edition : February 13, 1999

While a sense of yearning and nostalgia continues to mark contemporary Sri Lankan writing in English, some writers have started to convey the intensity and impact of recent mega-events.

B.S. PRAKASH

IN 1992, Michael Ondaatje won the Booker Prize for The English Patient. The next year he gifted the prize money to institute a literary award in Sri Lanka, the Gratiaen Prize, for the country's best creative writing in English. There were some paradoxes in this inspired act of munificence. Ondaatje is from the island, but is a resident and citizen of Canada. While the setting of The English Patient is far removed from the green lusciousness of the Sri Lankan landscape, Ondaatje's poetry as in The Cinnamon Peeler and his celebrated return to his home country in the novel Running in the Family convey his strong sense of love and longing for the "tropical paradise".

Ondaatje's act of instituting an award caused a multiplier effect and has resulted in other diverse rewards. The Gratiaen Prize has steadily received more entries from within the English-reading and -writing community in Sri Lanka. In 1997, there were 37 entries. To look at the award-winning books, their writers and their concerns, then, is one way of focussing on contemporary writing in English in the country.

Punyakante Wijenaike, whose Amulet won the Gratiaen Prize in 1994.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Amulet

At this point a tangential and personal note may be permitted. In an article on Sri Lankan writing in English for The Hindu's special supplement on the Sri Lankan Independence Day (February 4, 1998), I described nostalgia as the leitmotif running through much of Sri Lankan writing. A number of books were looked at briefly in which the narrator goes down memory lane and yearns for the tranquil Ceylon of yesteryear, which reflected "a time of innocent pleasures, intimate friendships and a life well lived". The stories of some of the more famous Sri Lankan writers such as Romesh Gunesekera, author of Reef, or Shyam Selvadurai, author of Funny Boy, now living as expatriates or even as exiles and writing about a home remembered from afar, were touched upon. This article drew mixed responses. Many agreed with the characterisation of Sri Lankan writing as nostalgic. Others felt that even if this was true of Sri Lankans living abroad, there were other more contemporaneous concerns reflected in recent writing.

One way of exploring these trends was to look at the winners of the Gratiaen Prize as they collectively represent both the writing coming from within the country and also current writing in general. Unfortunately not all the award-winning books have been published, nor are those published easily available. But an effort was made to look at what they represent. The result has been the discovery of variety and diversity.

Rajiva Wijesinha, who shared the Gratiaen Prize in 1995 with Sybil Wettasinghe.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In 1993, the Gratiaen Prize went to Carl Muller's The Jam Fruit Tree and to Lalitha Witanarachi's The Wind Blows Over the Hills. Since then Carl Muller has written prolifically; his books include a fictionalised account of the mythological history of the Sinhala race, a semi-novel on 'Colombo' containing accounts of its past and present and other varied themes such as one with an enigmatic title: Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Cemetery. The Jam Fruit Tree itself was in a sense the natural inheritor of the Ondaatje tradition as represented by Running in the Family. It is the family story of a rather boisterous community, "the Burghers, who owe their ancestry to mixed marriages between the colonial Dutch or the Portuguese and the local Sinhalas." It is a small community, and as Muller brings out, becoming smaller all the time with members emigrating to Australia or Canada, but the recollections are of the fun that they had, even if it meant fights for wine and women, or for that matter for "boys".

The 1994 prize-winner, Amulet by Punyakante Wijenaike, deals with the bizarre. It is a strange novel, literally so. The story is of spooky happenings in an old Walauve, a large, rambling ancestral manor of the wealthy or the aristocracy, of the kind that still dots the Sri Lankan landscape. The narrative is told twice, first from the perspective of the wife who discovers the dark and deviant secrets of her husband's incestuous relationship and then from the point of view of the husband. It is a tale of abnormalities and sinister deeds, with the amulet worn by the wife acting as the protector. There is no trace of politics or conflict in the novel, and even Colombo is distant.

The same is true of Sybil Wettasinghe's The Child in Me, which shared the 1995 prize with Rajiva Wijesinha's Servants. Wettasinghe is a grandmother and a self-taught artist. The book, which has many sketches by her, is the recollection of an untroubled childhood in a Sinhala village: the smell of kiribath and the sounds of drums during the Avurudu new year festivities.

Romesh Gunesekera, author of Reef.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Reef

Bringing Tony Home by Tissa Abeysekara, the 1996 winner, is also a simple story. The writer is a noted scriptwriter and his propensity to see narration in visual terms comes through. It is a tale of a boy's attachment to his dog, Tony, and, as the family shifts, the lengths to which he goes to bring Tony home form the narrative. Abeysekara uses the story to map the changes in the suburban geography of Sri Lanka, not far from Colombo. Years later the adult returns to the scene of his memories but of course the world has changed. He can still hear the roly-poly fluffy pup yap-yapping but it was now nothing mischievous or joyous; it was "the plaintive cry of a chained dog trying desperately to be free".

In contrast to the homespun authors, Rajiva Wijesinha is a professional English teacher, a part of the academic and artistic establishment of Sri Lanka. Servants is a collection of interrelated short stories or rather vignettes of life in a changing society and the impact of these changes on one of its constituents - the servants. It is an evocative exploration of the changes over decades from a feudal and oligarchic society to one groping towards modernity with all the attendant effects on interpersonal relationships.

Mirage by Gamini Akmeemana, the winner in 1997, takes one closer to today's Sri Lanka than any of the other books does. The novel is not published as yet, but was made available to this writer by Akmeemana, who is also a journalist. The mirage is of the elusive peace. Most of the story is set in contemporary Jaffna and has characters and scenes familiar to those who follow the events there. It has soldiers, Tamil militants, members of Western non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), either bright-eyed with idealism or reconciled to realism, and amidst them ordinary Tamils, trying to survive. The story itself is believed to draw a parallel with the real life of a human rights activist, but Akmeemana does not want his novel to be seen as 'faction'- a mix of fact and fiction.

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Sarojini, the protagonist, is a lecturer in English and also a human rights observer. The world of Chaucer and Dickens seems increasingly unreal against the grime, despair and destruction of everyday life, but Sarojini still believes that literature has value and clings to it with hope. In some moving passages in the book, she tries to impart this love of literature to one of her bright students, Suhasini, but as the story progresses the student cannot connect. Academia is too far removed from the struggle around her. There are also Medics, a French NGO group, and the ICRC, all non-combatants like Sarojini, but very much involved in the struggle. Their escape from the tension and claustrophobia of the peninsula lies in remembering experiences of other places. For Sarojini the memories are of Colombo or Nagadweepa, a little island near Jaffna; for Marcel of the Medics, the memories are of France. But they have always to return to the unrelenting harsh reality. In describing this reality, Akmameena is completely non-judgmental and avoids moralising. Anyone living in contemporary Sri Lanka can see the authenticity of some of the images that the author evokes: roadblocks and searches; despite the tension, shops swirling with people who "went on as if they could enter the shopping complex in Colombo at one end and get off at Singapore at the other"; four-wheel drives of the United Nations agencies in Jaffna; the eerie quiet amidst all the frenzy as if the conflict was thousands of miles away. Peace remains a mirage. A questioning Sarojini is shot and her voice silenced. And yet throughout the novel the death of individuals seems trivial compared to the scale of the tragedy, when so many die often for no reason at all. The novel is absorbing because of the content. The writer has brought in an intensity commensurate with the theme. However, he can hone his skills further and make the narration tighter.

Is Sri Lankan writing likely to see greater intensity and topicality as in Mirage? It would of course be wrong to see any "progression" in the themes of the Gratiaen winners. However, if one is temperamentally inclined to see large patterns, one can see changes: from fun and frolic in Carl Muller to subtle mapping of social changes in Wijesinha to issues of war and peace in Akmeemana. It is perhaps natural and inevitable. The burden of recent history and the impact of mega-events - the rise and fall of regimes; violence, both individual and collective; insurrections and riots - have left their impact on the Sri Lankan consciousness. Even as quieter times are remembered, a sensitive and perceptive writer has to cope with the disquiet and retain the hope for a better tomorrow. In the words of Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, a noted academic who delivered this year's Gratiaen lecture: "We wait for the day when a great Sri Lankan writer imagines a future where we Sri Lankans live in peace and civility. Such an act of hope will surely deserve the Gratiaen Award."

B.S. Prakash was until recently Deputy High Commissioner for India in Colombo, and during his period of office he took a keen interest in Sri Lankan literature and theatre.

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