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Birth Anniversary tomorrow : Piyadasa Sirisena - pioneer novelist and patriot

by H M Mervyn Herath

Piyadasa Sirisena pioneer novelist and patriot played a key role in the Buddhist revival of the first half of the last century. He was first and last a dedicated nationalist and patriot. His central mission in life was to wean the people away from blindly following the British, restoring a sense pride in our own culture and arousing Buddhist thought among the masses.

In pursuit of this, he used his pen effectively. He was also an able orator and temperance leader. Though Sirisena shunned politics he played a key role in the formation of the Sinhala Mahasabaha, the precursor to a major political formation of a latter era.

Today the emotion and perhaps the reverence that his name evokes amongst the Sinhala Buddhists has somewhat waned. But not wholly.

Especially, among the people of the South more than in any other part of the country his memory is revered.

Piyadasa Sirisena was born on 31st August 1975 at Athuruwella in Induruwa adjoining Bentota. Induruwa is a verdant and picturesque village. During the time of Sirisena's birth its hinterland had agriculture as its main source of living for the people.

Sirisena was from a middle class but influential family in the area. Piyadasa Sirisena's early life is too well known to be repeated.

But his chance meeting with the Anagarika Dharmapala his mentor in later years when he was only nine needs repetition. It did not merely change his original name Pedrick Silva but also paved the way for a new life. It was indeed a most fortunate meeting - even from a national perspective - for Sirisena's career and his work positively impacted on that period of our country.

Literary Pursuits

Sirisena's literary career began with contributions to 'Sithumina' and later Sarasavi Sandaresa, amongst the earliest Sinhala instruments of the Buddhists revival which was but a faint glimmer in early 1900.

Sirisena is also popularly regarded as the father of the Sinhala novel. His first novel was published in a serialized form in Sarasavi Sandaresa in 1904. There is of course a continuous debate as to who authored the first Sinhala novel.

Sirisena's novels of his own admission were aimed at reforming society. They were full of sermons. As a result their quality was affected to a point.

Also his long drawn -out discourses on Buddhism though may have inspired the reader interfered with the flow of a story.

But Sirisena had perhaps rare ability in plot-creation and in generating a sense of expectation in the reader - two fundamental inputs for an absorbing story. In his detective fiction series, the first by a novelist in this country, this was particularly evident.

According to the renowned critic, Prof. Wimal Dissanayake one of the greatest contributions Sirisena made in early part of the last century was the popularization of the habit of reading among the literate Sinhalese.

Sirisena published 22 novels and short stories. His Rosallyn and Jayatissa sold more than 25,000 copies within the first few editions. This is possibly is a record unmatched even today by any Sinhala novelist.

Also Sirisena's novels and short stories, sold more than 100,000 copies in all, during his lifetime which too probably is a record. The fact they are even sold today adds to his lasting popularity as a novelist. Some of his novels like Dingiri Menika and Wimalatissa Hamuduruwange Mudal Pettiya have gone into reprint, recently - from the early part of the 20th century to the 21st .

From the novel to publication of a newspaper was another significant step in his career. Though 'Sinhala Jathiya' achieved a degree of popularity Sirisena found that the economics of publishing a newspaper were at times difficult. Yet 'Sinhala Jathiya' was amongst the influential organs of national renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s.

Temperance Movement

The British policy on liquor and the consequent spread of liquor consumption was a cause of growing discontent amongst the Buddhists of that period.

An anti-liquor lobby gradually took shape and within a short time it had the support of the leading Buddhists. They soon formed a Temperance movement that in due course conducted an anti-liquor campaign in different parts of the country. In the forefront of this campaign were national leaders of the calibre of F R and D S Senanayake, the Hewawitharana brothers Dr. W A de Silva, Aurther V Dias and other prominent men of that critical era in the history this country.

Piyadasa Sirisane too emerged an active agitator against liquor and was a flag bearer of the Temperance movement. He utilized Sinhala Jathiya in exhorting people against the habit of liquor. He also brought to bear on the Temperance movement his oratorical skills, whenever anti-liquor meetings were held in various parts of the country.

An event which led to a serious erosion of the much vaunted British justice and fairplay were the Riots of 1918 which originated in Kandy and later spread to other parts of the country. It was put down ruthlessly and in the process the British jailed many leading figures. Thus the Senanayakes, the Hewavitharanas, Sir D B Jayathilake, Dr. W A de Silva, Piyadasa Sirisena and a host of others numbering 6o were jailed.

The manner in which the British reacted to the Riots drew searing criticism from a spectrum of leading men, including some Britishers themselves.

During his jail term lasting some 60 days Sirisena produced a novel which again centered on nationalistic ideals.

In retrospect after 85 years it is perhaps relevant to ask ourselves whether the Riots and their aftermath were a turning point in the agitation against British Rule.

One is also reminded of a poignant and disastrous event in Indian history - the Jallanwallah Bagh massacre which was however beyond doubt the turning point against British Rule in India.

Piyadasa Sirisena's multifaceted career reflected the struggle waged by leading Buddhists in this country during the British era.

The enduring nature of his contribution to national life of this country remains inviolate and is a legacy of courage, dedication and genuine love for our ancient land. Piyadasa Sirisena was completely above petty divisions based on caste creed and community. He openly worked against these destructive elements. His life was exemplary and worthy of emulation.

(The writer is the author of "Monarchs of Sri Lanka").

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