Wednesday, 25 August 2004  
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Tribute to nation's poet:

Monica, my friend

by Sumana Saparamadu

Way back in 1971, a book of poems by an unknown writer was sent to the woman's weekly Tharunee for review. I was then that weekly's editor. The title - Api Denna Saha Tawath Keepa Denek.

(Two of us and a few others) caught my immediate attention. I read a few poems at random. The last was the best. I liked it and read it again and again and each time I saw something new.

Headlined Thoranay Budu Ruwa (The Buddha image on the pandal) it was an indictment of Vesak pandals, where the Buddha's image is drowned in a sea of dazzling light. I liked the subtle sarcasm, the choice of words, the idea conveyed which was akin to my own attitude to the garish display of light which the Vesak pandal had degenerated to.

An artistís impression of Monica Ruwanpathirane

That year I had been asked to edit the Dinamina Vesak annual, which hitherto had been edited by veterans like Piyasena Nissanka, then the most senior journalist on the ANCL staff.

I was so taken up by this poem Thoranay Budu Ruwa that I wrote to the author, Monica Ruwanpathirana, a name I had not heard before, asking her permission to reproduce the poem in that year's Vesak annual. She wrote back that she was happy and honoured to have her poem published in the annual and also gave me some information about herself as per my request.

Friendship

A few days later she came to Lake House to meet me and we had a chat. That was the beginning of our acquaintance which soon grew into a warm friendship lasting till her death a month ago. I didn't see her in the last year and a half.

I was told by her aunt who lives next door, that Monica was living alone at an address in Borella she wanted, kept secret. Respecting her desire for privacy I didn't visit her but wrote to her to the address to which the Silumina was sending payments for her weekly column, telling her she was very much in my thoughts.

As our friendship grew she sent me every book she published, not for review but as a token of friendship. She was very close to Tharunee in the years I was the editor and contributed in many ways to enhance its contents and make it one above the run of the mill weeklies of the day.

She selected poems sent by amateurs to the poetry page and these were published with short comments on their weak points and highlighting the good points - words of advice and encouragement. She gave the keynote address at the seminar organized by Tharunee and held at the Public Library auditorium to mark the International Women's Day one year.

When I first met Monica in 1971, she was already a graduate of the University of Colombo and was the Cultural Officer - Sanskrutika Niladari - a new post created for graduates by Mrs. Bandaranaike's government, attached to the AGA's office in Piliyandala or Kesbewa.

After some years she gave up government service to work full-time for an NGO working to alleviate poverty as well as rescue the poorest of the poor from the cultural and mental abyss they had fallen into.

She always referred to this NGO as PIDA, not the Sinhala peeda meaning oppression. It is the acronym of the NGO, I cannot recall the full name of the organization, which she had told me.

I saw by her coffin a wreath sent by Ponnah Wignarajah with the words "Thank you Monica for your work." Monica often spoke very respectfully and warmly of Ponnah Wignarajah who I gathered was the kingpin of this NGO.

Illness

After her illness was diagnosed and the initial treatment at Maharagama she came to stay with her aunt, and made regular visits to Madras for treatment, always accompanies by this aunt. I visited her off and on for a chat. What struck me then and struck me very forcefully was her steel courage and dogged determination not to be cowed down by her illness.

She would dismiss my inquiries after her health with brief answers and turn our conversation to some literary event in the offing or just over or tell me about her latest literary efforts she even read them out to me.

She was writing to the very end. Her last column in the Silumina, appeared the day after she died. I wish her husband would collect and publish these essays. In this column she was talking of women's place in our society as reflected in our folk poetry and folk tales.

Whose idea was it to have her awards and books displayed by the head of her coffin? Reading the inscriptions on them. I asked myself has any other man or woman received so many awards in recognition of the contribution to Sinhala literature?

Her literary contribution is well-known but not her work with PIDA in the gardens (watta) the shanty settlements in the city of Colombo and in far-flung villages. One critic writing two or three days after her death said her poems lacked in strength and depth and had a political flavour, because of her involvement with the under class.

I am not competent to comment. Whether the quality of her writing took a downturn after she went down to the shanties is a moot point. But this I know. Monica endeared herself to the women in the shanties and villages she worked for.

So much so that some women from distant Polpithigama in the NWP, invited her to convalesce in their village. Monica accepted their invitation and spent some months in their loving care. They lacked cash but their home gardens were rich in fruit and vegetables. Says her aunt, "she had even put on weight in those few months, she was in the village."

Lakshmi who kept her company and looked after her when she moved from home to some place in Borella, was also a woman she had befriended in one of the shanties.

Her aunt recalled how Monica would sit up on her hospital bed in Madras, deep in thought, and keep on knotting the end of her covering sheet. Once she had disturbed Monica's reverie and asked her why she was doing this. "A knot for each verse I composed." A little thing she saw, observed or heard would set her thinking and a few lines of verse would take shape in her mind without any effort, which were later written down and polished later.

Last poem

The day before she passed away, her cousin Khemanthi, my neighbour was with her in hospital. Monica who was staring into space had suddenly called out to her. "Nangi, there are three verses - Kavi thunak in my head." Quickly Khemanthi brought pen and paper. "Repeat them akka, I'll writer them down." She began but the words were inaudible. "I am tired nangi." That was the final full stop to her creative thinking. She passed away early next morning.

Recounting this incident her aunt added, "She took with her the last poem she composed. Perhaps she'll remember it and write it in her next birth."

Born in Malimbada, a village in the Matara district, she started her education at a school in Matara and later came to Sanghamitta College in Galle, from where she entered the university. She was in a private boarding house, sharing the room with Rupa Amarasingha, the present principal of Visakha, who was then an A-Level student at Mahinda College.

Sanghamitta is rightly proud of her alumnus. Sanghamitta girls came all the way from Galle to give her a guard of honour on her last journey. Monica should be an inspiration to the girls of Sanghamitta.

If husband Ramanayaka and Son Amila "of immeasurable value!) are willing to part with the many trophies she received and the Book of Condolence, may I suggest that they be donated to Monica's old school Sanghamitta College, to be proudly displayed along with her books in the school library.

They will be an inspiration to future students at Sanghamitta and a worthy memorial to the nation's poet of the 20th century.

They should be displayed along with a photograph, with these lines from her long poem Obey Yehiliya Eya Geheniya, as her epitaph.

Liyu kavi dahasakin
Kiya gatha nohekivu
Yamak hada ruvagath
Geheniyak nidai mehi

Here sleeps a woman who carried in her heart something she couldn't express in the thousand verses she wrote."

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