Wednesday, 24 November 2004  
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Mihintalava - The Birthplace of Sri Lankan Buddhist Civilization

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Focus on Books

Studies in creative process

by Prof. Sunanda Mahendra

Sahitya Sansara charika 2 (Literary cyclical excursions) is a title given by Sinhala writer W. Abeysinghe for his latest collection of literary essays with a special focus on such aspects as literary portraits, evaluation of literary merits in comparison, examining the creative progress of writers etc.

Abeysinghe for the most time had been a prolific writer on books and a writer attempting his best to introduce the salient elements embedded, to impart a knowledge to a literary enthusiast of all ages, at school level as well as post-school and higher education level.

Abeysinghe's present collection of essays has been published from time to time, as a series of literary columns in Sunday and Daily newspapers. This anthology goes as a selected assortment of most of those bits and pieces.

Sahitya Sansara Charika 2 is also a companion volume to one of his earlier volumes of essays of the same calibre. Abeysinghe writes about local writers like Martin Wickramasinghe, Edirivira Sarachchandra and extends his horizons to Russian writers like Leo Tolstoy, Aicmatov and to German writer Herman Hesse and to Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore.

The intrinsic thread that goes as a sub text in the inquiry into the creative process of each writer and his work. The relevant writer he selects is of a personal nature. Thus, I see that this volume is a good stepping-stone for the understanding of various forms of literature available in countries of varying nature.

For instance he devotes most space for the examination of Aicmatov's 'Early Cranes' (Velasana Kokku Evith) translated by himself to Sinhala.

In the course of his inquiry he sees the humanist, teacher and the creator and various other factors that go into the making of a creative work. He also examines the types of language each writer utilizes and how it goes into a making of a narrative technique to express the intended experience. Abeysinghe too selects Shakespeare's Hamlet and examine some of the same aspects enabling the reader to know more about the world of Shakespeare.

As a common reader of the literary pieces embedded, I felt that he is a relaxed writer, though with a commitment to a cause. He at times is seen in ecstasy as well as in protest of a mild nature.

The essay on Martin Wickramasinghe's place of birth is one such example.

He sees that Koggala, where the great writer Wickramasinghe created the background for his epoch making work 'Gamperaliya' is gradually devoured by the pangs of Free Trade Zone, enmeshed in barb wires, leaving a small place for a tiny museum.

The writer Abeysinghe sorrowfully leaves aside his great ecstasy in his search and emerges into a self-seeking pitiful and ironical protest. He depicts how very innocent the visitor to this site could be.

On writing some notes on his previous volume of literary essays, I remember branding them as 'belle - lettre' writing or beautiful writing. I wish to extend the same tone to the present collection for this too is packed with healing and emotions of a sobre poetic mood than a carping critic's attitudes.

Books of this calibre ought to help not only a climate of supplementary readers, but also documents relating to knowledge seeking and exploration on the creative inspiration at all levels.

Today we observe a severe lack of this calibre of writing available in Sinhala. In fact the reader denies a certain degree of pleasure and aesthetic value via works that centre around sources of inspiration. Thus, readership habits could be elevated gradually.

All in all, these stimulating leisurely excursions into lives and creative process will help the modern reader to orient oneself in the world of books, to form one's own standards and to test his own insights against those of today's greatest literary academic personalities.

Sahitya Sansara Charika 2 is a Sarasavi publication.

An inspirational biography

Piya Rajjuruvo, 
Author: Nimal Sedera, Ratna Book Publishers, Maradana, 
196 pages, 
Price Rs. 225

Piya Rajjuruvo is the life story of Mohottige Nonis Sedera Appuhamy, 91, written by his eldest son Nimal Sedera. As the story is written in the first person, it appears to be an autobiography. However, since the story is actually written by his son, the book can be considered as a biography.

A biography is a written account of an individual life, but the term now connotes an artful, conscious literary genre that employs a wide range of sources, strategies, and insights.

A biographer has to deal with the intimate, inconsistent textures of personality and experience. He has to narrate the life story highlighting achievements, leaving out trivialities and dealing with biographical facts, such as, birth and death, education, conflicts, inter-relationship with friends and relatives. The biographer is intimately involved in a creative piece of writing maintaining a true to life attitude.

In this respect, Nimal Sedera has executed his responsibility commendably for two reasons.

He is writing the biography of his father during his lifetime; he also allows his father to speak at will. This is something rare in biography writing.

For instance, either you write your own biography and publish it as an autobiography. In the alternative, you get someone else to write your biography.

An important biography that comes to my mind is Izaak Walton's Life of John Donne published in 1640. However, James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson is considered the forerunner in modern biography writing.

Edifying and inspirational

Sometimes readers ask: Why write biographies? If a biography is edifying and inspirational, it is worth reading. Carlyle said, "A well-written life is almost as rare as a well-spent one." Nimal Sedera has written the biography of his father because it is both edifying and inspirational.

Piya Rajjuruvo is the story of a multifaceted man who has lived his life meaningfully and without being a burden to his children or society. Mohottige Nonis Sedera Appuhamy is a real son of the soil who has been a farmer, teacher, village headman and above all a simple villager.

He is the father of ten children - four boys and six girls. He got married to Udulawathi Wijekoon in 1941 and has completed 63 years of happy wedded life. In this book he speaks of how he brought up a big family amid financial difficulties and how he faced life's challenges courageously.

Unlike many modern-day fathers he believed that the only wealth that should be given to children is education. Sacrificing his comfortable life, he has sent his children to leading schools and given them a good education.

Exemplary life

With his English education, one part of his name "Appuhamy" was dropped. But he remained the same old villager who tilled the land, helped his fellow men, taught English to village boys and led an exemplary life. He admits that he never smoked or got drunk.

He tapped kitul trees but did not taste the kitul toddy. Instead he had a sweet tooth and loved to eat Imbul Kiribath, Levariya and peni appa. Jak, breadfruit, and green leaves were an essential part of his daily meals.

Apart from being an exemplary father he has remained an ideal husband. He refers to his wife Udulawathi in many places of the book with great affection.

Although she did not go to a public school, Udulawathi knew how to manage the household without complaining. Nonis Sedera is fortunate enough to have such a life partner.

Nimal Sedera, the eldest son in the Sedera family appears to be following in his illustrious father's foot steps. Although he is a leading light in the local insurance field, Nimal Sedera remains a down-to-earth individual. Having so many publications to his credit, he has given us Piya Rajjuruvo to instil in us a sense of belonging and the meaning of human life.

R. S. Karunaratne

Popular Indonesian novel in Sinhala

Translation of Gadis Bali by Anak Agung Pandji Tisna,
Translated by Dr. P. G. Punchihewa, 
Published by Dayawansa Jayakody & Company, Colombo 10. Price Rs. 150

Although the modern Sinhala literature has been enriched by translations of some of the best literary works from both East and West, it is surprising that the Sinhala reader is hardly aware of the contribution made by Indonesian writers to the world literature.

Some of them are better known in the west and more particularly in the United States and Australia through the translations done by the western scholars.

Ananta Pramoedya Toer the most celebrated writer with over 30 works of fiction translated into over 30 languages has been a recipient of many major international awards.

Writing about Pramoedya USA Today had the following to say: "Here is an author half a world away from us whose art and humanity are both so great that we instantly feel we've known him and he us all our lives": But it was only last year that a translation of his first novel Perburuhan (Fugitive) appeared in Sinhala.

Dr. P. G. Punchihewa who translated Pramoedya's work has now come up with a translation of a novel by yet another Indonesian writer Anak Agung Pandji Tisna 1938 - 1978. Gadis Bali which was Tisna's best known novel is translated into Sinhala under the title Bali Taruniyan Dedenekuge Kathawa.

The story is based on a village in Bali where the author was born and was familiar with. It revolves round a very crafty and mercenary woman who was running a small wayside boutique (a bath kade) with the assistance of her beautiful daughter whom she used to entice customers.

A high ranking police officer was among them. In order to save the daughter from the clutches of the police officer she gets an innocent girl to be raped by the police officer later to find out that the victim was her own twin daughter. The story ends with the pathetic scene of the woman going mad.

But what matters is not the story. Tisna makes use of it to depict a society which is turning people against all that is good and refined. To make a fast buck people were prepared to sacrifice all their traditional values. According to Balinese there will be retribution. The majority of Balinese who follow a religion which is a mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism believe in Karma.

What Tisna abhorred more than half a century ago is now happening all over the world under the guise of globalization.

The novel when published in 1936 had been an instant success. Since then it has been reprinted 22 times. The melodramatic character of the novel and the success it had received had prompted Tisna to produce a movie adaptation of the novel in 1950 and in 1993 into a television film 15 years after his death.

Apart from the universality the story has much in common with the Sri Lankan set up. If the characters and the places in the story are given Sri Lankan names it will well be a Sri Lankan story except for few references to certain events which are unique to Bali. With a Sri Lankan backdrop the novel would lend itself to a good film in the hands of a sensitive film director.

In translating Tisna's work Punchihewa has primarily made use of the English translation done by an Australian scholar George Quinn. However, he has also made use of Tisna's original work Gadis Bali whenever the occasion demanded.

Punchihewa has lived in Indonesia for more than 17 years heading an inter-governmental organization there and would have acquired an indepth knowledge and experience about the Indonesian way of life which had helped him much in translating this work into Sinhala.

In his usual style Punchihewa has rendered the translation in simple and lucid language. Readers should be happy that he is continuing to introduce them into a literary world not known to them before.

Dr. Vincent Sandanayake-Boston, USA.

Seeing what is in what isn't

Collected Emotions, 
Author: Thivanka Perera, 
Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2004

Thivanka Perera is an 'A' Level student of St. Joseph's College, Colombo. The back-cover blurb tells us that, when in the UK, he developed an interest in poetry, doubtless immersing himself in the world of English poetry. That, as I see, is the outcome of the 48 poems he has given us in his first book, "Collected Emotions".

As he says, he has more or less "compiled" or "created" emotions out of concocted tales - quite a startling approach, certainly. But in so doing, he has given us lines that most certainly smack of situations one would immediately recognize as drawn from the influences of English Poetry. Britain surely sat at his elbow, giving him inspiration; and the echoes of that country's poets are plainly heard.

In reading his offerings, I have found something of the Romantic Movement - so reminiscent of the lyrical ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Then there is something very like the post-war poems of T.S. Eliot, in a time when poets explored the world of their own subconscious mind, telling of a modern world of decadence and sterility.

This does not do justice to Thivanka. He is not dealing with his own consciousness or allowing a Lankan creativity to surface.

Dangerously enough, he is as a mirror that reflects the passions and prejudices of poets of the past. I remember how in his poem "Cinder Thursday", Herbert E. Palmer took T. S. Eliot to task for the manner in which "The Waste Land" was written.

Palmer was skeptical and doubted Eliot's seriousness and the poem's importance, although he did given credit to its passages of "genuine poetry" and its "literary kinship". Palmer wrote that "The Waste Land" was -

"... in some abysmal way creative,
Even it its disintegration,
Touched with the finger-nail of Donne
And the knuckle-bones of Dante and Ezekiel
Yet nearly all awry,
Deliberately and intuitively awry."

Manners and mannerisms

Now, Thivanka, consider: Will you allow yourself to fall into the trap of reflecting the manners and mannerisms of the poets whose works you have filled yourself with and keep touching on Their attitudes of mind? The great poets of all ages have uttered thoughts and emotions, the key to which they alone have held.

It is hard to unearth your own thoughts and emotions when they lie buried under the poetic visions of others. When I took up your book, I did so with the expectancy of seeing a fresh, bold, new and young schoolboy creativity. You have great talent, but remember that there can be little outpouring of this talent if it is allowed to be steered by "second-hand poetry".

You have given us some exceptionally good poems but you have also allowed your own inner spark to be shrouded by the thoughts and emotions of other poets. Although you have tried to explain that your emotions arose out of concocted tales, are you then seeing what is, in what isn't?

It is as though the reader hears the popping of corks of bottles of champagne of 19th century vintage, together with you own angst as you try to reveal the temper of today as you see and feel it. Let me take some random pickings: In "Visitor", a dirty and mud-caked traveller finds a "courteous hut".

He is offered "wine and meat" and he lies back, "taller than a pine tree" to die, eyes staring, soul fled. The old poetic influences are plain to see. I find the more insistent voice of Thivanka in poems like "Abused", "Spiritual", even "The Wise One", "Soldier", etc., but when other influences are permitted we find lines that jar and make havoc of sense, as though they have been wedged in:

* Thou shall demise, trying to stop this tide

* Alas! Have thee already died? (from "Doomeday")

* Yet ignorant to petite pleads

Feigned nations with erroneous cosset (from "Political Blues")

* But no immortal or mortal would embrace thy blue

Rapture seized its miscellaneous heart (from "Phantom")

Hotch-potch of words

I find in many of the poems a hotch-potch of words that beg to be sorted out, replaced, made sense of. If, with your poetry, you seek to fathom your own mind and bring to the surface your underlying impulses, recording them by the poet's means of association; making impressions of one sense expressed in terms of another, there is much work that lies ahead for you. Let me remind that in much of what you have given us there have arisen the memories of literature and poetic cliches and the stock responses such call for.

I see signs of the "defeatist poets" like W.H. Auden, Ronald Bottrall, C. Day Lewis and even Stephen Spender. Also the signs of the traditionalists and imagists.

In "Intruder by Night", the attack on the scarecrow is spoiled by the word clash where the night is "murky", the air a "pitch black tapestry" and yet there is "the moon at it speak."

It is this word-mess that makes the poems lose much of the gloss you have wished to invest them with. Take these lines from "Thus I Was Set Free."

I watch her with elevated zest,
Follow her pristine breath,
Devour the sight of salvation
To inebriate my sour complications.

I find rude semblances to pattern poetry and a tendency to glorify death, gore, warlords, evil and all these wrapped in a looseness of phrase that simply blotches meaning, putting pies, instead of stars, in the sky. Now take this verse from "Incensed Wailings":

All will crumble, all I loathe,
Damnation will devour all who put forth
Wanton paths I obliviously set foot on
Traps my life depleted on

In "I Hung Myself" lines tell of how you reach "The conclusion of life", but have you also reached the confusion of stringing words together with such haphazard intent?

I drummed my knuckles on the flow
And blood coloured the bony balls
As my mind writhed upon my dossier
The mausoleum of my past sins


I will give two more verses, the first from "He Died in my Arms" and the second from "The Ballad of Incensed Wrath":

As prerequisite chore
I dug a quarantine hole to good depth
Cleared the accoutrements within
Blessed it with matrimonial vows
And wedded the demised to mother Earth
Caustic blade grazing against a wretched thigh
Depicting furtively: a mural, a kidney to be fried,
'Ah, here comes the fiend, the corpse I wish to blow,
Seeking clients, the damned street whore!'
We have Jack Ripper, surely, in the second verse!

As a first book, this collection tells me that Thivanka needs to rid himself of all those influences that have ossified his mind and begin to write in his own style. After all, we don't want to read a lot of strung-together words that begin to sound like Khalil Gibran after an overdose of kasippu.

Thivanka has the flaring talent and the soaring dreams of a young boy to become a strong Lankan voice if he "goes it alone" and in his own way; stands out by virtue of his individuality, his sensitivity and innovative power. Perhaps these days of being an "experimentalist" have to now come to an end.

He must, like the poets he has immersed himself in, be also able to see "Infinity in a grain of sand, Eternity in an hour" - but he must see it all HIS way and make his line wring with the voice of the elements.

I have one wish for you, Thivanka: Be a matador with words, splashing all this island's tropical colours over your poems, bringing new vitality to imagery and new strength to the expressions of emotion. Leave all this medieval embroidery alone. These are not the times for that Georgian approach or the archaic assonance.

Don't be disheartened by what I have written. You will be, I am sure, but you will also know that I do care and wish to see you grow, expand, fulfill yourself. And, if I say so myself, this can be called a bad review. So what? I get them all the time!

Carl Muller

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