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Mihintalava - The Birthplace of Sri Lankan Buddhist Civilization
 

A compendium of village centred experiences
 

When the great French writer Marcel Proust wrote his reminiscences titled in English as 'remembrances of things past' one would not have imagined that it would turn to be a great voluminous novel for they were some of his personal experiences and observations of the childhood days.

It is recorded that he had so much of experience with his past that they all tightened with the other fictitious experiences had gone into a great memorable work.

For a moment I was reminded of this reading experience which I had long time ago, when I read the latest book of the well-known translator, broadcaster and administrator Amaradasa Gunawardhana titled 'Ma lama kalaye mage gama' [my village in my childhood] a collection of belles-lettres, consisting of 26 short and long essays.

The essays are quite readable and full of wit and wisdom linked to the folk patterns of narration intermixed in dialogue, prose and verse wherever necessary.

AG recollects how he had seen the change in the two worlds, in a very detached form, the world of his past and the world of his present existence. What is significant is that he had not meant to write a book, but the bits and pieces he had been writing from time to time had automatically transformed into a book.

In most of his expressions he is seen cathartic for the experiences embedded are spontaneous overflows of emotions bordering on nostalgia. In the first instance AG outlines the geographical borders of his village Mullegama and remarks how it is different from those other villages as described by many a Sri Lankan writer like Martin Wickramasinghe or Leonard Woolf.

Sensitive snapshots

The memorable moments in the life of his childhood and the use of such classroom material like the slate [gal lella], the leisure time spent in the nearby wood, the games played with his friends, and the imitative actions of the adults and the village folk players, the birds and animals with whom they move about, all go to make short and sensitive snapshots of life gone by.

He also makes it a point to jot down his personal and known folk notes on household pets like dogs and cats and birds like sparrows and parrots with whom the human beings from time immemorial had been accustomed to live as relatives.

In these notes the folklore play a vital role as it had moulded the wisdom and the outlook of the common man in the agrarian sector.

I was amused when I read with interest some of the folk games and plays long forgotten by us is once again brought to the forefront through these pages.

Even from a linguistic point of view the terms used in these games become a study for the modern generation. For instance the terms like 'nocirial' [for no clearance] 'istand'[for stand] 'cirialnoroad' [for clear no road] have been used as an influence from an English game of a similar type.

Number of events relating to the nature of the village school is recorded with various anecdotes connected with teachers, parents, students, school concerts, debates, inspectors, annual educational trips, musical recitals and theatrical activities , and the advent of well wishers who so wish to develop the village education.

In all these the underlying factor is the innocence. Then we encounter the spiritual side of the village via the village temple which is the abode to which most people go in search of a meaningful mission the gathering of merits.

The writer AG records with a poetic sensibility the nature of the simple villager in search of his own identity to be a good human being, listening to the bana sermon of the priest, observing sil on poya days, and bringing the dana or the alms to the monks from a long distance to the temple.

The village temple is denoted as the central nervous system of the village and the monks are treated as the opinion leaders from whom the necessary advice is sought.

Village boutique

The village boutique and the village fair too take an interesting turn of events to the villager. The nature of the traders [mudalali] is outlined vividly portraying the crude and the sensitive nuances of individuals in the buying and selling of commodities where some of the urban systems are linked with those of the village giving way to a kind of invisible exploitation.

How the villagers face various annual events such as the dawn of the new year festive mood, the vesak celebration with children and adults preparing for the making of pandals, lamps and lanterns and the advent of the pilgrimage period [vandana samaya] of the poson are recorded.

How a marriage is arranged and takes place amidst a gathering is not so easy as one would imagine in the village that AG cites in chapter nine of his book for the reader is given the impression that it is a yeoman task and a responsibility from the point of views of parents, finding the suitable partners, sending match makers, scrutinizing horoscopes, negotiations between families, finding auspicious times, the decisive factors of the wedding ceremony, extending the invitations to relatives and well-wishers and villagers which in turn becomes a collective function with background preparation unfathomable.

Though we have observed all these factors, over a long period of time, yet when they are recorded in this manner one would feel that the interpretations matter. Some of the most exciting episodes pertaining to the village rituals like exorcism inclusive of devil dances and magical rites are recorded with personal comments in chapter ten.

The average villager believes [I feel for the most part he still believes] that most of his problems and illnesses are caused as a result of misadventures with devils which lurk in the folklore.

AG in the mood of an investigator-cum-researcher tries to interpret these mystical areas making us feel that he is somewhat above the plane of his beloved villager, yet possesses a feeling of pathos towards him.

This chapter on exorcism could inspire the student of rituals and theatrical activities. The villagers' attitude towards death, rain, floods, droughts, climatic conditions, birth and rebirth, merit gathering are recollected in certain sections in a narrative form.

The last few chapters [14, 15 and 16] are devoted to aspects of gradual urbanisation, the catalyst of which is inevitably the coming of a post office, the development of transport services, and other forms of communication, together with entertainment factors with gambling at its helm.

But the writer AG is more nostalgic when it comes to the areas of agrarian culture in his village. This book from a synoptic view is a mirror that reflects faces, gestures, manners, follies and foibles of village folk who lived several decades ago.

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A gentle reminder to all of us inequality

Author: Daya Dissanayake
Available at leading bookshops

Inequality comes in many forms. It is true of every race upon this earth and is embedded in the life of all nations. There is this continuous striving to be as equal as the other and this is where human torment is best seen. In his latest collection of poems, inequality (simple letters, please), Daya makes inequality his theme.

As you will recall, Daya took the 1998 State Literary Award for his book kat bitha a story of Sigiriya and the mirror wall. He then broke new ground with his first Asian e-novel, the saadhu testament that was published as saadhu.com by Godage and Brothers in 1999.

After that he gave us the healer and the drug pusher in 2000 and three more e-novels: the bastard goddess (2003); vessan novu vedun in Sinhala in 2003; and thirst (2004).

In inequality and let me tell you that Daya deplores capital letters: he is, one supposes neither capitalistic nor capitalised - he offers us a collection he had written over 40 years, and, as he says, they arose from an "insatiable itch for scribbling".

I suppose we writers do this all the time. Just yesterday, something simply floated into my head and I scribbled it down. Then, looking at it, I grinned, I had written: "If Martians are little green men, this country seems to be full of them. "You see what I mean? Truly is literature an all-sorts kind of thing and it is the mind that makes things happen.

Daya's theme is inequality, and we, as a people, know so much about it in this island we say is just 40 leagues from Paradise. Indeed, Daya starts the ball rolling with his first three-liner, "inequality" (p 6)

inequality
breeds
inequality
Hungry villagers

And no, this is not what some may think is a pretty mundane observation. What else can come out of inequality than greater inequality? That first splintering leads to many more until, in the end we have a land divided, communities divided, houses divided, families divided, all hope strewn to the winds.

But what Daya has done is bring us close to the inequalities we seem to accept or pass over as things of little consequence. This is starkly presented in "food for thought" (p 12), where he tells us, remorselessly enough, of the hungry villagers who live in pools of the sweat and blood of their children in order to keep safe those who consider themselves more equal that are:

the face of a starving child
stares at me from each grain of rice
on my plate all the food on my plate
grew on soil fertilized by the bodies
of those who sacrificed
their lives to keep us alive

The symbolism here is not that our farmers die of want. Instead they waste away, moaning their sons plucked away from their homes, told by a state to go out and die in battle; sons who are then brought back to lie in their village graves, fertilize the soil.

Where is equality when one man can tell another to go out and die that he might live? Today, certain politicians demand this sacrifice, this massacre of the innocent, while their own sons haunt night clubs like the arrogant monsters they are. Why were they not set to fight and die? Ah, but you see, they are a breed more equal than that must become T. 56 fodder, are they not?

There is so much inequality mirrored in this slim book. The village boy in ragged shorts will call an old polythene bag his kite, and run along the road, trying to get it to catch the breeze. But, as we know, the children of the rich will descend on Galle Face Green with their kites of many forms and colours, some brought in from Japan, Korea, Thailand and Singapore.

There will be much fun and laughter, for this is a "Kite Festival". Will there be a place on the green for the village boy and his rude polythene bag? This poem kite (p. 14) is an eye opener and it was first published in "Poetry International", Oregon State University, USA. What makes the reader cringe is the gap - that huge gap that keeps widening between the haves and have-nots. Who can ever claim equality?

In shelter (p. 17), we again see how well the inequality is marked - the father, comforting his child, telling of a future dream-time that can scarcely be imagined:

the tree canopy
is good enough shelter for us
from the sun and the rain
that's all I can give
yet I will send you to school
as long as I can someday
you too could build a mansion like that
for yourself and your children

Of course, this sense, this recognition of inequality is the kernel of village grief as well, it is too bad that our rulers don't see this as the sort of "gam peraliya" that brings all the old and serene ways crashing down. The strong feeling of inequality pushes the young to destroy the simple hopes and dreams of their parents.

This is a disquietude that takes hold of so many. In "inheritance" (p. 23), we are told of the son who disowned his father, ashamed of the loin cloth and the toiling in the rice fields. He wanted to equal the city friends he had cultivated. Soon, he accumulates his own wealth, immersed in the evil of the city ... but:

his elder son
disowned him
when he found
how his father had
amassed his filthy lucre
the younger son
threw his father out
once he took control
of the business

One son ashamed of his father, the other bursting with greed ... what will the father now do? Return to the loin cloth and the rice fields? His quest for equality ruined him and destroyed his dignity.

Again, sleep (p. 24) carries much of the same theme, but there lies a world of difference. A villager will toil in the fields, return to his hut to eat a plain rotti and drink a mug of tea; but he will sleep with a faint smile on his face, his slumber deep and untroubled.

He has done his work for the day and the night holds no fears. But in the cities are those who think themselves better, richer, more worldly-wise; people he can never be. They exist in their status, their money in the bank, in position and in power. Yet, the villager sleeps and the inequality of it all does not really matter. Contentment is all:

he doesn't have
to worry
about
diet
cholesterol
blood sugar
ad doesn't need
sleeping pills
air-conditioning
and a featherbed

Daya also seems to tell us that inequality, although a dirty word to some, can also be a blessing in disguise. This depends, of course, on mental and spiritual attitude, and this is brought to our ken in distance (p. 25), where the poor man, walking in the hot sun, knows all the joys of nature that meet his steps; and not the rich man who flashes by in his speeding car.

For the man in the car, the journey is marked by the time he takes to travel a thousand metres ... but for the man who walks with his burden on his back -

birds are singing
flowers are in bloom
children are playing
lovers are embracing
a cool breeze is
blowing
from the distant hills
over a blue stream and
a green earth
Sense of freedom

This sense of freedom cannot be denied. And yet, the poor man will consider the car that flashes past him with some envy, won't he? In this way, this sense of inequality becomes more convoluted. We see this is health food (p. 25). A village woman will sell her land, her buffaloes, to send her son to Italy.

Now she has nothing and is yet so proud to receive what her son send her - food supplements, calcium, vitamin-enriched milk powder ... and did she barter he healthy village life so that her son could send her factory food from abroad? Is this how she could be regarded in her village as a woman of quality?

In barefeet (p. 27), we meet the rural man who tried to bridge the divide. But he had taken his feet away from the good earth. He must wear cotton socks and leather-soled shoes, walk on rich carpets and smooth tiling.

He can no longer walk barefooted on the gravel road to the temple The same is true of the city diner in dining out (p. 27) who can sit at a restaurant table and check the prices on the menu. His meal depends on what he can afford. His taste buds are not activated, nor are his digestive juices.

Does he eat well or does he eat to show others that he is their equal who can order a meal as good as theirs? But there sits the unequal man under a kumbuk tree by the edge of a rice field, eating his "embula" and curries off a banana leaf and with a sigh of deep content. Who eats better?

In book fair (pp. 28-29) the question again arises. The young man will save his money to go to a book fair, buy the books he is proud to collect. Oh, he has so many books but he never seems to be satisfied; then, as he makes his way home in the rain, he sees the image of parched village fields, a dried-up river, starving farming families, even hungry beggars in the street. Can he give them books to eat? Is his life a wasteland of books he could never live long enough to read?

Many of the poems resound with this curse of inequality. We see it in the Four Noble Truths (p.30) and playtime (p. 33). This poem tells us of the spoilt rich brat who can smash the TV monitor because she is bored with her TV game. Here roomful of toys give her no pleasure either: ... but:

Kumari was cooking
a meal
for her home-made
rag doll
outside their little hut
waiting for her
mother's return
from the tea estate
to bake a rotti
for her dinner

We see inequality in luxury (p. 36), and teachings (p. 38) as well; and while the collection carries other poems as well, I find what I have scrolled down of greatest significance.

As a finale, Daya has also given us his own 21st century Sigiri graffiti, beautifully presented, as Malini Govinnage says, "A poem is a part of the spiritual wealth of a person who creates it,," Daya is, to all intents, a reformer of sorts.

He hangs his thoughts on seething crosses and asks that we regard them with our conscience. This collection also reminds us, gently, that we are unequal, one to another, in one way or another. It is only contentment that dispels this mind-demon.

Carl Muller


A book pulsating with vitality
 

Hurrah! For Large Families
Author: Anne Abayasekara
Vijitha Yapa Publications, 307 Pages, Price Rs. 499

In over six decades of avid reading I have rarely congratulated myself so much on buying a book. The cover screamed temptation - Sybil Wettasinghe's anarchic wit summarised everything about the carnival that love and security can create in a blaze of colours; the trusting smile of the bedazzled mother whose little savage surreptitiously plots her downfall amidst the gang of tots, urchins and adolescents conveyed the hilarious and occasionally horrific aspects of family togetherness.

It aptly mirrored the buoyancy and tough realism of the contents. To lose yourself (or rather, find yourself) in the hook is not escapism. "At a time of crisis in our country when nearly everyone is exclaiming over the appalling escalation of crime and corruption" - is now precisely the time for a saga as life-affirming, as sound, lively and enjoyable as "hurrah for Large Families".

For the reflective, "Hurrah for Large Families by Anne Abayasekara has a further dimension. The dates of each individual article coupled with its contents are a piece of social history, revealing and thought provoking.

As "a family counsellor over the past nearly 30 years", Anne is aware of "scores of people who find little or no joy in marriage and family" but she, like the majority of her readers, is more aware of their rewarding aspects, and can indicate how these are increased and safeguarded.

Sense, sanity, proportion, decency - who uses these words now? And why not? "Hurrah for Large Families" makes us realise that despite all that globalisation and our own politicians can do to us, there is still areas where individuals can create an oasis for themselves.

How beautifully Anne writes! I find myself responding to a paragraph on the noisiness of children as I might to opera - the orchestration is so perfect. It is indeed, a mercy that such writing was not left as silent newspaper articles, stacked up unread in the archives.

If, as Horace says, a writer is most successful who can give delight while he instructs, Ms. Abayasekara is one such as she depicts seven children and a delightful but not faultless husband: the portrayals range from the richly funny when the lot are being fractious or demanding to a touching appreciation of their thoughtfulness and considerateness.

Every harassed mother of two or more can draw knowledge from her experience. The book is particularly useful for young people bringing up children now and fancying their woes are specific to this day and age to discover that the very same problems confronted parents in what they imagine were the serene 1960s.

Useful tips emerge: "A child who becomes stubborn when spoken to angrily frequently responds to a kind but firm tone of voice. Requests are generally complied with better than orders".

The book pulsates with a physical and mental vitality that communicates itself to the reader and makes them alert to how intensely pleasurable life is even without millions and how ecstasy is possible without popping a pill. Family holidays and parties, nativity performances at home with appealing or appalling performers, mountaineering - it is a crowded and entertaining canvas.

And how many ideas are propagated! Planned child-free tete-a-tetes for middle-aged couples., escapes from routine, even a rewarding tour for senior citizens ("the children insisted we ask for wheelchairs".

The manner in which Anne Abayasekara's skilful communication of her own response to the loveliness of landscape, the tug of responsibility, the intimacy of a long marriage or interaction with the children mesh with the readers concerns and feelings results in a very satisfying book to read and to return to in the coming years.

..................................

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