On a hallowed ground
Galle Literary Festival was declared open on January 28 at Koggala
Folk Museum Grounds. These are some random reflections on Koggala saint
Martin Wickramasinghe delivered in his birthplace.
Dr. Tissa Abeysekara
Picture by Ruwan de Silva
Where we stand today is for me a hallowed ground. It is, also, I am
sure for those who consider the Sinhala language and culture as their
heritage. But the man who was born here over a century ago, Martin
Wickremasinghe, that would be too narrow a definition.
His body of work massive and all pervasive by any standards, covers
practically every aspect of our country. But his coverage is not from an
insular inward-looking point-of-view. It looks at the landscape of Sri
Lankan history and culture through a surprisingly modern critical
David Jackson, Professor of Languages at the University of Texas, in
an article he contributed to a felicitation volume on Martin
Wickramasinghe’s 85th birthday, sums this up:
“In the context of world literature and intellectual history,
Wickramasinghe can be compared to a generation of self-educated writers
from village, rural and regional origins who have brought about the
modernization of their national literatures; Faulkner in the USA, Ramos
in Brazil, de Lampedusa in Italy.
Through a direct approach to colloquial language and the introduction
of popular themes, such writers have tried to bring their national
literatures into line, in an imaginative way, with social reality.”
Well put, but Jackson’s conclusions are based almost exclusively on
Wickramasinghe’s best known novel Gamperaliya. Many dimensions are
Though he was the man who guided Sinhala fiction from its romantic
interlude to the aesthetic of realism and almost single-handedly wrought
from the Sinhala language, mostly through a deft use of colloquial
speech, an idiom suitable for modern fiction - similar in a way to what
Mark Twain did for American fiction - to assess Martin Wickramasinghe
exclusively on this achievement would be to lose the wider perspective.
Let me put this very broadly,
There comes a moment in the chronicle of any race, where it has to
pause in its journey through history, to take stock, to look back. The
more such a retrospective is free of chauvinism, false pride and
sentimentality, the better is for the future of that race concerned.
The great achievement of Martin Wickramasinghe is that he helped us
look back without false pride and harmful nostalgia. Classical works of
the past which had rested securely and unchallenged on the top shelf of
our literary hierarchy came under the incisive and clinical scrutiny of
Wickramasinghe’s critical gaze to be pulled down as unimaginative,
derivative and therefore shallow, bare and false. Voluminous are his
writings on this matter, works that created especially for my generation
the values and the standards which molded our sensibility.
Few historians of the academic establishment have probed our past
with the same intuition and feel for the cultural and social subtext
that lay behind the arid data.
Reading his works on our cultural traditions and their social
relevance, were for us journeys we felt connected once again to the main
stream. His fiction was only one aspect of this quest for the roots and
the bark, the canopy and the spread of our cultural identity. However
through all his writings on our culture, there is a constant and
Culture evolves continuously; it is never frozen nor in stasis; it
cannot be constitutionalized, demanding to be amended only by majority
Sadly the bulk of Martin Wickramasinghe’s writings are in Sinhala and
remain inaccessible to the offshore reader. Only his novels, in
translation, and a couple of slim volumes written by him originally in
English- for he was bi-lingual - are available.
However let me conclude with a few brief comments on his fiction
Gamperaliya, which I referred to in the beginning, is a landmark in
Sinhala fiction, in the sense that it marks the first step away from the
didactic and the romantic towards more down-to-earth and socially
Nevertheless it is not a complete break with romanticism. Perhaps
Wickramasinghe knew the heart and the mind of his reading public not to
stray too far into the plotless worlds of Woolf and Joyce, and I am also
sure he was straining to drop his romantic baggage.
There are moments in Gamperaliya like in the beautifully wrought
sequence of the pilgrimage to Paragoda, where in evocation of mood and
memory through the scent of the Na flowers, the technique is almost
Another aspect of Gamperaliya, where the inhibitions of
Wickramasinghe to venture too far into modernity is where he seems
almost on purpose to keep the movement of the narrative and the social
commentary apart. It was as if he was wary of interweaving the two in
case the story loses its tension.
In Viragaya, two novels and ten years after Gamperaliya
Wickremasingha achieves the perfect fugue. Form and content, social
reality and narrative structure, characterization and linguistic style
are seamlessly fused in what I consider the most beautifully crafted
novel in the Sinhala language.
In Viragaya, Wickramasinghe ventures as far out as a writer could
within the aesthetic of the realistic novel.
The story of Aravinda hovers tantalizingly in a twilight world
between Chekhov and Kafka, Turgenev and Proust.
I have been censured sometimes for placing Martin Wickramasinghe, way
above all his contemporaries. I do not retract nor do I apologize. When
I look back on the literary landscape in which I grew up, I see many
trees, big and small, some are beautiful and some are not so beautiful
and some not at all. I also see patches of undergrowth thorny scrub and
weeds. May be I am of all that.
But in that terrain I see only one big Oak - may I say a Banyan,
because Oaks do not grow here - and that is the man who was born here
and who carried the flavour of this patch of land between the sea and
foothills of the mid-country throughout his life the way Steinbeck
carried his Salinas Valley, Faulkner his Yoknapatawha and closer home, R
K Narayan, the heat and dust of his Malgudi. I have grown up under the
shade of that big wide canopied many branched tree, and I am here more
to pay my humble tribute to where it grew.