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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
Martin Wickramasinghe

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 perspective.

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 missing here.

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 consistent refrain.

Culture evolves continuously; it is never frozen nor in stasis; it cannot be constitutionalized, demanding to be amended only by majority vote.

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 conscious narratives.

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 Proustian.

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.

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