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Wednesday, 26 May 2010

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The Wickramasinghe wisdom

My colleague usually covers Martin Wickramasinghe whenever an anniversary occurs. But this time she was very much caught up with a hectic work schedule, and wanted me to meet his son Dr. Ranga Wickramasinghe for an article.

Martin Wickramasinghe is quite our heritage, I have to unearth in portions. His famous trilogy: Gamperaliya, Kaliyugaya and Yuganthaya all filmed - and televised too, methinks. His involvement in literature: juvenile, biology, novels, short stories, drama, literary criticism, anthropology, philosophy, history, Buddhism and various other miscellaneous works in both Sinhala and English. I have no clue where to start.

I have seen Dr. Ranga, the third-born Wickramasinghe junior, in public places, but never did I notice he had the very same physical profile of his father. In fact he is the throwback to his senior, whom I have seen only in pictures, whose loss came to pass before my birth. Dr. Ranga Wickramasinghe doesn't like to be interviewed as such. But he is gentlemanly generous in offering necessary information for an anniversary article.


Furniture used by Martin Wickramasinghe. Source: Martin Wickramasinghe Trust

"I have given out and written almost everything about father." And yet I was handed some freshly written information. He didn't seem to need me to leave the premises. Dr. Ranga Wickramasinghe swans back to those wholesome days, his face gleams with a silvery smile, his tone serious though.

"Many people wonder how my father had such a good command of many subjects. He had a good reference library. He maintained it good and proper too."

This word 'maintained' puzzled me. I could not gather what he had meant by this word. But I couldn't get myself to demand explanation, lest I may look a holy dimwit.

"He was collecting books since he was 17."

"Your father had financial difficulties, right?"

At this instance his eldest brother S. K. Wickramasinghe joined us.

"He did a job. You can see it when you read his autobiography Upanda Sita. But since his father was dead, he had to shoulder the responsibilities of his family. He somehow made do with a job. He was a little relieved when he was 17, I think."

The past will still remain scattered, if not for his autobiography. I was nursing a question for the Wickramasinghe siblings.

"So he bought many encylopaedia and dictionaries?"

First-born Wickramasinghe junior uttered a firm no, smilingly.

Most of the books, they said, were subject-oriented books. It's like an expansion of one encylopaedia. The third-born continued.

"May be because he was tight-cashed he didn't buy books at once. Only after going through many, he would buy one book."

One of the bookshop owners, a White, noticed this habit.

"One day this owner called up my father and said he knows what's going on. Do you know what had the owner said afterwards?"

"No." Of course I did not.

"He had said: 'You can go through them one by one, no problem. But I have seen your finger goes to tongue and you apply spit on each page. It spoils the book you know. I don't mind you going through the books, as long as you hold back that habit." We were all laughing - first-born, third-born Wickramasinghe juniors and myself - and were silent for a few seconds. And then Dr. Ranga spoke up.

"One thing is he maintained his library properly. He had a collection of about 5000 books."

There it popped out again. I was forcing myself, now or never!

"What do you mean by maintenance?"

"My room was close to his library. There were days I could see him inside the library silhouetted through the curtains."

The child could see his father hum an old song doing the errands in library. He would dust off the books. Some books would be taken out. A page or two would be read. Something would be scribbled down in margins by a pencil.

Martin Wickramasinghe never forced education on his children, six in all. But they all had university education in different streams such as physics, economics, medicine and history. He set an example of his own for children to follow. The first-born voices in:

"When he wanted to know about some theory, he would refer one book. That particular book was enough for him to follow another concept or two. He would study a few more concepts in one book."

He had no classification to his collection, but it didn't take much while for him to browse the book he would want to refer to. The collection is now housed in Colombo National Museum with a classification.

My gaze roams around these two men in their ripe ages - 70s and 80s - who walk tall preserving their father's heritage. Wish I could see their senior wedged between his offspring, but that thought falls dead at an end.

Even so the live brevity of this moment's leisure is simply beautiful that is enough comfort.

sachitra@gmail.com

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