Dimensioning of giant and dwarf in art and literature
once overheard a conversation between two undergraduates. One of them
had the dubious reputation of being a conscientious non-bather. He
stank. The other complained about the stench one day. The stinker
responded philosophically, ‘ganda...mokadda ganda kiyanne? ganda kiyanne
suwande avasaana avasthaava’ (stench...what is stench? It is the lowest
aspect of perfume). It is all relative, isn’t it?
There was, back then, a tradition in the Arts Faculty Peradeniya
University. The staff of each department would invite the final year
students for a meal and the students would reciprocate. Back then, the
students would make invitation cards and formally hand them over to each
member of the academic staff. The most creative person was usually
tasked with writing an invitational verse and someone who was good at
drawing would design the layout. All hand-done of course. That year,
there was a problem in the Sociology Department. None of the final year
students could write a verse and none could draw. The task was
verse was horrible and utterly inappropriate. It had for reasons I never
could understand essentially made the claim that the lowly lecturers had
created some super heroes (there really isn’t an English equivalent for
yuga purushayo; perhaps ‘Men of the Century’, ‘Epochal Personalities’?)
and the latter, by way of showing gratitude were inviting their teachers
for dinner and chit-chat. We teased our batchmates mercilessly for
years, reminding them that the last person we knew who deserves such a
title was Ernesto Che Guevara and that it was incredible that the
Sociology Department had produced three in one go and most amazingly,
there was one from Wathurakumbura (inaccessible due to lack of regular
public transport), whose village-hero, Wickramabahu Karunaratne had
sweated for decades to be one and was unsuccessful.
‘Who wrote this?’ I asked Walter Sumith Pradeep (Kuliyapitiya) and
Ananda Samarakoon (Wathurakumbura).
‘Kule Malli,’ Walter said.
Kule, short for Kulatunga was a first year student. We all hooted
with laughter and told them that although they may be yugapurushayas for
Kule Malli, they were still in their intellectual nappies as far as the
lecturers were concerned.
The point in both stories is this: it’s all relative. There are
giants because there are dwarfs and vice versa, there is stench because
there is perfume, good because of bad and so on. It all came back to me
yesterday (June 15, 2010) at the British Council, where ETV announced
the launch of a brand new program called ‘The Ashok Ferrey Show’. Let me
Ashok spoke. Lakshman Bandaranayake, CEO of Vanguard Management
Services Pvt. Ltd spoke. British Council Country Director Gill Westaway
spoke. Prof Neluka de Silva, English Department, Colombo University
spoke and Prof Yasmine Gooneratne, both authors, spoke. I enjoyed what
Yasmine had to say about the work of time and place on language; she
didn’t talk about giants.
Gill Westaway in a wishy-washy manner rubbished ‘classical
literature’ and told us that the British Council library now had a fully
equipped section for Sri Lankan English Literature. I am not sure if she
wanted to say that Sri Lankan English Literature is superior to
‘classical literature’ but there wasn’t much substantiation on her part
and for all my nationalism I would choose classical lit over local
English lit if it were a matter of life and death, such is the nature of
Ashok came up with a classic. He observed quite correctly that
history is an incomplete discipline and that event, personality, social
intercourse and all human processes of a given epoch are best obtained
by a perusal of the art and literature of that time.
He proposed that the lives and work of the people who come on his
show would, similarly, tell the interested student about this time and
place. Yes, but only if the said personalities and their work was in
some way definitive and representative of this time and place. The fact
is that the Ashok Ferry Show is not going to feature people like
Gunadasa Amarasekera, Ariyawansa Ranaweera, Pundit Amaradeva,
Jayatilleka Kammallaweera, Udayasiri Wickramaratne, Prasanna Vithanage,
Prasanna Jayakody, Jayantha Chandrasiri, Ashoka Handagama, Nadeeka
Guruge, Jayalath Manoratne, Nishad Handunpathirana, Chaaminda
Ratnasuriya, Lelum Ratnayake, Kasun Kalhara, and of course all the Tamil
poets, playwrights, novelists and the hundreds of others who dwarf into
insignificance most of those in the list that the producers showed us.
Ashok mentioned Rome and Greece and the literatures of these places
at the times when they were giant-names. Yes, the literature paints a
time and a place.
On the other hand, I find it hard to believe that the literature that
survives was all that was ever written.
I am fairly certain that the pedestrian efforts of mediocre authors
had short life- spans. Not everything great survives the turbulences and
fires that history is made of, but there is some law of nature, perhaps,
that ensures that good books don’t burn. Two hundred years from now,
thanks to technology, a lot of what’s being written today, will be
available in some form. This will include a lot of rubbish. I am sure
that 200 years hence, the rubbish will not be getting a fraction of the
page-hits that the truly great works get.
Giants. Yes, I almost forgot. That was the word that Lakshaman used
to describe Ashok Ferrey. He called him a ‘Literary Giant’. I was not
looking at Ashok so I am not sure if he squirmed in embarrassment. The
truth is the Sri Lankan English Literature just doesn’t have the
equivalent of a Martin Wickremesinghe, Ediriweera Sarachchandra,
Dayananda Gunawardena, Mahagama Sekara or Simon Navagaththegama, not in
terms of literary output, not in terms of timeless, space-less quality,
no, not according to any acceptable criteria.
This is why I believe the one and only question raised during the
‘Q&A’ session was very pertinent in terms of giving some perspective to
an audience that appeared to have been invited on some
come-if-you-are-ready-to-cheer basis. Rajpal Abeynayake, editor, Sunday
Lakbima News and a no-nonsense critic who just can’t suffer mediocrity,
pomposity and misplaced notions of self-import, asked Lakshman what the
criteria was to determine who is giant and who is not. Some pipsqueak
from the audience said ‘he (Ferrey) is taller than you (Rajpal)’.
Rajpal took the bite and bit back, ‘Ok, is that the criteria Mr.
Lakshman?’ Lakshman didn’t bite. He dodged. He reiterated, re-described
Ferrey as ‘giant’ and the audience cheered. That was telling.
The Ashok Ferrey Show, going by the preview, looks great. It will
entertain its target audience. It is not about literature and it doesn’t
claim to be. Ashok Ferrey is a great presenter. He has energy, words,
verve and self-effacing charm that work really well for this kind of
program. Those who need ego-boosts, would love it. Some would go along,
reluctantly, as Ferrey said, simply because they find it difficult to
At the same time it remains pretentious and in the end just another
exercise of a particular clique to convince themselves that they are at
the top end of Sri Lankan literature. They are not.
One giant stood out that evening. Rajpal Abeynayake. There were
others, I noticed. Perhaps not ‘giants’ but certainly not the dwarfs
that are celebrated by this clique. They were silent. Not required to
voice opinion. I am not finding fault. Rajpal spoke out. Dwarfed
everyone. Including myself.