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Thursday, 17 June 2010






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Dimensioning of giant and dwarf in art and literature

I 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 outsourced.

The 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 explain.

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 quality-difference.

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 say ‘no’.

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.

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