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Meeting Martin Wickremasinghe over Bava Tharanaya:

Sri Lanka’s renowned writer

Legendary author and sensational novelist Martin Wickremasinghe was living at Kirimandala Mawatha in Nawala. He was 80 then and the interview with me was being put off because he had an ailing tooth. Thousands of words and articles have been written about the writer who had been hailed among other platitudes as the Bard of Koggola - Koggola being the village he grew up and lived. Most of his writings were done there.

Legendary author

* Born : May 29, 1890
* Died : July 23, 1976 (aged 86)
* Occupation : Writer, Journalist, Novelist
* Literary career: Leela (1914) Lekhana (1919) Gamperaliya (1944) Yuganthaya (1948) Kaliyugaya (1957) Viragaya (1956) Bava Taranaya (1973)

 Martin Wickremasinghe

It was somewhere late 1970’s and Wickremasinghe’s latest book Bava Tharanaya - a novel fictionalizing the life of Prince Siddhartha before he attained Buddhahood and thereafter as Gautama, the Buddha - had stirred the orthodox sentiments of the Buddhist clergy. They, including the prelates, were up in arms denouncing the book as a literary blasphemy. Many of the protesters, as we discovered later, had not even read the book but joined the crusaders because the monks had initiated and led the protest. Some critics seized it as an opportunity to display a misplaced ardent allegiance to Buddhism.

Controversial work

It certainly was not a genuine protest against a piece of literature - it became near hysteria as the book acquired a certain notoriety as well as immense popularity as a controversial work of fiction. In the midst of all this agog Martin Wickremasinghe, apparently amused, sat in his studio, completely unperturbed and as detached as a meditating sadhu. We found him in that posture his eyes twinkling under the luxuriant snow-white mop of hair as we entered his house for the interview after his bad tooth had been attended to.

The Daily News was keen to interview him and write a story following the furore over the controversial Bava Tharanaya. I was assigned for the job. I was only too glad to meet the great author whom I had never met in person before. I had bought a copy of Bava Tharanaya read it and presented it to my daughter as a Vesak gift. I was well fortified though some colleagues were sceptical that I had read it, let alone heard of it.

Southern features

Clad in sarong and pajama shirt Wickremasinghe came out and greeted me profusely as I walked into his not too large modest home in Nawala. I introduced myself and in turn he introduced me to his wife Prema, a pleasant lady with rugged, Southern features like her famous husband’s.

What struck me most as I shook hands with the ageing, venerable writer was his cordiality, openness and extreme humility. He did not display any of the traits associated with a celebrity. He was like a simple villager in one of his novels set to a rural background. I was touched and it put me at ease. I was not awed in his presence.

He conducted me to his study where on numerous racks lay well-arranged hundreds of books. As we sat to talk wife Prema brought us Thambili which we sipped languidly. The interview was conducted both in English and Sinhala.

English conversation

Wickremasinghe confessed in English and Sinhala he was self-educated. I was amazed - he had written many books in English including the Mysticism of D H Lawrence. He was slow and deliberate in the English conversation and suddenly he told me with a smirk and child-like smile ......”

“I am eighty years old...”

These were mere preliminaries for the interview that would follow. Almost immediately I spoke about Bava Tharanaya - the attacks on him and the book. He nearly chortled.

“These people - the critics - do not seem to have read the book. If they did even remotely they had not read it with an intellectual perspective. Bava Tharanaya is fiction at a high literary realm. It should be read dispassionately. The reading should not be diluted by moral prejudices or fanatical religious beliefs. It is the first time that the story of Buddha and Prince Siddhartha has been told like a novel. I am a novelist and that medium cannot escape me. I spent a great deal of time in Bandarawela writing the book.

Independent author

“What the pundits say about the book I am not interested in. I have the capacity to ignore inane criticism. What I cannot understand is the empty fuss, the hue and cry over a work of fiction.”

At that moment his elder daughter Saparamadu walked in and perched herself on the armrest of his chair. I perceived clearly the filial admiration with which she looked at her father. Her look embodied all that was love. She digressed - “what about the manuscript of the second part of Upandasita...?

Her father smiled indulgently but like a child caught in the act of some demeanour. “I am sure I have misplaced it. It was somewhere tucked among the library books. I can’t find it. The daughter smiled knowingly - “don’t worry, I will find it for you.” I had a vague suspicion she was there to monitor our interview, but she only watched and listened without interrupting. Earlier there had been instances where the media had misquoted him. It was also one reason for the delay in granting me the interview besides the unfortunate tooth ailment. The family was concerned - there should be no repetition of the garbling by the press. Of course I was at an advantage: Martin Wickremasinghe began life as a journalist at Lake House - he was editor of both the Dinamina and Silumina. He quit to devote full time to write books as an independent author.

It is said that at Lake House only two persons were served tea in a pot: founder Chairman D R Wijewardena and Martin Wickremasinghe.

Average reader

Wickremasinghe leaned over and spoke to me like the old journalist: “How about a small drink?”

I nodded and with alacrity replied “Sure....” He got up and walked to the edge of the library where a small wooden cabinet stood like in a niche. He opened it and fetched a bottle of cognac. He placed the bottle on the table before us and Prema Wickremasinghe brought us two tumblers and two bottles of soda.

I opened the bottle and was about to pour a drink in his tumbler when he said: “I would have preferred arrack but unfortunately I have no arrack today,” and then he signalled me to go ahead. I served him a little shot and a rather sizeable one for me. We raised our tumblers and began to sip the drinks. He spoke after the mild pause “It must be said rather emphatically that the Buddha despite his enlightened state was a human-being. When he was out of Samadhi he felt the needs of any human being: hunger, thirst, the need for sleep. It was when he entered the supreme state of Samadhi that he was the supreme human being, the Buddha. These two are separate realms.”

Bava Tharanaya speaks about the Buddha out of Samadhi recalling his life with Yasodhara and son Rahula. In those recollections there was deep love. They were human feelings. Bava Tharanaya has been written not in the lucid simple style of prose that we are accustomed to in the works of Martin Wickremasinghe. Rather there is an academic style which is appropriate to a highly lofty subject. Wickremasinghe has eschewed completely the use of the Sanskritised words and phrases yet the whole gamut is realistically simple and could be easily grasped by the average reader.

 

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