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