7th February 1999
CHANNELS, Volume 7, No. 2 Edited by Madhubashini Ratnayake Published by the English Writers Co-operative of Sri Lanka. Reviewed by Carl Muller
I, for one, am glad that Madhubashini Ratnayake edited Volume 7, No. 2 of "Channels". After all, it is a Journal of Creative Writing, and in this particular issue, a young, strong-minded and refreshingly enthusiastic "creator" (Madhubashini herself) has given us a heady mix of the old and new, a sort of uncovering and a "hey presto!" that gives to this particular issue a crispy charm that lingers on the tongue (prawn crackers?), tittilates the taste buds (rum omlette?) and fills with the same satisafaction of pittu and ba'bath curried black. I mean to say, this particular edition of "Channels" is, in a sense, an odyssey of sorts. But let's cut the gaff, shall we, and come to grips. Or rather, it's time to tuck in and think of Erica Jong when I see what Aparna Halpe has to offer. Two small candles, true, on the altar of a highly-honed individualism, but they shout for attention and you begin to think that sleeplessness is a special gift; for tossing, turning, shutting your eyes and finding that sleep has checked out two flights ago, is to make the mind take wing, lusting after that repose that simply will not come.
Aparna's "In Somnambula" is just as crafty as the manner of her title. "In -" to be in that space where Sleep lies awake.... on "Insomnambula" which is that mental sleep-walking in a trance of not-sleeping, not-waking, making of "ambula" one's own celestial omnibus (ambulance?). Rightly, too, there are no nightmares. Only the acidity of old spit trapped between tongue and teeth and the dozey sense of the wraps around you, from the rumple of a coverlet that invades the smooth flesh of a calf to the inconsiderate tug of silk where your nightdress stretches, trapped between crossed legs. You feel the heat of the night, a heat that cannot go away because you will not leave it behind.
Aparna has not given us much of herself, and this, to English literature in Sri Lanka, is a darned shame. Her second poem, "Untitled" is so painfully simple that its ten lines may ask the same question Jesus would have said to Mary as He dangled in divine delirium from that cross of shame:
"Woman, why do you cry
The Bible tells us that Mary made no answer. She grieved at the cross. She did what a mother was expected to. Aparna also admits:
"I have no answer."
Alfreda de Silva's "The Return of Ulysses" tells us of the vagrant man, his to-ing and fro-ing, a seeker who searches for the surprises beyond the horizon of his patient home where the one who loves him waits, much like the Lady of Shallot, wasting her vitality at the loom, waiting for the salty kisses of his return, the wild surging of the sea. Is this what conjugal love is? Those sudden moments of ecstacy after unnumbered fallow years?
There is such bitter defeatism in that waiting time as Sanjeewa Karunanda tells us of the wife, growing big with child, beginning to realise that her burden is simply that - a burden. To her husband, her swelling belly is the promise of name, of fame, of a true Sinhala Buddhist son in this Sinhala Buddhist land. What does the mother feel? This, her belly- burden, is not of her name, not of her at all. She is a vehicle - an oil-driven vehicle on a journey that began at impregnation and will end with final delivery.
Do I see something, oh, so tele-dramatic on Eva Ranaweera's "The Mute". Somehow our script writers seem to find this need to bring on the village idiot, the village villain, show with some perverse pride the abject poverty of the Wanni hut, the staggering man with his mouth full of slurring curses and his veins pumping arrack laced with battery acid. What is home then? How will the mute husband brand his superiority upon the woman he harbours? His relief is his nut world, his humanity is his nut smile. Voiceless, he finds satisfaction in the coconuts he picks, imagining every thud! of their fall. And his Leela can make noise.... and hear it. It is so unfair!
A firmness of approach comes from a young and outstanding writer, Thilini Rajapakse. Her story, "The Ending" is poignant in that it carries in it that hopelessness of days when much of a woman's role is played out and all she has are those yellowlight dreams of yesterday. Her poem "Orange Moon" is, again, a deft play on opinion where, be it sun or moon or simply a lamp beckoning from across the hill, father drives on, eyes on the road, the intent figure of a man who takes his responsibilities heavily.
How often do we suddenly look down, see our idols with their feet of clay? Tissa Kariyawasam's excellent story, "I Meet a Dancer", ably translated by Vijitha Fernando, not only brings on this realisation but also expresses full well the reaction of the wife who grows brighter in mind because her fears are allayed.
Another young writer, Harini Apsara Haputhanthri, tells us of her canine Romeo and Juliet. I do remember telling her, and gently too, that he had invested a tad more than could be expected of a love-lorn dog, she did see the point and promised to reconsider the ending. Yet, all the fickleness, the emotion, the love-play, the by-play of Juliet with two strings to her bow, is beautifully presented.
Ashley Halpe's little loon call is charged with the density of winter, the opacities of falling snow, the spell of space and the windless quiet. The utterly different Maine wilderness, that more conclusive sound than the crackling undergrowth of Sri Lanka's wild lands where the polonga slithers and the leeches reach out, standing on their suckers to appease their bloodlust.
"Channels" simply had to have three beautiful tales by Maureen Seneviratne ("The Traps of Time"), Punyakanti Wijenaike ("Retirement"), and Wilfrid Jayasuriya ("Testing Reality").
Balayagini Jeyakrihnan's poem "October 1987" is as harsh music, Staccatto-rapped. Torn bodies laid in a mass grave.... what can one wish for there-
"....lumps of flesh
Only a prayer for peace. Peace for the slain, the slayers, those who strive to end the carnage.
Two poems by Premini Amerasinghe are strong seedlings indeed, telling us that the poet must surely pursue her art. "Tendrils" is a wordplay on the fashioning of this art, while "A New Poem", reminds us, like the story of the man who took his ass to market that no poet should recraft for the dull acceptance of the many and cut out the flavour, the bliss, the very heartbeat of creativity. Another newcomer, Sanjeewa Karunanda, brings a freshness that is almost self-accusing. Of what use is the circular room facing the garden, that perfect setting, when a triangular patch of thigh dashes all inspiration. In "Kiri Amma", the memories of childhood, of old singsong tales swell.... swell to disperse the paraphernalia of an English Honours. Old days and new.... and what is better?
Chiranti Rajapakse's "Beginnings" could well be, for Susila, a procession of endings between boarding school and home, while her poem "Memory" is that sharp cut-back to the child's world of make-believe. Another intriguing poem, "CEO: Home and Co" by Amantha Perera puts us into that time of aspiration where every CV is xeroxed and broadcast with pride (and hope), makes the starry-eyed job seeker think of that executive ladder (top rung, please) and then the pitfalls of so high a perch....
Anne Ranasinghe's radio play, "Who Am I" may have done better had it been truly localised, but surely it is disguised thinly enough.
I have kept Jean and Parvathi Arasanayagam for the last because, in both poems one sees a sort of "tearing away". Parvathi's "The Trees Shed their Leaves" takes us back - no, drags us back, willing or not, to the torture cell.... and to a time beyond when those who stamped vilely on the blossoms of youth are also condemnend to lie on the cold cement.
Marana Manchakaye Dutu Sihinaya - by Gunadasa Amarasekera. Reviewed by Edmund Jayasuriya
Writing a short pref- ace to his collec tion of new short stories - Marana Manchakaye Dutu Sihinaya (Dream on a Deathbed) Amarasekera pinpoints certain problems in modern Sinhala fiction. He laments there had been stagnation for some time as themes were concerned, and attempts made to come out of this had resulted in literature that was far removed from reality.
"In the West the post-modernist novel was contrived as a way out of this impasse where form was given pride of place over content. Writers who could not face the challenges posed by capitalism and consumerism, and evolve a humanist thought or philosophy, sought refuge in post-modernism which was in effect a resurrection of the barren slogan 'art for art's sake.' Facing a similar situation that seems to increasingly envelop us day by day, our writers, too, seem to emulate the western literary fad."
Amarasekera quite rightly argues that the novelist is an intellectual who carries on an 'exalted' dialogue with his society; which in turn is stimulated by the existing political dialogue. Where such a dialogue is lacking, he adds, "the 'exalted' dialogue I referred to will become a simple narcissistic exercise; the novel will become mere self-expression devoid of social consciousness which is its main characteristic."
Quite apart from being stagnant most of the novels written during the last decade or so are superficial. Without doubt, it was a decade of unprecedented social and political upheavals. An open economy, political oppression, chicanery and intrigue, assassinations, and an ethnic war have been a part of our reality during the last few years. However, apart from a very few exceptions, there is no evidence to support that this vast social change has tended to expand thought, or stimulate the imagination of our writers. For instance, the few novels written on the ethnic problem only scratches the surface without exposing the gaping wound inside.
Two main reasons may be cited for this downfall. The first is that the history of the Sinhala novel does not go back to more than a century, and it does not provide much variety to the budding writer.
The second is the unprecedented development in communications, particularly the electronic media, which has dislodged the print word out of its earlier prominence, a trend visible anywhere in the world.
However, not all is lost. Amarasekera believes that during the last decade at least a handful of persons have begun to intensely question our concepts on nationalism, national identity, culture and political ideologies we have so far followed. It is in such a socio-cultural climate that the novelist could successfully function.
I have made the foregoing remarks because I believe that we must read Amarasekera's new stories against this background. His stories, from the earliest 'Ratu Rosamala', show the signs of a serious artist, sure of his craft, who handles his prose with consummate skill. However, his present collection of stories stands apart from the earlier ones because of the clearly visible difference in theme and expression.
All five stories in the collection deal with some of the main political and social events that took place during the last decade or so. Incidents in some stories are so thinly veiled that the reader may take them as authentic incidents that happened in real life. By no means, are they, and it is important to keep this in mind if one does not want to miss the wood for the trees. What we see in the stories is a rediscovery and a restatement of human nature in all its variations.
In the story, entitled Son's Scholarship we see the plight of a man thrown into helplessness and tossed between cross currents of social events.
Gunatilaka is a tragic figure sandwiched between his love for his son and his love for his ideals. However his son, Sunanda, who has himself been jailed for being an activist, refuses to go to Sirinath to get the scholarship. In Sunanda's mind Sirinath is a person who tries to destroy the foundation of the Sinhala Buddhist Civilisation, as he could not secure social recognition owing to personal reasons. Sirinath belongs to a group of persons who try to take vengeance on Sinhala culture because they feel that they could not reach their aspirations because of it. Having joined a political movement Sunanda tries to earn his living quite independently of his parents. It is here that Gunatilaka confronts with the nightmarish question: is Sunanda not following his own ideal just as he himself did?
I am sure the reader would agree that these stories portray a literary ambience unfamiliar in Sinhala fiction. The unfamiliarity stems from the novelist's experimentation in attempting to view present social events under a new light. However, the mature artist he is, he does not make conclusions and leaves the reader to pick up what he will. Characters in these stories are like a group of weary travellers dazed in a desert, which perhaps is a metaphor that quintessentially captures the spirit of the times.
Anyone who is concerned with Sinhala fiction must take this collection of stories seriously. Not that they are perfect or that they are a model, but definitely, they break fresh ground as far as theme and its treatment are concerned.
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