Madhubashini Dissanayake-Ratnayaka is on the run. Her colleague is on the phone with a question related to work, her younger daughter is waiting for a ride (they're late for chess class), her elder daughter will need to be picked up soon and her usual parking spot was taken. The mother of two wouldn't usually expect to find a journalist keeping her company on her many errands, but the news that Madhu's first novel 'I Have Something to Tell You' was the winner of the 2011 Gratiaen Prize is still fresh. Now Madhu must squeeze a session of 'basking in the spotlight' somewhere into her overflowing calendar.
People who know something of her demanding schedule can seldom resist the temptation to ask Madhu, marvelling, 'how do you find the time to write?' For the author, however, the crucial question is a different one - how could she not find the time? "I live half my life in the car," she tells me. She is constantly composing paragraphs in the notebook in her head - waiting in traffic and washing dishes are prime writing time, each strangely akin to meditation. She is a voracious reader. Offer her a few minutes off and Madhu will reach for a book. It's a family joke that she keeps her library in her car - currently Junot Dias is nestled in the space under her windshield. "Every life has to have a meaning and for me that meaning comes because I am a writer," Madhu says. Her whole being is caught up in her young family but her private, literary life is as essential, albeit in a very different way. "I have my dark days when everything gets onto my head, but reading and writing is like my pressure valve," she says. Have Something to Tell You,' a large, somewhat intimidating manuscript had a gestation of nearly three decades. Not that she was writing all that time, Madhu hurries to clarify - but that she encountered some of her characters early on and found that they needed more pages than she could spare at that time. "It was exhilarating to watch it come together. I have been living with those characters and exploring those ways of thinking and being for a long time," she says. Her first publication 'Driftwood' (1991) won her the State Literary Award for the Best Collection of Short Stories in English. Years later, she would follow on that success with two books in quick succession, both of which would make the Gratiaen shortlist - 'Tales of Shades and Shadow' (2002) and 'A Strange Tale of Love' (2004) were collections that equipped Madhu to take on the challenge of constructing a full length novel.
Now, she knows the finished product needs a little more work - readers have told her that 'I Have Something to Tell You' was perhaps over long and that they're never sure whose story they are actually following, as her numerous subplots only gain in intricacy as the novel progresses. Madhu, who agrees with much of the criticism levelled at the work, would like to explore ways of reorganising the book rather than reconceptualising it entirely. She is fiercely determined to retain its complexity - believing that the reader should have the issues she is presenting to them couched in a luxuriantly detailed context.
The one line description of her novel is that it is about "seven characters growing up in the latter half of the 20th century". Her characters are young people for most part, about to undergo the test of their idealism. As a writer, Madhu finds their youth provides a rich vein for a story teller to mine.