The launch of Punyakante Wijenaike’s new book of short stories was on Tuesday, May 19 –the day Colombo was in celebration mode over the end to LTTE terror. As speakers Vijitha Fernando, Sumitra Peries and Lal Medawattegedera reflected on her work and her literary contributions over the past four decades, the quiet writer took the podium for a brief moment and chose to leave her audience with this quote:
“More than victory, let us celebrate the peace
There is a time and a time for peace
A time for keeping distance and a time for coming close
A time for silence and a time for words
A time for hate and a time for love
A time for uprooting and replanting
For a bounteous harvest…yet to come..”
That perhaps said it all. Of Punyakante, the writer, attuned to the society she lives in, alive to the changes, the conflicts, the contradictions, exploring and interpreting them for her readers.
‘That Deep Silence’ has as many as 39 short stories and poems, all brief and to the point, most focusing on characters engulfed by silences – silences of many kinds. She herself is still discovering the potential there is in silence. “Maybe I should have saved the title for a novel,” she muses as we sit down for a chat in the tranquillity of her Colombo home. As with any writer after the publication of one book, comes thoughts of the next. Writing is still to her a daily pastime as it has been for so many decades, the only difference being that her time is entirely her own now, not smuggled in between domestic duties. She’s made the uneasy transition, from typewriter to computer too, but confesses to moments of despair when she is almost reduced to tears, “when something I have written just disappears from the screen.” Thankfully grandchildren come to the rescue.
This was a book which she quite frankly admits she never really had planned to write. When her last book ‘Coming to Terms’ was published in 2006, Punyakante had quite decided it was time to call a halt. She smiles ruefully, “But I couldn’t stop.” The habit of so many years was too hard to break. And as the thoughts and stories flitted in, she jotted them down.
“The stories are very brief,” she says. “Most of them were prompted by certain incidents – one when I read in your newspaper about a father who had ill-treated his daughter on an estate - and a few are, of course, from my imagination.”
Stark and unvarnished, the poignant title story grabs the reader with its bleak despair. It is the story of a woman watching as her familiar world is dismantled and her home- the home she has cherished, the home of so many memories - is broken down and she herself has to be moved to an old people’s home as her daughter plans to build a high-rise apartment block in its place. It is a familiar if not commonplace occurrence in society today, but few could invest it with the kind of understanding that Punyakante has. As the elderly woman is wheeled away to the elders’ home, she retreats into mute despair, a silence she can cling to as her only strength, in the face of this abandonment by her own daughter who has been responsible for taking away all that is dear.
After that powerfully moving beginning, not all the stories in the book succeed in creating quite the same impact on the reader but there is in them that same deep insight into the human psyche that made critics take note of Punyakante’s work more than four decades ago.
It was 1963 when her first book of short stories ‘The Third Woman’ was published. It was a quieter, more stable world, but Punyakante then fully occupied with her young family still felt the compulsion to write, portraying rural life with a frankness few would have expected from the sheltered housewife that she was. Many novels followed as she grew as a writer, taking in the changing life and mores of her beloved country with a perceptive eye.
Film-maker Tissa Abeysekera whose rare talent was lost to us recently has expressed it brilliantly in this extract from his book ‘Roots, Reflections and Reminiscences’ published as a foreword to her book - “Now Punyakante has gathered enough courage and experience as a writer to look beyond the ‘small dark room with just a narrow window overlooking rooftops ( a reference to her book ‘Amulet’)…where white pigeons were cooing in the trelliswork. What she sees today is far from beautiful. It is a landscape of unmitigated brutality, violence and moral decay. She hears the wail of sirens or ambulances carrying the injured and the dead….A frightening scene but she surveys it with the courage of a true artist, and she has accepted responsibility of recording it and commenting on it so that we can replace our squandered treasure of humanity, toleration and good sense.”
Several stories and poems are drawn from the tumult and tensions of recent times. ‘Child Soldier’, ‘Mother Courage’, ‘The Distant Drum’ and ‘Pooja’ among others take their cues from the conflict while in ‘So Near and Yet So far’, ‘Ahinsa’, ‘Rebirth’ her strong religious convictions are apparent. Suicide, child abuse, homosexuality- problems that society shuns, are deftly portrayed. In ‘Love is Never Wrong’, Punyakante depicts the inner struggle of a young man to conform to society’s expectations whilst torn by the pull of a deeper love. Several short poems are interspersed with the stories.
The speakers at the book launch offered their own different views of Punyakante. Taking as an example the two stories ‘That Deep Silence’ and ‘Ashes to Ashes’ writer Lal Medawattegedera analysed Punyakante’s handling of the characters, each trapped in a different kind of silence and how silence is the bridge, the common thread that runs through this book. “Maybe silence is one of our modern ills,” he reflected.
But Sri Lanka needs the voices of its writers- now more than ever. And in Punyakante’s long career, through many awards and accolades, it is the sincerity of her work that speaks.