Contemporary Sinhala novel and its future
“New generation of novelists should expand the vistas
of expressive idiom in Sinhala” Prof. K. N. O. DharmadasA:
In an interview with Sunday Observer, Prof. K.N.O. Dharmadasa
expresses his candid views on the state of contemporary Sinhala novel
and the important role of novelist as creator of expressive idiom in
Q: In the context of globalisation, the Sinhala novel is at
cross-roads. Contemporary writers are increasingly looking for
structures and are greatly influenced by post modern writers. How do you
perceive the contemporary Sinhala novel?
A: We have to place the Sinhala novel in a historical context.
Sinhala novel was born hundred years ago. Starting from the early novels
by Albert de Silva and Piyadasa Sirisena, the Sinhala novel has been for
quite sometime, in the shadow of our (Sinhalese) ancient classical
Early Sinhalese novelists such as Albert de Silva and Piyadasa
Sirisena derived inspiration from classical writing. Their purpose was
to advise society and to give a religious message with didactic content
through a prose narration. Very often they depict even the contemporary
events in such a way that in the end goodwill triumphs over the evil.
In a way these authors had the notion that literature has to be
socially relevant in a correct way. Why I am highlighting this point is
that today, social relevance does not mean what earlier novelists meant
I think that the early novelist thought that they had a duty by the
society, by highlighting the triumph of good over evil. They thought
that was the social responsibility of a good novelist, purpose of the
novel and that a good writer has the welfare of society in mind.
He has to portray society in such a way that the morals, what you
call ‘Saradharma’ (ideals) and norms of society are upheld and they are
not violated. Today the writers do not take that point of view into
Their attitude is: ‘we are also depicting society but we depict good
as well as evil’ and very often it is the evil that is highlighted.
For example, see what is depicted in television. We have twelve odd
television channels and every hour teledramas being telecast. Most of
the teledramas depict unsavoury aspects of life and I feel some of them
are unrealistic; families are broken, husbands have love affairs with
women other than their wives and wives have affairs with men other than
All kinds of evil aspects are highlighted. The prime time television
very often has this nature of message which I think, is not good for the
Although they may reflect some kind of reality, it is not the reality
as it is apparent to us. This is why we admire writers like Albert
Silva, Piyadasa Sirisena, W. A. Silva and even Martin Wickramasinghe.
Although Martin Wickramasinghe wrote realistic novels, he did not depict
these kinds of affairs. There was a kind of restrain.
A writer operates in society. He or she has a power. How does a
writer use that power? Is he or she using that power for the good of the
society or for the disruption of society? We did not think in these
lines in our youth but now in maturity, I believe that the art produced
in a society has to be for the well-being of the society while
maintaining the balance and not be disruptive. Even in other aspects
such as economic, social balance has to be sustained and promoted.
That is a kind of task expected from a person who wields power,
especially of a writer who wields real power. Artists, theatre
personalities, filmmakers have to think of their impact of the work on
society. We were nurtured by a tradition. The writers Albert Silva,
Piyadasa Sirisena and Martin Wickramasinghe were rather conservative and
wanted to maintain the social balance.
During the middle of the last century, a revolutionary movement was
born which looked at the society from a different perspective. I refer
to early novels by Gunadasa Amerasekara. In the novels Yali Upannemi and
Depa Noladdo, Gunadasa Amerasekara deals with sex in a revolutionary way
which never before found expression in the Sinhala novel. Yali Upannemi
was an extremely revolutionary novel. In our young days we admired the
writer for bringing this subject to discussion and it was a
Looking back even the writer Gunadasa Amerasekara was critical of the
novel, saying that he was not reflecting social reality and he got
material from English novelists like D. H. Lawrence and French writers
for his work.
These western writers tried to depict society in Europe and not in
Sri Lanka. For example, the plot of Yali Upannemi depicts a sex life of
a young man. Some of these situations he tries to recreate are not real
and they are not really found in Sri Lankan society. Gunadsa Amerasekara
was critical of these novels and he did not agree with the sentiments
expressed in them.
Q: What is the pivotal role that the Peradeniya School played in the
formation of the Sinhala novel?
A: So there was a revolution which Gunadasa Amerasekara attributed to
the Peradeniya School of Literature. Gunadasa Amerasekara, Siri
Gunasinghe and Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra spearheaded the movement.
In none of his works, Prof. Sarachchandra did openly discuss sex. But,
sometimes, he gave subtle suggestions. I wonder whether one can put the
blame on Prof. Sarachchandra when it was stated that the Peradeniya
School brought out these novels. In his criticism of the novel “Modern
Sinhalese Fiction “(1943) and in the ‘Sinhala Navakatawa’ (The Sinhalese
Novel) (1950), he criticised Piyadasa Sirisena for being didactic
writer, moralist, rejecting modernity and being conservative. That
criticism may be appropriate at that time.
Because we were trying to look forward and forge ahead and develop
our new literary genre. In that context, Prof. Sarachchandra was
correct. I wonder whether he encouraged kind of situations that were
written about in Yali Upannemi and Depa Noladdo. I recollect that he
wrote a review on Yali Upannemi and praised it as a good piece of
literature. Apart from that I do not think he went on nurturing this
type of writing. If he did so, he himself could have written this type
of novels. I think he adhered to a very traditional way of looking at
life. He was very careful not to cross certain lines which he drew
Simon Navagattegama who came after the Peradeniya School was a unique
figure. He had his own perspective of looking at society. From Sansara
Arana, Dadayakkaraya to Sapekshani, the way he deals with sex, I feel,
is artificial. He depicts sexual aspect of life as mystique and
overdoing it. Sex is a part of life and people have other concerns.
Q: Over the years, Sinhalese novel evolved a form which is unique to
it. How do you define this coming of age of the Sinhalese novel?
A: For instance, Gunadasa Amerasekara, in his latest book ‘Nosevuna
Kadapatha’, deals with not only a novel but also with the literary
landscape. What he is trying to say is that there are certain realities
of the society which the novelist should reflect. Why aren’t we looking
for that mirror which reflects social realities beyond appearances.
After Martin Wickramasinghe’s Gamperaliya and Viragaya, a new generation
of novelists emerged like K. Jayatilake. As far as the realistic
movement is concerned, K. Jayatilake is very important. He was depicting
the social transformation in the village in the 20th century in Sri
Lanka. K. Jayatilake and A. V. Suraweera wanted to look beyond the
social facade and look at social forces at work. For instance, how the
older village hierarchy, the people of high caste and people of high
standards are loosing their grip and the middle class comes up; the
newly emerged business class, schoolteachers and Government servants who
were asserting their power and the old system was breaking down. Though
Martin Wickramasinghe did the same, these new writers did it more
In K. Jayatilaka’s Charita Thunak (Three Characters), he depicts
three characters; Elder brother and two younger brothers. One of them
becomes a schoolteacher and asserts his identity and economic power in a
very strong way because he is educated. He also tries to amass wealth
and tries to become a powerful figure in society. Third brother who is a
school dropout wasted his life drinking and loitering. The eldest
brother, who is the narrator, looks at this transformation from a
detached point of view. Social transformation is looked from the eyes of
one person. In a way depicting this transformation, Jayatilake is
superior to Wickramasinghe.
Wickramasinghe’s depicting of transformation is too detached to be
felt in the heart. This is where Gunadasa Amerasekara is stronger than
even Jayatilake. The way he deals with social transformation is very
intimate. He uses very, evocative, poetic language and emotion-laden
language and the novel use of folk idiom. In the use of spoken idiom to
depict social situations, characters and their emotions, Gunadasa
Amerasekara stands as one of the greatest literary figures, Sri Lanka
had produced in the 20th century.
I find when I read new novelists’ work, they are more concerned about
structures and how they are trying to relate to Western novel and
post-modernistic structures rather than intimate depiction of their
If they spend half of the time on Sinhala language and its
expressiveness and how one can use it to depict what they want to
depict. That is where they failed. No Sinhala reader would feel these
novels are about them and depiction of society they live in. They do not
see expressiveness which is deeply embedded in our idiom. The older
generation of novelists advise new writers to read all the classics
starting from Amawatura and study the folk idiom around. A novelist is
not only a* *man who derives from idiom but also a creator of idiom. For
instance, Gunadasa Amerasekara is a creator of idiom and in his works
like Jeevana Suwanda, he has extended the frontiers of language. Three
novels selected for Swarna Pustaka Award were serious novels. As a
person who enjoyed good literature and who wish our literature to
flourish and language to be more powerful, I would invite new writers to
extend the vistas of our expressive idiom of Sinhala and to make it more
subtle to depict emotions and situations in a novel manner. Novelist is
a thinker with a penetrative vision who tries to see social forces at
work, psychological forces at work and realities brought about by
globalisation and youth issues. The new generation should go beyond
expressive idiom used by Martin Wickramasinghe or Gunadasa Amerasekara
and it is where the future of the Sinhalese novel should lie.