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Novel changed course of Sinhala fiction


A novel exponent of conventional writing Sri Lanka's prominent novelist Martin Wickramasinghe's 120th birth anniversary falls on May 29, 2010. His novel published in 1944 changed the course of Sinhala fiction forever. It opens with a passage evoking a sense of time and place. This is perhaps the first time the Sri Lankan landscape entered into Sinhala writing either in prose or verse. In the entire range of classical Sinhala poetry and prose there is not a single memorable passage which captures the splendour of the Sri Lankan landscape nor the rich texture of its life.

Over 75 years ago an intelligent child could not grow up in Koggala without acquiring a sense of curiosity about life and nature. On one side the village was bordered by the sea. A child would watch the huge waves hitting the coral reef forming a natural breakwater a few hundred yards from the shore. Seasonally or with low tide the water would recede and the little children would run along the beach deep into the sea collecting cowrie and sea anemone. There were many little islets in the river.

Children would creep along the marshy river bank among the kirala tees to watch fishermen perched patiently on their dugouts waiting for that tell tale tug on the line. On poya days they would run ahead of their parents to the village temple where they would be thrilled at the prospect of a cart ride to Paragoda Viharaya.

Where we stand today on Sinhala language and literature is hallowed ground. This is so for those who consider the Sinhala language and culture as their heritage. But for the man who was born here over a century ago it would be too narrow a definition. His works so massive and all pervasive by any standard cover practically every aspect of our country. It looks at the landscape of Sri Lankan history and culture through a surprisingly modern critical perspective.

Martin Wickramasinghe was born in Koggala. In his childhood experiences in the village how some of the influences which fashioned his vision of Sinhala culture, religion and literature could be seen. As Wickramasinghe himself says as a child he was amazed by the natural life that surrounded his village. From the sea anemone and the water slug the tadpole and the infinite variety of fish he learnt of the wonders of natural evolution.

If he was an early rationalist and if his literary and social criticism is full of continuous change and growth we may seek the beginnings of that vision in his experiences at Koggala. At a time when Sinhala writers believed that they were descendants of angels Wickramasinghe in his 'Satwa Santhathiya' argued convincingly that they were after all descendants of Apes. He was then a rationalist and a Darwinian evolutionist.

Facets of culture and social organisation were studied as aspects of a culture which were not only inter linked but also subject to continuous change. It is this vision of change that comes through most clearly in Wickramasinghe's literary works. In Wickramasinghe we find a novel exponent for the conventional writer. Time is the hero of his triology Gamperaliya, Kali Yugaya and Yuganthaya. The titles themselves suggest the author's preoccupation with time, change and upheaval. but these changes are observed with a degree of detachment perhaps even amusement for Wickramasinghe is wise enough to know that the more we change the more we remain the same!

Wickramasinghe's great achievement is that he helped us look back without false pride and nostalgia. Classical works which rested securely and unchallenged on the top shelf of our literary hierarchy came under Wickramasinghe's critical scrutiny. His writings created values and standards which moulded our sensibility.

Only translations of his novels and a couple of slim volumes written in English are available. He found Buddhism and Marxism to be congenial philosophies. He was attracted by the Buddhist perception of change. In his view it was the rational values of Buddhism that conditioned and created Sinhalese.

Wickramasinghe was in the line of cultural rebels who questioned the endocentric view of Sinhala culture, religion and history. For over 40 years he went on plugging his theories of Sinhala culture and Art. In his Kalu Nika Sevima and critical evaluations of traditional poetry he argued for the existence of an indigenous Buddhist folk tradition which challenged the pedantic Sanskritic culture of the elite who slavishly imitated Indian high culture.

It is this dialectic which makes Wickramasinghe's early writings on literature particularly 'Sinhala Sahithye Negima' and Guththila Geethaya easily the best pieces of literary criticism.

His analysis and insights into traditional poetry remain unparalleled despite the upheavals of the last 50 years the spirit of old Koggala survives in the folk museum. Like Devalegala which translates as the shrine rock the museum of Wickramasinghe is both an epitaph and a manifesto of a way of life that offers us values which are still relevant.

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