Carl Muller: A literary life - Under the shade of the Jam Fruit Tree | Sunday Observer
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Carl Muller: A literary life - Under the shade of the Jam Fruit Tree

Yakada Yaka (Iron Devil) is a Sinhala term used by Sri Lankan children to describe trains, but it was Kala Keerthi Carl Muller who took that word to the wider world, with his book of the same name.

Muller, who passed away on December 2 aged 84, was one of the most versatile journalists, poets and authors in Sri Lanka whose fame spread far and wide. His name was often spoken in the same breath as Sri Lankan-born Canadian author Michael Ondaatje. Incidentally, Muller was a recipient of the Gratiaen Award established by Ondaatje to foster local writing talent.

Muller, an old boy of Royal College, Colombo, was one of the best known members of the Burgher community in Sri Lanka and unlike many others from that community, who chose to migrate, lived his whole life in Sri Lanka apart from a number of years he spent in the Middle East, working for newspapers there.

In fact, his famous trilogy The Jam Fruit Tree, Yakada Yaka and Once Upon A Tender Time mirrored the trials and tribulations of the Burgher community in Sri Lanka with a twist of irony and sarcasm on the side.

He was also an accomplished musician.

Muller’s was an eventful life. He was first a seaman for the Royal Ceylon Navy (aged 18) and thereafter he joined the Ceylon Army for a brief period. After a tumultuous and brief married life that ended rather too soon, he raised his first son Ronnie more or less on his own.

He married again at 35 and according to his family, would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary next year.

Muller discovered that he had a way with words, which he could use to good effect. Newspaper editors were only too happy to publish his wide-ranging contributions. In fact, until illness forced him to part ways with the pen, he regularly contributed to English newspapers from his home in Kandy.

He had a rare talent that only a few are blessed with – a penchant for writing satire and comedy. And of course, the ability to laugh at himself and even his own community. This was not surprising, given his sense of humour. He may not have been Politically Correct in much of his writing, but that was perhaps the prime reason for the popularity of his books here and abroad. The editors at Penguin were quick to realise his potential and offered him a multiple book contract. In the words of one his children “he was prolific in his writing, words were always his friends, and he could string them together to tell stories or expound facts as he saw fit.”

Muller was an exceptionally good novelist and won the State Literary Award for his historical novel Children of the Lion. He wrote two other historical novels – Colombo and City of the Lion. Spit and Polish and Maudiegirl: and the von Bloss Kitchen were also among his well-known works.

He even dipped his toes into science fiction, perhaps inspired by the legendary Arthur C Clarke, who called Sri Lanka home. Among his short stories were “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Cemetery, Birdsong & Other Tales, All God’s Children (shortlisted for the Gratiaen Award), The Python of Pura Malai and Other Stories and Wedding Night (2007)”. He also wrote a travel book called Indian Journeys.

Sri Lanka – A Lyric, Propitiations, A Bedlam of Persuasions, Clouds over my Senses, Read Me in Silence and The Thin Red Line were among his works of poetry. Ranjit Discovers Where Kandy Began (1992) was a book written especially for children. Many of his books have been translated into Sinhala, Tamil and several other languages. Muller may have passed away, but his books will continue to inform and entertain.

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