The Novel explores life better than a film – Prof. Ariyarathna Athugala | Sunday Observer

The Novel explores life better than a film – Prof. Ariyarathna Athugala

18 July, 2021

Prof. Ariyarathna Athugala a senior lecturer of the Department of Mass Communication, University of Kelaniya launched his first novel in Sinhala titled Saho recently. The book, published by Sarasavi Publishers set in a campus environment. Critics categorise it as a college novel or campus novel. Prof. Athugala was a former Chairman of Sri Lanka’s national broadcaster Rupavahini and a former Director General of Department of Government Information. He has published many books including two teledrama scripts namely Sittara Gurunnanse and Thun Biya and a biography of Joe Abeywickrema, a foremost leading actor in Sri Lanka. The Sunday Observer spoke to him to discuss his novel, art of the novel and current literary scene.


Q: The novel Saho is categorised by some critics as a campus novel?

A: I am not bothered about the labels. I closely associate with the university, and, therefore, it is not surprising that the book set in a campus environment. When I was writing the book, I didn’t try to attach any other novelistic genre than a novel. I wanted to write in my own way. I think I have succeeded.

Q: Do you think the story is relevant in the present context?

A: Yes, the story begins with a death of a university student who is a socialist revolutionary. Then, four people wonder who are responsible for the death. They all feel guilty about and worry about it. Finally, the book speaks not about the dead man’s life, but about the lives of four people who are regretting. In fact, the real culprit of the death is socio-political forces behind them. Because of that they allow themselves to be accepted the guilty.

This is not my direct experience, but I saw and heard so many similar incidents as I witnessed two youth insurgencies and was closely associated with the university. I tried to catch the inner thread of the tragedy of youth. Therefore, the novel is still relevant today.

Q: The book was written on the basis of your cinema script?

A: Yes, I first wrote a cinema script from the plot. But due to the prevailing Covid pandemic, I couldn’t work on the film further. So I was left with my film script and during the Covid curfew period I began to write a novel from that. In the end, things turned out to be better and I could explore the lives in the script more deeply.

Q: Do you believe that novel can explore the life more deeply than film?

A: Of course. the Novel can pierce life and touch inner self, finding intricacies of life more deeply and thoroughly than film. The reason behind it is language through which one can examine life more intensely, whereas with film images you cannot go that far. In this case, I became aware that there are many more aspects in the university life that we didn’t touch, that we never entered, notwithstanding 30 years of my career as a university lecturer, after I finished the novel. I understood this fact just because of writing the novel.

I don’t think the film of this novel which is due to release soon, would enlighten me like this book. Novel is the only media that can catch the life more deeply as far as I’m concerned. For example, the novel Gamperaliya explores life and society more widely than its film.

Q: Can we categorise one artistic media is better than the other?

A: It’s a controversial thing. In my opinion, language is more powerful to express oneself. If you go to depict a sexual scene through a film, you might have it censored. But you can depict the exact scene with its nuances and intricacies through language without any censorship - you even feel its scent with words.

Artistic genres are different from each other, but still I find language or words are more powerful than any other artistic media.

Q: Then, one can enjoy your novel and the film as separate works?

A: Definitely, they are separate works. You shouldn’t go to compare them, or else it might disturb your enjoyment. In fact, the novel presents mental images while the film presents visual images.

You have no boundaries in mental images as you have to create them yourself, but with visual images you don’t want to create them, already you have them, all you need to do is just see them. This is why you can enjoy two genres separately.

Q: How do you define novel?

A: Novel is a series of mental pictures that comes through the language or words.

Q: How long did you take to finish Saho?

A: It took one year to finish, but it was written in two phases, first is writing the script, and second is writing the novel. Generally, time taking task is building up the story in your mind. So, though I finished it within a year, it might have taken more time if I had started it without the script. It’s not easy to write a novel with great sensitivity.

Q: A writer also changes when one is going on with a novel. Is that correct?

A: Of course, I was also changed to a different person when I finished the novel. It is the potential of novel, without that one cannot attract to it.

Everything is changing with writing, novel is changing, novelist is changing, and even the reader is changing.

Though we stop the novel at certain stage, it’s not ultimate, because when I start to proof read, I once again write it. Hence, there is no ending to a novel.

Q: Do you try to follow some writer when writing?

A: No, though I admire writers such as Simon Nawagattegama, Ediriweera Sarachchandra, I don’t follow them. I feel I kill my novel, if I do so. Some people say one has to take advantage from the language of the classical Sinhala literature, but I don’t feel like that. A language of a story is built up by the experiences written in the story. I don’t try to add up unnecessary aesthetic value to the text by following or imitating a classical literary language. My teledramas are also like that, I never decorate them with unnecessary rhetoric.

Q: What’s your first thought when you finished the book?

A: I thought why I couldn’t write a novel before this. I think the basic foundation for any art is novel writing, even for script writing it is very much needed to start with a novel. Every high art has a certain literary quality and that quality automatically comes to you if you start with fiction writing. When I produced the teledrama Sittara Gurunnanse some time ago, many of my friends asked me why I didn’t write a novel from it. Now I feel it is quite right, if you want to be successful in any art, you first engage in literature to some extent.

Even for a painter or a photographer or a good teacher, novel reading and writing is very much needed, because it energise your language, it strengthens your quality of self expression. Our kings before centuries ago advocated literature, literary taste was always with the erudite people, with high class society, with artists during that time. In fact, there is no any other medium than the literature that gives the reader pleasure of language. Most of the time we cannot enjoy a paint without someone’s help, but we can enjoy literature ourselves.

Q: Do you think imaginary world of a writer is similar to that of the reader?

A: In my view, the novel depends on the mental images. These images ought to come easily for a reader, if not you cannot enjoy the book. And as a reader I look for the subtext, not the upper text too. As a writer, I don’t worry about depicting the reality, I enjoy my imaginary world. My imaginary world often does not conform to outside reality.

It is a reality that I build up in my mind. In a way, there is no reality to depict. Reality is always changing, if someone attempts to depict the reality as exactly as possible, it becomes total rough one. In my view, fiction writer is always beyond the reality. When he writes, he doesn’t bother about the so called reality, but to take delight from the writing – from the language, giving pleasure to the reader too. With that pleasure a reader can have wisdom as the ultimate result of fiction.

Q: You have worked as an administrator, a lecturer, teledrama director, stage drama producer. What’s the ideal job for a writer?

A: The problem that you intend to talk about arises not from the job, but from the weakness of our job structure. In fact, we have no any administrator who has an artistic taste, knowledge about art and therefore, they do not understand the value of art and its issues. So you never can expect an admiration for a writer or artist from that type of administrator. In this background you cannot engage in writing as a writer. Yet a half a century ago, administrators knew art, they enjoyed art. Even we had politicians who wrote fiction such as I.M.R.A. Iriyagolla, T.B. Ilagaratne. Today we have no such people.

If we have politicians and administrators who enjoy art, any writer or artist can survive. Do you know, our film industry is quickly dropping fast now? Many countries such as France and America take serious measures to uphold the film industry during this Covid pandemic. France gives huge loans and various incentives for film makers, they even cutting down taxes. As a result, more films were produced during the latter part of last year in contrast to the beginning of the year. But sadly, we do not aware of them, and we have no any sensitivity towards film during this pandemic.

You asked me about the ideal job for a writer. At first most of our writers were newspaper journalists. Then, they came from the university. For instance, Dr. Sarachchandra, Dr. Siri Gunasinghe, Prof. Miniwan P. Thilakarathne, Prof. Somarathne Balasuriya, Prof. A.V. Suraweera could write books while working as a lecturer. However, today, it’s a difficult task to engage in writing while lecturing, because administrators in the university consider writing books is an external affair, it is not relevant to the university. In fact, nobody in the university now encourages writing.

Q: You mean the literary taste among the university crowd has decreased?

A: Definitely. Sometimes students read books, but lecturers don’t. It is sad to say that there isn’t anyone among the university lecturers who read my novel Saho. They have built up their own world at the university and never see things beyond that.

Q: Are you working on another novel?

A: I began to make a teledrama, but couldn’t complete it because of the Covid. However, I wrote a scholarly book on virtual communication. Now it has been published and readers can enjoy reading. Some people say they can’t concentrate on writing during the Covid-19, but it is not a factor for me. On the contrary, I got a huge free time because of the Covid-19, so I spend that time on writing.