King Swarnamali the Great | Sunday Observer

King Swarnamali the Great

22 August, 2021

Making a genuine effort to bring an unimagined and unexplored treasure trove of modern Sinhala literature to the English reading community, Montage is bringing Udayasiri Wickramaratne’s debut novel Swarnamali Maha Raja translated by veteran journalist, writer and poet Malinda Seneviratne.

Swarnamali Maha Raja (King Swarnamali the Great) is an imaginative journey with the disgraced Price Gemunu during his self-imposed exile.


Chapter 5

The sound of the Kotmala Oya meandering far away blended into the world around like a lilting melody. The harvest, gathered over several tiring days rose majestically upon the threshing floor, glowing in the gold of the evening sun. It stood as though lulled to sleep by the harvest songs and threshing song throughout these days. And just like the heaped rice, the minds and sensibilities of one and all seemed lulled to rest. The surroundings, as though infected by this sense of peace, in turn exuded lilting waves that calmed both body and mind. 

The wind, apparently, had decided to stroll leisurely, taking in the beauty of the landscape, tarrying awhile to converse with the foliage. An aged plantain leaf in a hoarse voice spoke with the passing wind. The tender leaves reaching unto the skies responded with but the slightest tremble the presence of a stranger unacknowledged and then turned their eyes upwards once again. The wind as though registering objection to perceived slight, left. And then there was silence. Stillness. 

A strange coolness has descended upon the threshing floor. The ho-ho sound from the stream spoke of a quarrel — the wind, which had walked away slowly after exchanging pleasantries with the plantain trees, was arguing with the kumbuk and bamboo that made a wall along the banks. This too subsided after a while; as though the wall of trees had relented, moving leaves and trunks to make way for the wind. 


Gemunu steeled his mind and looked at Ranmenika. He was surprised to see that she was looking at him. It wasn’t the first time Ranmenika had looked at Gemunu, but those were the eyes that a lady cast on a slave. On this occasion, he was perplexed by the expression on her face. He immediately tried to understand the reason for his confusion. 

It was not the face he had seen on other occasions. There was no lady evident in this face, he instantly realised. It was Ranmenika, the very same. At the same instant Gemunu realised it was the first time he had looked at her directly.  On other days too Gemunu had looked at Ranmenika. However, there was no one Gemunu feared more than her. Even a slight apprehension on his countenance or the cowardice that ruled his thoughts would generate an equal and opposite sense of pride within him. The pride evident on her face was a measure which told Gemunu the extent of his own timidity. It was not just timidity, but she exuded the opposite of his every weakness. His insincerity reflected as sincerity upon her. Whereas he vacillated, she was still. He was indolent but she was all industry. In fact when he looked at her it was himself that Gemunu saw. It was for this very reason that he was fearful of looking at her.  At first he made an effort not to look at Ranmenika. As time went on he gradually realised how precious it was that the joy of seeing her could be exchanged for the weak, slothful, insincere truth of his being that reflected off her. When he looked upon her beautiful face it wasn’t joy that he first felt. Recognising immediately the sincerity, purity, nobility and composure she reflected, he would see the broken image of himself composed of their polar opposites, weak, fallible and cowardly. And at that very moment his heart would catch fire. It was, thereafter, in the midst of all that, that it dawned on him that is felt utmost joy upon seeing her. For this reason, just as a child would fear a flame, he was fearful of Ranmenika. He strived not to look at her.

Battling with kiribath

In any event, he finally learnt to look at Ranmenika’s face and to talk with her only after he started talking with her grandmother. Her kiriamma found nothing more amusing than watching Gemunu consumed the piping hot milk-rice served to him in the early days of his stay in their house. Kiriamma watched this young man do battle with the kiribath as though witnessing a theatrical farce. She found it highly entertaining to see this well built and intelligent looking young man struggling to eat kiribath.

It was after about a week of being entertained thus that she finally taught him how to eat kiribath. However, perhaps as price for the entertainment her voice seemed to tremble with the compassion that had possessed her. The truth was that her voice always trembled. Nevertheless, the pity she felt about this young man who couldn’t even eat kiribath properly manifested itself as a quivering tone as she spoke. For Gemunu, though, it was unmistakably a melody. It was less her words than the rhythm of her tone that enabled Gemunu to understand her. 

‘My son, do you want to do battle with the kiribath or do you want to eat it? If this way pleases you, then just go ahead. If you kiribath delicious when it burns your throat, so be it. If not….’

Listening to her, Gemunu immediately realised that he was furious both at everything he was as well as the entire universe external to him. If this was not the case why would he consider as a sworn enemy the dish with kiribath offered only to satisfy his hunger?


Gemunu instantly realised that what exists between him and the world outside was competition and his own attitudes which did not attribute any value to the notion of collectivity. Isn’t this why he was consumed by impatience the moment the dish was in his hands? When his gaze fell on the hot kiribath, he salivated. However, since the kiribath was too hot to satisfy his greed, a sense of anger at the food arose within him. The battle would then begin. Both parties suffer. The kiribath scorched Gemunu’s lips, mouth and throat. He would eventually finish off the kiribath.

Now, however, there was no anger. He understood that the temperature was part of the kiribath flavour. The warmth was a flavour that he allowed his fingers to caress. He calmly rolled it into balls.  

Kiriamma wasn’t pleased when she noticed the young man revert to his former ways on days he was troubled. She would rebuke him. It was only after being chided several times that Gemunu learned to first turn the steaming kiribath into balls and then eat them one by one until he had his fill.

And by this time, Prince Gemunu had also learnt to bare his heart to Kiriamma. The prince realised that speaking with her was easier than making conversation with a baby. This is how Gemunu’s flaming heart, as scorched as the kiribath, began to cool.