King Swarnamali, the Great | Sunday Observer

King Swarnamali, the Great

5 September, 2021

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

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

Chapter 6

At first Gemunu worked like a machine from dawn to dusk as though he possessed not a mind but just a body simply as a way of forgetting his troubled mind. He would begin work before anyone else did. He was undeterred by rain or sun and cared not about how weary he was. As time went on he developed a love for his work. When it all began the only joy he derived was the fact that when he exerted his body his grief would abate. Later, however, he began to realise that farming gave him peace of mind.

The sun readying itself to scramble towards the earth from some other world would materialise before Gemunu like a strange dream from around three o’clock onwards. The aches of pains of the body would abate with the sleep that descended on account of weariness, but the mind would be awake and into the wakeful mind would enter all kinds of thoughts. Since these thoughts were about his home, his mother, father and brother, and as such Gemunu felt a certain lightness even in his unfamiliar world.

With a mind thus awakened, he opened his heart to embrace fresh thoughts. Pleasant as well as painful thoughts jostled to enter through these apertures. And so began the battle between pain and joy in which the former invariably triumphed over the latter. As sorrow filled his heart with the deafening cries of victory, Gemunu could no longer remain stretched out in the open veranda where he slept. He knew that he did not have the strength of spirit to fight the painful thoughts. It was his body that would have to do battle. He needed to exert his body in a manner that did not yield the slightest space for even a single thought.

The darkness that still enveloped the world denied him, however. And so he thought about the work that needed to be done. The mind hesitated as he thought of the work and as his body got ready for the day ahead. Birdsong announced the imminent arrival of the Sun, gave Gemunu’s mind immense relief. This was his cue; he would set off towards the paddy field or the chena in the pre-dawn half light.

As he cleared the shrub jungle for highland cultivation, there were moments when he was possessed by the sorrowful thought that he was in fact raining blows with his axe upon trees that were fast asleep. The sound of the axe was like the vague and indeterminate noise one hears in a dream. Since the darkness had not yet completed its retreat, that which his eyes beheld was dim and just as in a dream lacked clarity.

It was a time when he preferred to work not in light but in darkness; in semi-consciousness rather than in a state of complete comprehension. The truth was that it was less a matter of wanting to walk than it was a need to exercise his body. He did not want to entertain a single thought and in fact he felt immensely good when his arms and legs began to hurt. This feeling reached its zenith when he had worked in the hot sun to the point that he could hardly breathe; and as he was bathed in sweat Gemunu felt that he had turned into some burning elemental form that was part of the scorching midday heat. This was when complete contentment arrived. Until then, he would work like one possessed.

It was midday now. The wind, as though fearful of the heat, had made itself scarce. Even the trees, big and small, stood still in demonstration of absolute deference. Kiri Banda and Punchi Banda also submitted to the realities of these natural conditions, sought the shade of trees and sat down. Only Gemunu braved the intense midday heat.

The truth was that it was the disillusionment he felt about himself that compelled Gemunu to work in this manner. It was the feeling that he was good for nothing. Since he saw nothing redeeming in himself, Gemunu could not attach any value to anything else. Considering himself useless, he just expended his energy as though eventually he could destroy himself. He did not clear the shrub jungle because he had any feeling whatsoever for farming.

It was just to tire himself out. He took no notice of the trees or the paddy fields. They mattered not. Nevertheless, whatever he did, however much he sweated, he could only carry out the tasks assigned to him by Kiri Banda.

He was astonished when his destructive labour yielded an entire tract of grain. How could he have produced such a beneficial outcome, he wondered. As his anger manifested itself as light green stalks of rice swaying in the breeze Gemunu felt ashamed. It was as though the saplings were in fact mocking him.

He was of course not unused to suck mockery. Indeed, unlike in the case of any other person, it was the insults and mockery that pleased Gemunu. Whatever he may have received it merely caressed the surface; those joys that could sink deep beneath the skin were these insults. Indeed, what could be more insulting than an old woman telling him, a fully grown young man, that he did not know how to eat his food?