King Swarnamali, the Great | Sunday Observer

King Swarnamali, the Great

19 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 8

‘Why so deep in thought…?


‘Cannot be, cannot be so. If you continue this way, you’ll sink into the very earth.’

‘Well, I’ve thought about that, really…’

‘I think so too and I am also sad. I wish I could stop flying and turn into a branch of this tree and just remain that way.’

‘You really feel sorry for me, do you?’

‘No, not just about you. About myself as well. About you too, yes. But even about this world.’

Each and every liyadda, tilled and levelled, was full of water. The thousand infant sun glanced off the mirror-like surface of fields thus watered. Since the sun had risen not just in the sky but out of the earth, the underside of even the rare clump of grass or even a single blade was lit. Some darkness usually finds refuge under a leaf and under the trees, but even this was dispelled by the sunlight that reflected off the liyadi. A fully lit world had been created. The light had created limitless space.

It was as though the breeze was moving all the way to the end of the rice fields slowly and then making its way back as slowly. The wind was like a creature determined to ascertain whether, in fact, the land had been tilled and levelled to perfection and was pleased that not one flaw could be discerned. Now it moves not in search of reasons for complaint but as though reflecting on being blessed to move hither and thither on a perfect plane. The wind focused on joy in its deep meditation.

Gemunu, observing the movement of the wind, which he could feel but not see, realised that someone was speaking to him. Who was he speaking with? As he wondered, once again he heard a voice: ‘With me…with me…’

A drongo perched on a branch of the tree against which Gemunu was leaning was chattering incessantly. Gemunu understood that he himself was offering meaning to the chatter and was answering himself back. He felt embarrassed.

No, he need not feel embarrassed. Why would he himself treat the drongo as a superior creature? Wasn’t the bird merely giving voice to his thoughts having read them accurately?

Bird’s response

‘The bird can discern my thoughts, can it not?’

‘Yes, yes, why not?’ The bird shyly responded and then, as though fully embarrassed at having stolen all of Gemunu’s thoughts and also about prying into another’s thought and then voicing them, the drongo flew quickly away high into the sky and then down again, cringing in embarrassment.

It was gone. However, not too long afterwards, it would perch on a similar branch, mocking someone else’s thoughts or else having stolen them speaking them out for all to hear. And once again, it would in embarrassment fly away.

The drongo’s departure saddened Gemunu. The light reflected off the field had dispelled all darkness. And yet, in this world bereft of gloom and the desolate, Gemunu felt enveloped even more by darkness and loneliness. The light disturbed him. He saw the way it had arrived to harass him.

On the other hand, he too had lent a hand to the very creation of this light. He had worked tirelessly for several weeks to till the fields, level them, repair the bunds separating one liyadda from the next and line them neatly with wet mud. He had helped craft this mirror. And the light reflecting off the mirror he had helped create was now mocking him. A smile manifested itself at the corner of Gemunu’s lips.

A figure emerged from the canal beyond and upon the main bund which marked the farthest boundary of the field. The yet unidentifiable figure captured Gemunu’s mind. His thoughts embraced the figure. Gemunu felt an utmost ease. As the figure approached, Gemunu’s mind began to fill with a myriad thoughts.

What were his mother and father thinking at this very moment? Were they wondering what had happened to him? It has already been seven or eight years since he had left Magama. Was his younger brother Tissa capable of giving leadership to the Army? Was it because his mother and father weren’t looking for him that he was not found?

It was not possible for anyone to give any lead about his whereabouts to the king. Such information, if any, could only come from this village. The villagers, not even in their wildest imagination, would think he was a prince for they considered him to be an absolute idiot. This is why Kalu Menika was not interested in him.

Gemunu knew how difficult it was for him to get anyone to do even the smallest thing. How many times had he gone to meet Heenbanda to borrow his pair of buffaloes? How many times had he made him return disappointed? Heenbanda had relented only after his wife had admonished him saying ‘why are you giving this boy the runaround — just give him the buffaloes!’

Excuses to Gemunu

Now, when recalling the many excuses Heenbanda had trotted out, Gemunu laughed. One day he had said that the beasts seemed to be suffering from a phlegmatic condition. On another day which happened to be the eighth in the lunar month, Heenbanda had said they were left alone to observe sil. ‘You won’t believe it, but these buffaloes are very keen on observing sil,’ he had said.

He had given such excuses considering Gemunu to be an idiot and to amuse himself as one would by relating tall tales to a child. And yet, was it not at the same time to make Gemunu smile? Although today he knew these were barefaced lies, had he not accepted these excuses as valid and absolutely true when they were uttered?

Was it not this very same treatment that he had received when he visited the blacksmith to sharpen a machete? What kind of punishment should he mete out to Heenbanda and the blacksmith once he became king? Gemunu thought to himself that he would put both in the frontlines when the fort at Vijithapura was one day stormed.

Nevertheless they had teased him thus because they considered him an idiot who didn’t have the knowledge and understanding of even an adolescent, far less that of a king or prince, had they not? So how, under these circumstances, could his father the King have any inkling about where he was and what he did?

Gemunu wondered at how, after leaving the palace, he had been hurled into a situation where he was even less than any other ordinary citizen. Wasn’t it this stupid simpleton who had mocked King Kavantissa, who had developed military capabilities that could stop the mighty Elara’s army from venturing this side of the Mahaweli River? Gemunu smiled to himself.

He could share all this with Amma. She would then convey it all to his father. In any case, he learned all this only because he had left home. Even vile acts can yield beneficial outcomes or put another way clarity arrives only following retribution for sins committed.

When he realised that the palace was even more gloomy and lonely than his own heart, Gemunu felt a sadness he had not experienced before. In this world filled with light, the only gloom and solitude was in his heart. It was his and his alone. If there was any place gloomier and even lonelier, it was father’s Royal Palace. How could they live within those walls?