Words at a sword’s point | Daily News
Sri Lankan Literature in English

Words at a sword’s point

Sinhala and Tamil languages were used in the kitchen and with the servants and uneducated workers. And then the term ‘Kaduwa’ or sword got into use by the Sinhala people to refer to English, “as a weapon to cut them down, to intimidate and control them.” (Goonetilleke 2005). Kaduwa was also used to cause self-injury by trying to speak in English.

Our Sinhala literature goes back about two millennia. It is said that there have been 12 great poets in the early first century of the Common Era. We had poets even among the common folk who visited our 5th-century rock citadel at Sigiriya. They wrote their poetry on the mirror-like wall on the rock from about 6th to about 11th century, in such poetic language, some of which have been categorised by the eminent archaeologist, Senerat Paranavitana, according to the four types of poetry listed in the Kavi Sutra of the Buddhist Tripitaka. We had our short stories in the form of folk tales, and then the Buddhist Jataka were re-written in Sinhala, some of which today could be considered as short stories or even novels.

Yet the first published Sinhala novel had appeared only in 1886, Wasanawantha Paula ha Kalakanni Paula (1866) (The fortunate family and the unfortunate family) by Issac Silva. But many consider Vimala (1892) by Albert Silva as the first Sinhala novel, Meena (1905) by Simon Silva came next. Surnames like Silva, Perera, Fernando were all so common among the coastal Sri Lanka community who adopted such names after the colonization by Europeans.

I consider D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke, as the best authority on Sri Lankan English Literature. He is Emeritus Professor of English, University of Kelaniya, was Foundation Visiting Fellow, Clare Hall, University of Cambridge; Henry Charles Chapman Visiting Fellow, University of London; and Guest Professor at the University of Tubingen, West Germany. A well-established critic of twentieth-century and postcolonial literature, and the leading authority on Sri Lankan English literature.

He has recorded that the first novel by a Sri Lankan in English was ‘The Dice of the Gods’ by Lucien de Zilva in 1917. The first novel by a Sri Lankan woman writer was ‘The Tragedy of a Mystery: A Ceylon Story’, published in London probably in 1928. ‘Grass for my Feet’ was a great book written in 1935 by Jinadasa Vijayatunga. It is based around a small village by a sleepy river in South Sri Lanka.

Among the international names from Sri Lanka we have Michael Ondaatje, who won the Booker in 1992 for his ‘English Patient’. It was made into a film by Anthony Minghella in 1996 which won 9 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. In 2018 Ondaatje was awarded the Golden Man Booker prize. More recently Shehan Karunatilaka won the DSC and the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2012 for ‘Chinaman’, a book loved by the cricket fans around the world. Among the International figures who have lived in Sri Lanka is Arthur C. Clarke.

A few years ago Namita Gokhale visited Sri Lanka. I admire her for the anthology she did with Malshri Lal, ‘In Search of Sita’. She also has been organizing the Jaipur Literary Festival, which they describe as the ‘greatest literary show on earth’. But Namita had no idea about the Sri Lankan literature. She had heard of only Ondaatje and Shehan Karunatilleke. She had not heard of Martin Wickramasinghe, our greatest writer of the 20th century, whose books have been translated into English, Russian, Romanian, Japanese, French, Dutch, Chinese and Bulgarian. Only three of his books have been translated into Tamil. Namita had not heard of Ediriweera Sarachchandra, either.

Dr. Rajan Hoole published ‘The Broken Palmyra, The Tamil Crisis in Sri Lanka’ and ‘The Palmyra Fallen’.

Before the ethnic war, we also faced two uprisings in the south, in 1971 and 1988-89, among the Sinhala youth, who were also labelled as terrorists. Many of our young, educated youth died in the failed struggle.

Ediriweera Sarachchandra wrote a novel based on the first uprising of 1971, ‘Curfew and a Full Moon’. There had been several good poems and short stories, and none of the Sinhala works has been translated into English, to my knowledge.

A good novel covering the frustrations and violence among our youth was published a few years ago by Madhubashini Dissanayake Rathnayake, with the title, ‘There is Something I Have to Tell You’. Madhubashini is now rewriting her novel, with several major changes, and this I believe is the first such experiment in Sri Lankan literature where the author is rewriting a story.

The only Sri Lankan novel written about the British planters who ruled our tea estates is ‘Somewhere on the Green Hills’ written by Aditha Dissanayake, while Gopal Krishnan Gandhi (grandson of the Mahatma) wrote ‘The Refuge’ about the pathetic story of the South Indian workers taken to work on the Sri Lankan estates by the British.

Let me take a few minutes to talk about one of our bilingual writers, as an example of what you are missing from Sri Lanka.


“Ediriweera Sarachchandra (1914-1996), a remarkable bilingual became the preeminent man of letters in Sinhala as well as the leading novelist in English. He was Sri Lanka’s most distinguished man of letters and leading twentieth-century novelist in English. - D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke

In 1998 Prof. Ashley Halpe felt that Sarachchandra’s novel about the 1971 southern insurgency ‘Curfew and the Full Moon’ “could well be called the most important novel written in English, by a Sri Lankan up to that time..…’. ‘Foam Upon the Stream’ was published in Singapore by Heinemann for UNESCO under the ‘Collection of Representative Works’ in 1987, and the two Sinhala novels were translated into Japanese by Tadashi Noguchi. The novel was reviewed by Alan Moores for Asiaweek in July 1987. Rajini Ramachandra reviewed ‘Foam Upon the Stream’ for The Literary Criterion, a Mysore publication, in 1987.

Foam upon the Stream is also unique in a way because Sarachchandra changed the story from the original Sinhala version to the extent of changing the name and occupation of the protagonist.

Sarachchandra is reported to have been nominated in the 80s, for the Nobel Prize. “His academic and creative talents were highly recommended by the special committee of the Swedish Academy in 1972, by appointing him to nominate writers for the Nobel prize for literature in 1974. (Sarachchandra was the 1st Sri Lankan to be honoured in that way).” (Galahitiyawa P.B)

In 1996 he was awarded the Japanese decoration “The Sacred Treasure, Silver and Gold Star”. The Kerala state award, ‘Mahakavi Kumaran Asan World Prize for Literature’ was awarded to Sarachchandra in 1981. “The Asan Memorial Association places on record its deep appreciation of the great contribution made by him to the resurgence of Sri Lankan culture after the long dark night of Western imperialist domination.” He was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1988.

But it is most unfortunate that Sarachchandra’s books are not available in India. B. R. Publishing, Delhi published his “With the Begging Bowl” in 1986. But I do not have any idea if it reached the Indian readers. Penguin India published James Goonewardene and Carl Muller, OUP published Patrick Fernando, Random House publishes Ashok Ferry, but I wish Indian publishers show more interest in publishing the works of Sri Lanka writers. And none of the Indian book distributors and booksellers has been interested in selling our books published in Sri Lanka.

I took much time about Sarachchandra just as an example of the non-availability in India of Sri Lankan writings in English. It is the same for us in Sri Lanka, we do not have an opportunity to read the new English writings from India. We are at the mercy of the book publishers and sellers. They decide what they publish and sell, and thus decide what we should read.

Another author who should have been introduced to the world is Punyakante Wijenaike. She wrote her first novel fifty years ago, and she continues writing. Her most recent book is the collection of short stories and poems, ‘When the Harvest is Over’. The harvest may be over for the season, but the next season always brings a fresh harvest.

Punyakante Wijenaike published ‘The Third Woman’ in 1963. The ‘Amulet’ won the Gratiaen Prize in Sri Lanka in 1994. She received the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for radio, in 1996, which she shared with a writer from Sierra Leon. ‘The Waiting Earth’ was prescribed for GCE Advanced Level Literature in 1993. ‘Giraya’ was adapted by Lester James Peiris as his first television drama in 1990.

Punyakante is one of the leading creative writers in English. About her first publication, ‘The Third Woman’, Prof. D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke has commented, “In these stories, she is preoccupied with the countryside and surprises the reader with revelations of the darker side of rural life that lies beneath a deceptively quiet surface.” John Halverson had written, “Like Villa Cather (with whom she invites favourable comparison), she succeeds in universalizing completely provincial lives.” Prof. Goonetilleke writes about her first novel, ‘The Waiting Earth’ (1966), “...in the context of the period, it was written...is seen to occupy a place of importance in the history of the Sri Lankan novel in English. There was very little by way of original writing in English at the time”. Dr. Alistair Niven (former Director of Literature at the Arts Council of Britain), wrote about Punyakante in 1977 in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, “one of the most underestimated fiction writers currently at work in the English Language”. In 2007, Minoli Salgado said, “thirty years later she still remains unknown in the West. Yet in her writing we find some of the most powerful registers of the relationship between identity and place, belonging and homelessness in Sri Lankan Literature in English.” [all above quotations are from ‘Sri Lankan English Literature and the Sri Lankan People’ by D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke]

We have to also mention Yasmine Gooneratne, Emeritus Professor of English at Macquarie University, New South Wales, and Foundation Director of Macquarie’s Post Colonial Literature and Language Research Centre, who does not belong to the diaspora now, as she has come back and now lives in Colombo. She also won the Samvad India Foundation’s Raja Rao Award in 2001. her 16 books include novels, poetry and literary works such as ‘Celebrating Sri Lankan Women’s English Writing’. She publishes the online journal New Ceylon Writing. Yasmine’s latest novel ‘Rannygazoo’ is a new experiment; she is sharing her novel online.

I have not come across any fiction in English, directly influenced by the Russian authors. But we find Greek philosophy and mythology having a heavy influence on the poet Kamani Jayasekara, who has merged Buddhist and Greek philosophy in her poetry very successfully.

We have many bilingual writers, both among the Sinhala and the Tamil community. Padma Edirisinghe, Henry Jayasena and Tissa Abeysekara are no more with us. Prof. Sunanda Mahendra and his son Sachitra Mahendra continue to write in Sinhala and English. Among the writers from the north, I must mention Sopa or Somasuntherampillai Pathmanathan who is a great writer of short stories and poems. Sopa and Kandiah Shriganeshan are among the writers who are doing a wonderful service by translating Tamil writing into English. Like Ayathurai Santhan, Pathmanathan has the first-hand experience of the 30 years conflict period because they lived among the suffering people in the north, unlike the diaspora writers, who write about their imaginary homeland.

Anne Ranasinghe, of Jewish-German origin, became a Sri Lankan award-winning poet. Ranasinghe began her writing career in the late 1960s after obtaining a Diploma in Journalism from Colombo Technical College. Since 1971, she published 12 books and some have been translated into several languages in seven countries.

We also have our Eurasians, called Burghers, and Carl Muller is one of the most well know and prolific writers. Some of his works have been published by Penguin India. His ‘Burgher novels’ earned him special acclaim. His books published by Penguin India include Yakada Yaka, Once Upon a Tender Time, The Jam Fruit Tree, and Colombo.

I would like to touch on Literature for children. Very few books have been published in English for our children. They are mostly dependent on books published in the west. Unfortunately, most of these books are full of violence or about misdeeds of human beings, where child heroes catch the crooks or other criminals. There are only very few books that take a positive look at our society and culture and about good people, and their good deeds, for the benefit of the young minds.

Sybil Wettasinghe is a great writer of stories for children, with her own illustrations; her books have been translated into Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Swedish. and Norwegian. But in India, some of them are available only in Tamil or English. Prof. J. B. Disanayaka has translated many of our folk tales into English.

Another award-winning writer is Kamala Wijeratne; her short stories, poems and children’s stories, which I would call as writing for the Earth, creating awareness of our wonderful natural heritage for the children. Writing about nature is really writing about ourselves, and she is writing about all of us, in this collection, ‘From My Green Book’. She may not consider herself a feminist, just like Sarojini Sahoo in Odisha, but her collection, ‘This Other Trojan Woman’, tells us the story of the suppressed woman ever since man took over control of the family.

We do not have anything which could be labelled as Feminist Literature, probably because the western concept of Feminism is alien to our culture where our village folk consider mother as the Buddha at home.

In the recent past, a few children have published their books.

Creative writing has no age barriers. Sajani Senanayake was 12 years old when she wrote ‘Gift of Wonders’. It really offers hope for our literature and our culture. Many children and even many adults would have faced the kind of human-elephant encounter met by Sajani. Yet only a very few could narrate the encounter in a manner to capture the readers’ interest and imagination. Two years later she created The Pearl of Truth; she is able to share her belief that Truth is the most valuable asset to any country.

Aminthika Dissanayake was 10 years old when she published her ‘Little Dreams.’ There would be many other such talents among our children, around the world, if only we could keep them away from visual and social media, and could encourage them to read.

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