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Grandest expression

Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke, the recipient of the Gatiaen Prize
Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke, the recipient of the Gatiaen Prize

English literature of this country has been a cornered subject mostly confined to an elitist class who speaks hat language. When the majority shies away from a certain language, its literature cannot reach for the upper ledges. Circumstances attendant on Sri Lanka’s English literature are no different.

Things are changing, thankfully. If there was a time when bookish customers scoured the bookshops for Jane Austen, Nicholas Sparks, Ian McEwan and the like, that phenomenon is witnessing a gradual about-face. Shehan Karunatilleke, Lal Medawattegedara, Vihanga Perera, Malinda Seneviratne, Elmo Jayawardane and the like have launched moving the bookshelves.

And who deserves kudos for this trend?

No one in particular. But the Gratiaen Prize has played some part in that mission. The Prize has grown up over the years with a substantial amount of criticism levelled against it adding up to its maturity. What the State Literary Award, with its share for English fiction, could not achieve for years, the Gratiaen could accomplish single-handedly.

If, in 2018, the Gratiaen picked an elderly writer – Jean Arasanayagam that is – the awarders have taken a different course in 2019. Not only have they gone for a younger writer, but an unusual theme which we would never imagine in a country like Sri Lanka.

The One Who Loves You So written by Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke’s as an original play takes us to a Friday gay night. We come across a British expat looking for a moment of intimate happiness and hardly anything else. Gradually that night evolves into other sequences, which we hardly imagine in this soil. Two men are into an intimate affair sharing their life stories.

Romance, and at times bromance, the story takes us to different layers of love. The key surprise that the Gratiaen brings us this year is that they have chosen this work purely based on the work’s artistic value no matter what its sexual orientation is. For that, the panel of judges deserves a big round of applause.

Born in Helsinki, Finland, to architect parents, Arun grew up with the freedom of choosing what he wants. As his parents were architects, art existed very much at home. But then the freedom came with its own price. He was lost for a choice.

At first, he never wanted to do anything. When he was 11, Arun had screenwriting in mind. At 13, he knew he is going to be a director someday. But then that was the cinema, not the stage to which he wrote ‘The One Who Loves You So’ and won the Gratiaen.

Prematilleke’s playscript was chosen out of four short-listed works: Chats with the Dead, a novel by Shehan Karunatilake, Youthful Escapades by Upali Mahaliyana and They Failed to Kill Her by Zeneefa Zaneer.

An achievement in parallel was Professor Vini Vitharana’s translation of Kav Silumina. Now that was a tough take, as Kav Silumina is considered a classic in Sinhalese literature. It is the treasure trove for the Sinhalese poets composing classical poetry.

Vini Vitharana, formerly a professor of Sinhala, must have had a challenging encounter in rendering one classical language into another. Apparently, Sinhalese is his first language and the one he is quite at home with. However, many eastern scholars, long before Professor Vitharana, have proved themselves quite adept in handling two or three languages at once. Speaking a language is one. Writing is another. The speakers are not always good at writing. The writing is a separate business, which requires exercise over time which culminates in expertise. Professor Vini Vitharana is a classic example of that category.

Both the Gratiaen winners who take the platform this year are quite noteworthy. Prematilleke for handling a controversial, yet sensitive, subject related to the LGBT, in an original style; and Professor Vini Vitharana for being unoriginal in an original manner, for hardly any scholar has attempted translating a classical magnum opus of the Kav Silumina calibre into English.

They both epitomise what Sarasavi Bookshop Chief HD Premasiri stressed in his speech: that the literature has the power to shape and influence society. 

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