In 1987, Punyakante Wijenaike published A Way of Life, a memoir. In this, the writer’s retrospective impressions and recollections are united in introducing a host of “household persons” from grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, friends, and a bevy of family servants. In spirit, A Way of Life echoes Rajiva Wijesinha’s widely-read book, Servants (1995), which was published just seven years after. Servants, a Gratiaen Award-winning effort, might even have drawn inspiration from Wijenaike’s memoir in framing descriptions of servant-activity – both on and off call – in the back rooms of affluent Colombo households, as well as in the exposing of servants’ private lives (according to liberal doctrine, a dubious past-time for mistresses and masters to indulge in). This itself forms a very important assessment of A Way of Life since – as the title denotes the fact – the book is about a certain way of life: the way of life of a class built by/on colonial privilege, self-indulgent in the entitlement of belonging to society’s immediate pre-independence crème de la crème, on whom the rare and enviable privilege of being able to write books about their servants and – as in Wijesinha’s case – win prizes for them was historically bestowed.
That said, A Way of Life presents the reader more than with a mere catalogue of reflections on a fast fading socio-economic familial Xanadu. Of an academic interest, sections of the book invite the audience to understand how Wijenaike’s creative mind was self-trained and how it worked, and the anxieties governing her childhood which – in turn – had shaped her imagination and artistic temper. Recurrent references made to a socially-inhibited and aloof way of life – where the preference to self-isolate in a fantasy world of make-belief dominates – characterize the author’s childhood and adolescent memory. These sections disclose the young Punyakante weaving situations, landscapes, and stories, while having for her companions, imaginary forms:
I am happiest when I am alone. I made this discovery at an early age. Alone I am in command, mistress of a world created by me. The large house lent itself to imagination willingly. The long winding verandahs turned into streams of water along which I could swim or paddle my own boat. The open balconies, three in number, turned into sea beds and I would lie there, believing myself a beautiful mermaid with a long tail and golden hair that flowed down my back. I would look up at the blue sky and the white clouds that sailed it and imagine it to be the surface of an ocean.” (19)
Of academic value, still, is how she – in the writing of her “non-affluent” characters in books like The Waiting Earth (1966) and Amulet (2002) – depends on her childhood domestic staff for both descriptions as well as names. Punyakante’s grandmother’s personal servant, Isabella Hamy – a “tall and slim and fair” girl “with dark curling lashes, thick eye-brows and a dignified air” (26), in any case, a notable beauty – bear traces of the character by the same name in Wijenaike’s maiden novel, The Waiting Earth. The daughter of a gullible peasant farmer in a dry zone settlement, Isabella Hamy of The Waiting Earth is an adolescent girl who is groomed and exploited by the village school master; and who later takes her life by jumping in the well.
Despite its reasonable length, Wijenaike’s career as a fiction writer didn’t take off too well with her 1966-debut, The Waiting Earth, which – on top of its long-drawn and at times ailing plot and half-cooked characters – suffers on the whole for want of consistent writing. The novel bares a certain immaturity in portraying the rural agrarian world of dry zone tenant farmers which – with their focus with issues closer to her social milieu – is considerably less in efforts such as Giraya (1971) and Amulet (1994). Isabella Hamy, the leading youth figure in The Waiting Earth, is from the outset a girl marked for destruction and death. She is underlined at every turn as a headstrong and proud girl even in childhood, caught between traditionalisms and superstitions of her peasant-home (which Wijenaike overstates to cliche) and her urgent desire to enter an independent life built on education and modernity. From as early as her seventh year, Isabella Hamy is shown to attract the negative attention of male eyes. In fact, the novel consistently promotes a thread of fermenting sexual energy centred on adolescent Isabella Hamy. A general sensuousness as well as loaded references to her body predominate Wijenaike’s characterization of the girl. Aged 14, when Isabella Hamy ends her life, she is pregnant with the school teacher Podi Mahatmaya’s child. The teacher, Isabella Hamy’s lover and intended partner, is revealed to be a married man in his native village.
In A Way of Life, we briefly glimpse another Isabella Hamy – Wijenaike’s grandmother’s personal maid – who sports a general air and manner which strongly resonates with the Isabella Hamy of The Waiting Earth. Descriptions of Isabella Hamy the servant dominate the passages dealing with Wijenaike’s grandmother’s toilet and dressing room scenes (an aspect of the book one has to tolerate – which, being born on the wrong grass, one cannot complain about, really). Having bathed the elderly lady, Isabella Hamy is seen dabbing her with talcum powder “with a long handled brush”, ease her into a bodice, and “help her to a pair of bloomers” which is eventually “tied around the waist and is pinned in front” (27). Taking the better part of an hour, when the long dressing ritual is over, and grandmother had left the room, Isabella Hamy is reported to clear the dressing table and help herself to some of the mistress’ powder and lavender before regally descending “to her boyfriend waiting at the foot of the servants’ staircase” (29).
Wijenaike’s mother’s personal servant is named Sellomahy, whose namesake is the leading female character of The Waiting Earth: often humiliated, neglected, and misunderstood, but is yet resilient and devoted to both her husband, the tenant farmer Podi Singho, and her children alike. In A Way of Life, Sellohamy, like in the case of Isabella Hamy, is featured in a lengthy description of her mistress taking her toilet (34-37).
In 1942, When the family temporarily relocated to Nuwaraeliya at the time Colombo was threatened by Japanese bombers, young Punyakante Wijenaike would have been nine years of age. Both Sellohamy and Isabella Hamy were retained by the family as a part of its moving retinue. “The Nuwaraeliya episode” of the book has an invigorating focus on servants and numerous servant-activity. Ardiris – the man who kept the Nuwaraeliya house in order – presents himself memorably with a resolute doggedness to carry out his own schemes, to answer back the superiors, in his own way to be stern and wily, and to take certain liberties with the women of the staff. Pretending to work on his vegetable patch conveniently placed behind the bathing shed, “digging into his beetroots” (72), Ardiris takes a voyeuristic pleasure watching the servant girls bathe. However, the voyeurism – right down to the finer aspects of the women’s bathing habit – is admittedly also shared by the pre-adolescent Wijenaike who reports the following:
Every morning I watch the women servants bathe in the open, with the sun beating down on them, in cold water gushing out of a tap into a large barrel. Sometimes they go laughing down the hill to the water sprout, soap boxes, scrubbing stone, and towel in hand… When it came to soaping, they never removed the cloth tied tight under the arm-pit, but soaped over it.” (72)
Among the bathing servants, Sellohamy and Isabella Hamy are marked out. Wijenaike concedes that “black nipples showed through the wet cloth and black hair between their thighs” while the duo bathed: a sight which Ardiris – as “his great eyes would roll in the direction of the women, half naked in the sun” (72) – would savour from among his vegetable cultivation .
Kaiya and Babiya – in all likelihood, names given to these women when they were inducted into servitude – were the personal servants of Wijenaike and her sister. Kaiya, the narrative informs us, made her pre-adolescent charge feel “small and insignificant” while working on the girl’s fears and dislikes to mentally “torture” her (20). “When servants resent you,” Wijenaike suggests, “they have their own methods of cutting you down to size” (20). The abusive and perverse servant has a memorable place in Wijenaike’s fiction among whom the most significant, perhaps, is Nonchi in Amulet. Nonchi demonstrates a destructive perversity and abusive sadism as she trains twin-children left in her care to engage in homosexual and incestuous acts from a tender age. Reminiscent of Nonchi’s viciousness, Kaiya is said to practice “different forms of torture” on the child left with her: “She laughs and makes jokes of my fears of lightning and loud noises, and fear of the dark,” Wijenaike remembers. “When dressing me she would snap the elastic of the hat tight under my chin causing pain or pull my hair when combing it” (20). Playing on the girl’s fear of water, Kaiya would fill the bath tub to the brim, “dump” her charge into the tub, and watch as the girl felt tormented (20). “When, finally, Kaiya pulls the rubber plug out,” Wijenaike confesses, “I feel I am being sucked down and out, along with the water out of the dark hole at the bottom of the bath… into hell” (20). Like with Amulet’s Nonchi, actions of servants like Kaiya – and, also, that of Ardiris – may, at one level, serve theorizations of a resurgent power against the master-class. In the same way Wijenaike manipulates men and women who are her class-inferiors within cultural discourses they feel alienated from (and would never partake in), the dark, destructive, and – where applicable – demonic appearance of those very subjects in the writer’s childhood world manifest a strange harmony.
Wijenaike, Punyakante. A Way of Life. [Publisher Unspecified], 1987.
— . The Waiting Earth. State Printing Corporation, 1997 (1966).
— . Amulet. Godage International Publishers, 2002 (1994).
Wijesinha, Rajiva. Servants. McCallum Books, 1995.