The Case of Kevin Cruz’s “Witness for the Prosecution”

Witness for the Prosecution directed by Kevin Cruz and played by Cold Theater 7 was staged at the Lionel Wendt from 17-20 November 2022, including the full weekend. Based on a short story Agatha Christie wrote in 1925, the play’s original was staged in 1953 to wide acclaim. Several adaptations gained popularity subsequently, including a Broadway production by Robert Lewis in 1954 and the screenplay by Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz in 1957. Being made into a successful film, its popular BBC adaptation featuring Sir Ralph Richardson as Sir Wilfrid Robarts was made in 1982; and is available on YouTube for free streaming.     

Witness for the Prosecution is a simple and straightforward story with a typical Agatha Christie twist appended to it. The plot follows a design by Leonard and Romaine Vole – an impressive and charming local lad and his older “foreign” wife – who stage-manage a trial where Vole is accused of murdering an unmarried and rich woman, a Miss French. Having made friends with Leonard, Miss French had left a will bequeathing her considerable estate to the young man just before her death occurred. While the play’s ending has been liberally dramatized over the past seven decades, in Cruz’s production Leonard is acquitted from charges only to reveal that he had an affair with a local girl whom he planned to live with by leaving Romaine behind. In rage, Romaine stabs Leonard to death and Leonard’s solicitor, Sir Wilfrid (who calls Romaine “a most remarkable woman”), expresses intention to defend Romaine at her impending trial. This ending resonates the concluding movement of the script Wilder and Kurnitz developed in 1957, while other variations include the curtain fall soon after Leonard is stabbed (this ending is adapted, for instance, by FAMS Theater Company, Sydney, in a 2005 production which that company has shared on YouTube). 

Flyer c/o Drama Sri Lanka FB page

Detailed in the company-grade play ticket as an “amateur production”, Cruz’s adaptation of the play was well-received by the Lionel Wendt-going Colombo. However, the play also presented several glaring “downsides” that demand close analysis and, as such, prompted this short essay. It was unfortunate that the play’s most palpable weakness was brought on by arguably the cast’s most outstanding male player: by the acting of Abbasali Rozais (who played Sir Wilfrid Robarts) who dominated most of the stage. A talent with much promise and versatility, Rozais suffered – and, in turn afflicted the play – in being poorly stage-managed. In the course of the play, this actor came across as an animal who marched a good few paces ahead of his pack, projecting ahead of others and manipulating the playing space in a way that left the others on the side. The better theatrical production is founded on unity and integration where characters blend and bring on an evenness and harmony to the world on stage. The good actor is required to tune one’s self to the general conditions that surround and not play in a vacuum that alienates itself from the rest. The character of Sir Wilfrid being assigned a good three-quarter of the play’s lines did not help matters either, as it resulted in a somewhat painful affair where the cast often resembled a dozen Lilliputians playing around Gulliver. Regarding this curable vice, the director is in the best place to call for a reassessment how his players play.  

Colombo’s English theatergoers, for quite some time now, have been universally acknowledged as being sexist-gigglers. The range from bawdy slapstick to dry daddy jokes – both departments, laden with pungent sexist provocations – normally tickle this audience to tears and hysterics (the psychology of which needs to be properly studied – typically, at Colombo University). For instance, the previous week, Indu Dharmasena staged Chaos by SMS, a comedy, at the Bishop’s Auditorium, which had a reference to a “pussy” that recurred for the sum duration of the play. Any normal audience should have been dulled by the abuse of this pun on a woman (in the play) who shared an obsessive relationship with her cat; but, the audience at Bishop’s was tickled from start to last.      

Still from the popular cinema adaptation of the Christie story

In Witness for the Prosecution, there are/were several sections that read as sexist; notably the portrayal of Greta, the young clerk in Sir Wilfrid’s employment. Greta is scripted as a somewhat silly young girl whose most memorable actions on stage lie between sloppy clerical work (for which she is reprimanded) and offers to make tea for the men in the office. In Cruz’s production, Greta’s movements – specially her entrances and exits – were given considerable focus. In a play dominated by male characters, Greta’s exaggerated movements (including several entrances and exits that took the length of the stage and went right in front of the audience) gave the impression of her being somewhat “on show”. The direction for entrance in the “court room scene” also made it inevitable for Romaine, when called to stand witness, but to take (theatrically and literally speaking) a very awkward right-angle after mounting the stage whose purpose – or so it seemed – was to expose to the audience her back. However, staying in line with that character’s historical dramatization, that the dramatist depended on Romaine Vole as a sort of sex object is suggestive in her being dressed in striking colours: always black or red. The play also pandered to the cheap sexist humour of the house – and, quite unnecessarily, too – through the medical specialist (Dr. Wyatt) who was called to the trial: a representation that, for no obvious reason, came across as abnormal and – for the want of a phrase – “exaggeratedly effeminate”.      

Romaine Vole on the dock. Note the awkward angle for a player entering via the steps, stage-left

A key passage towards the play’s end called to attention the demonstration of abuse and woman-beating as an unnecessary spectacle: the scene where, being acquitted and united with his lover, Leonard physically assaults Romaine. This scene was acted with a certain exaggeration that it stood out and registered a dissonance with the rest of the play which is predominantly dialogue-driven. In the assault of the woman, the actor playing Leonard seemed to have been directed to throw Romaine on the floor with much energy and to bash her head on a wooden table. Noticeably, several other contemporary productions had preferred to approach this scene differently and with tact. The FAMS Theater production I referenced earlier, for example, dramatizes Leonard’s attack on Romaine with slight press on the woman’s shoulder (which Romaine uses as a cue for her fall). In the Cold Theater 7 production, whether the “assault scene” was an outcome of a rehearsed thought process, or whether the aim was to merely stage a spectacle needs to be considered. Was this a tactic used to summon shock in the house at Leonard Vole’s dark side finally surfacing?

Kevin Cruz

Post-play talk was dominated by references to the linguistic polyphony on stage. While Sir Wilfrid articulated an English of clipped consonants and curated plosives, Romaine (played by Melanie Bibile) dramatized a theatrically-acceptable German this side of Goethe. Another supporting character, Jane McKenzie, held forth in the witness’ dock in a dialect that complicated her Scottish name with mimicked acoustics alternating between working class Cockney and Downton Abbey-accents of Irish. However, the more relevant question for a theatergoer in 2022 is whether these actors should actually labour their natural anatomy in search of alien accents? Had these actors performed in their original tongue would the performance have been any less elegant? Specially, since the rest of the cast spoke English like Sri Lankans do, did these players really bring an added value to the show by mimicking Europe?

Agatha Christie is a rare appearance in Sri Lanka, leave alone in Colombo. Cold Theater 7’s dramatization of one of Christie’s popular stories-cum-plays is a refreshing choice. The ponder-worthy points raised in this article do not steal from the thunder that is due to the players and the director, Kevin Cruz.                   

The cast of Witness for the Prosecution directed by Kevin Cruz in November 2022:

Leonard Vole: Taariq Jurangpathy

Romaine Vole: Melanie Bibile

Sir Wilfrid Robarts: Abbasali Rozais

Mr. Myers: Mahesh Senaratne

John Mayehew: Niren Ranasinghe

Janet McKenzie: Dinushka Jayawickrema

Ins. Hearne: Kovindu De Seram

Dr. Wyatt: Yohan Kurera

Greta: Mithara Fonseka

The Justice: Hashen Ratnayake

Clerk of the Court: Harshana Rathnayake

The Policeman: Yusuf Sheriff

Ms. Barton: Amenthi Weerasinghe

(NOTE: This short essay was based on the play’s opening night on 17 November 2022 played to a full house at the Lionel Wendt. The names of the cast are reproduced from a newspaper article credited to Anoushka Jayasuriya of the Sunday Times dated 6 November 2022).

“Oddumaa”: A Necessary Key to Ayathurai Santhan’s Universe

[This entry is based on an article submitted to Sri Lankan English Writers Review in November 2022, available here]

Ayathurai Santhan’s Oddumaa and Other Stories (2019) collects four short stories, originally published in Tamil, translated by S. Rajasingham and AV Bharathi, and published by Samayawardhana Publishers, Colombo. The titular story is anchored on a failed love affair between a young Tamil man, Sivan, and a Sinhalese girl, Chaturi. They meet in suburban Colombo, after Sivan comes to the girl’s home as a boarder to attend university in Katubedda. Their relationship takes time in maturing but collapses in the face of parental hostility.  

The story’s title derives from the horticultural notion of “grafting”: the fusion of two sub-species to enrich the quality and composition of an organism. Sivan and Chaturi’s landlord father are found discussing the merits of grafting which makes the young man feel hopeful and confident of carrying the day. On the subject of “mixed marriages”, the father takes a positive view – at least in abstract. He sees the country’s future depending on the infusion of genes, where, as he implies, Sinhalese and Tamils may combine as a super race. However, he walks back on his words when he comes to learn of the affair between Sivan and the daughter, which finds Sivan unguarded. The story ends inconclusively, as Chaturi walks away from Sivan to uphold the wishes of her parents.

The writer with Ayathurai Santhan in 2020 (Pic c/o Oshadi Vidanarachchi)

The translation of “Oddumaa” to English is crucial to Santhan’s growing body of post-war fiction in two distinct ways. At one level, the story contributes substantially to an aspect of Sivan’s life that receives mention in novels like Rails Run Parallel (2015) but in a few words: the presence of an undisclosed Sinhalese girlfriend in Sivan’s youth. This girl is seen to invade Sivan’s thoughts even in later life. Momentary (but unexplained) references are made to her from time to time as seen in Rails Run Parallel when Sivan and his wife Verni escape hostile Colombo with another family at the outbreak of the 1977 anti-Tamil violence. Here, Sivan’s mind brushes past thoughts of Chaturi as he ponders on life had he been married to Chaturi instead. Furthermore, in one of the novel’s concluding passages, Chaturi is referenced again through one of Sivan’s old acquaintance who informs Sivan that Chaturi’s parents had sanctioned their daughter’s love of Sivan years ago after Sivan had broken all contact with the family. The family’s subsequent efforts to trace Sivan down had not been fruitful. In that sense, “Oddumaa” presents a key to Sivan’s past love life; an element which is rarely brought to the front in other stories like The Whirlwind (2010) and Rails Run Parallel where the narrative is anchored on Sivan.       

More intriguingly, in building Chaturi’s character Santhan brings on a sensuousness that is very rare to the writer’s characteristically stoic and Spartan-tone of narrative. In Santhan’s creative world, male characters easily outshine female characters. Subtle insertions of eroticism in descriptions such as the following endorse a femininity and desirousness that, if at all, is rare is Santhan’s treatment of love: 

If [Sivan] opened the window, he would catch sight of [Chaturi] near the jasmine bush at the corner of the vegetable plot, in her nightgown with her hair cascading over her shoulder, like a forest nymph. How she tried to please him! Her bewitching smile, her nimble movements, and the doe-like timidity and the joy of seeing her after being separated during the night made him mad; he felt like a needle being attracted irrevocably by a powerful magnet. (Santhan 34)

Even a few days before they were discovered, her beautiful pink-flowered gown and his black-striped sarong had hung there, side by side, proclaiming to the world their intimacy. Even when dry, she hadn’t wanted to remove them, and the thrill when she saw the rain-soaked clothes again in the morning! (45). 

In this instance, Chaturi is presented in overtones that cross between pastoral Romantic writings and the kind of eroticism visible in a writer such as DH Lawrence. In any case, “Oddumaa” offers a jigsaw piece that helps readers rounded insight to Santhan’s universe. It sufficiently complicates the presentation of the writer’s thinly-disguised self in Sivan (or, in Every Journey Ends, Murugan) and even faintly suggests the kernel behind Santhan’s conciliatory and mediatory response in framing Sinhalese and Tamil relations in a country torn apart for decades by (politically manufactured) ethnic strife.  

“රාවණා හොඳ එකෙක් වෙන්න ඇති”: සුරංග කුරුප්පු ආරච්චිගේ සරළ කාව්‍ය කෘතිය ගැන

රාවණා හොඳ එකෙක් වෙන්න ඇති (2020, සයුර ප්‍රකාශන) ලෙස නම්කර ඇති සුරංග කුරුප්පු ආරච්චිගේ කවි එකතුව මාතෘකාවන් රහිත ඉතා කෙටි පද්‍ය පන්තීන් 64 කින් යුක්තවේ. එකතුවේ පද පේළි සංඛ්‍යාව අතින් “වඩා දිගම” කවියේ පේළි 32ක් වන අතර කෙටිම කවි ලෙස සීපද ආකාරයෙන් රචනා කර ඇති කාව්‍ය රචනා එකොලහකි.

ගී පද සිහිගැන්වෙන නිමාවෙන් ඇති කාව්‍යයන් බහුතරයක රචනය තුල එලිසමයටත් පේලි අතර රිද්මානුකූල බවටත් පහත දක්වා ඇති ආකාරයෙන් සංවරශීලී හා ඒ්කාකාරී අවධානයක් කවියා විසින් ලබාදී ඇත:

ගල්වලා විළවුන් 
දෙපා දෙව්වත් සොඳින්
කෙහෙරැළිවලින් නුඹෙ
පිසදැමුවත් බැතින්
සොඳුරු බස් අස අසා
ලඟම සිටියත් තුටින්
මග්දලා දෙව් හදක් 
සෙලවෙන්නේ නෑ ඉතිං (පි. 38)

ආකෘතිමය පදනමින් කුරුප්පු ආරච්චිගේ පද්‍යවල වැඩි බර තිබෙන්නේ සම්භාව්‍ය රචනයේ ශික්ෂණය සිහිගන්වන නිමාවකටයි. ඉහත සඳහන් කල එලිසමය සහ තානය හා රිද්මය යන කාරණාද යොමු වන්නේ මේ අදහස දෙසටමය. පද්‍යයන්ගේ කෙටි බව සහ සරළ බව නිසා කවියාගේ නිර්මාණාත්මක ක්‍රමෝපාය සහ නිපුණතාවය ගැන ගඹුරු අදහසක් ඇති කරගැනීම අසීරු වේ. එකම දිගු කවි පන්තියක තැනින් තැන තීරු කොට, බිම් කොටස් බෙදා හරින ආකාරයෙන් බෙදා හැර ඇතැයි සිතෙන ආකාරයේ කෙටි කවි කිහිපයක් ද මේ අතර වේ. උදාහරණ ලෙස “මදනළ මොටද මගෙ නම නුඹෙ”, “ඉඳහිට බැල්කනිය උඩ” සහ “සයුරු රල කඳ පෙරළි පෙරළී” කවි තුනෙහි ඇත්තේ අඛණ්ඩ අදහසක අවස්ථා තුනක් බවට තර්කයක් ඉදිරිපත් කල හැකිය. මේ කවි තුන අතරට “කුණාටුව නුඹ හද සයුර මගෙ කළඹනා” කවිය ද ඇතුලත් කල හැකි ය – ආකෘතිමය අතින් මේ අවසන් කවිය සිවු පදයක් වීම නිසාත් ආකෘතිය යන කාරණාවට වැඩි උනන්දුවක් දක්වන නිසාත් පමණක් එසේ ස්ථානගත කිරීමෙන් වැලකී සිටිමි.

ඇතැම් අදහස් කාවදින අයුරින් ඉදිරිපත් කිරීමේ දක්ෂතාවයක් කුරුප්පු ආරච්චිට ඇති බවට කෘතියේ අවස්ථා කිහිපයක්ම සාක්ෂි දරයි. විශේෂයෙන්ම කාමය සහ ශෘංගාරය මතුකෙරෙන සහ එවැනි ජවයෙන් පරිපූර්ණත්වය සොයන පද්‍ය කිහිපයක්ම කෘතියේ අවසන් භාගයේදී හමුවෙයි. මේවා බොහෝ විට “කවි” ලෙසට නැවුම් බවක් ප්‍රදර්ශනය නොකරන නමුත් ඒ් අදහස් ඒ් ආකාරයෙන් පිලිගැන්වීමට කතුවරයා ගෙන ඇති ආයාසය ගැන සුභදායි අදහසක් ඉතිරි කරයි. “කිරි සුදු කකුලක” කවිය උදාහරණ කර ගන්නේ නම්, ක්ලීෂේටික බවකින් ද යුක්ත පහත නිර්මාණයේ “අදහස” පමණක් කවියාගේ චිත්ත අභ්‍යන්තරයේ වන උණුසුමක හා ආවේගයක ඡායාවක් ගෙන හැර දක්වයි:

කිරි සුදු කකුලක
අනවශ්‍ය රෝම ටික
උගුල්ලන පිලිවෙළට
ඉගිල්ලුවෝතින් අමන බැමි ටික
හීනියට රිදුනට
පසුව දිලිසෙයි කදිමට (පි. 52)

ඉහත කාරණයම සනාථ කෙරෙන පහතින් දක්වා ඇති උපුටනය ශික්ෂණයෙන් හීන, අසංවරශීලී, (ඔප)මට්ටම් නොවූ නිර්මාණයකි:

හිතුනෙම යන්න 
බෝසත් ගමනක් 
දැනගෙනයි හිටියෙ
එන බව සුජාතා 
කිරිපිඩුත් අරගෙන 

දැන් ඉන්නෙ මං
කිරිපිඩු හලාගෙන 
හත්පොලේ ගාගෙන 
සුජාතා බදාගෙන (පි. 55)

උපමාවකින් පවසන්නේ නම්, ඉහත “කවිය” බ්ලැක්ඇඩර් නාට්‍යයේ බෝල්ඩ්‍රික් විසින් සාමාන්‍යයෙන් ලියනු ඇති බවට නිගමනය වනු ඇති රචනයකි.

කවි අතර අතීත වන්නියේ භාවිතය හා චාරිත්‍රය සිහියට නංවන රූපක අඩංගු කවි කිහිපයක් ද වේ. බටහිර වෙදකම නිසා අභාවයට ගොස් තිබුනු නමුත් සම්ප්‍රදායික ගම් හා කැලෑ ගම් ආශ්‍රිත සංස්කෘතියේ වැදගත් තැනක් ගත් “දුම් හට්ටිය” (පි. 16) මෙන්ම “කිරි කොරහා (නැටීමට)” තරුණියකට කෙරෙන ආරාධනය ද (පි. 13) මීට උපහැරණ සපයයි.

සමස්තයක් ලෙස රාවණා හොඳ එකෙක් වෙන්න ඇති කෘතියේ වඩාත් ප්‍රශස්ත යැයි හැඟෙන්නේ පහත උපුටා ඇති කවියයි. මෙහි ආමන්ත්‍රණය අන් සියලු රචනයන් අභිබවා ප්‍රබල ලෙස මතුවී තිබේ. නිමිත්තක් ලෙසටත් නිර්මාණාත්මක ඉදිරිපත් කිරීමක් ලෙසටත් මෙම කවිය හා අභිමුඛ වන වෙනත් කවියක් සමස්ත එකතුවෙහිම නැති තරම්ය:

තියෙන කම්මැලිකමට
පොතක්වත් කියවන්න
හිතාගෙන හෙමිහිට
අරිද්දි අල්මාරිය 
අයිනක තිබුණ යට 
අක්කගේ මැහුම් පොත
ගමේම කෙල්ලො ටික
දීල තිබුණ මිමි ටික
මම නැති ටික දවසට
වෙනස් වෙලා හැමෝගෙම
ඉණයි පපුවයි සැරටම (පි. 18)

මෙම කවියේ ද අවසාන පද පේළියේ අවසාන වචනය – “සැරටම” යන්න – යොදාගැනීම නිසා කවියා සමස්ත නිර්මාණයටම හානියක් කරගෙන ඇත. කෙටි කවිය පුරාවට කේන්ද්‍රගත කරගන්නා ජවය හා ඒ් ක්‍රියාවට අනුබල දෙන්නා වූ සංවරශීලී බව හා නිර්මාණයේ බුහුටි බව මෙම තනි වචනය නිසා උදාසීන කරගෙන ඇත. මේ වචනය තෝරාගැනීමට ද කුරුප්පු ආරච්චිහට අනුබල දී තිබෙන බවට සිතෙන්නේ “මම නැති ටික දවසට” ආකාරයෙන් යොදා ඇති කවියේ නම වෙනි පේළිය හා එකොලොස් වැන්න සමපාත කිරීමට ඔහු ගන්නා තීරණයයි. සම්භාව්‍ය ආඛ්‍යානය මට්ටමින් සිතා කරනා මෙවැනි තෝරාගැනීම් නිසා කුරුප්පු ආරච්චිගේ ධාවනය යම් බාධාවකට ලක්වේ.

U. Karunatilake’s “Colombo Diary”: Testimony of Sri Lanka in Transition.

In Sri Lankan English creativity, there are two poets and one prose-writer that have hardly received the critical attention they deserve. The two poets are George Keyt and U. Karunatilake; the prose writer, RL Spittel. Of course, Spittel has appeared in the margins of academic essays on Sri Lankan writing where his extensive literature on jungle communities receive a veritable footnote. However, he is notably omitted from the accepted canon of Sri Lankan writers where the likes of Lucien de Zilwa, SJK Crowther, Rosalind Mendis, HE Weerasooriya and a few others – who wrote less extensively than Spittel did; and, arguably, with lesser quality – receive generous inclusion (one hopes that Spittel’s omission is not owed to his Englishness; for, in other ways, Spittel has served his Ceylonese birthright, contributed to its social, scientific, academic, and ecological domains, recorded extensively human and wild life in remote jungles and jungle villages and moved key debates on conservation and upliftment of rural communities).

Nor does George Keyt feature in a way that can be called “prominently” in studies of Sri Lankan English poetry.

Keyt’s three collections, at best, receive a passing mention in essays dedicated to the history of modern Sri Lankan Writing, despite their reflecting a modernist sensibility which Keyt shares with his painting. In the cultural sphere, George Keyt’s name is best remembered in its being tied up with an unflattering remark by DCRA Goonetilleke: that Keyt wrote as Professor Godbole of EM Forster’s A Passage to India would have written had he been so inclined to compose poetry (Goonetilleke 197). For the late-comer, the judgment given by the good Professor (Goonetilleke, not Godbole) is that George Keyt’s poems are gibberish. Thanks to the efforts largely of another Goonatileke – HAI – George Keyt’s poetry was later edited and anthologized as a single volume: George Keyt: Collected Poems (1991). However, this edition has gone off the interest of latter day literature students and contributed to very little – academically.

The second poet to whom I referred earlier is U (Upananda) Karunatilake: whose work – despite their range, volume, and thematic promise – have gone largely unnoticed and unappreciated. Karunatilake authored The Kundasale Love Poems (1999), Kandy Revisited (2001) and Testament in Autumn (2004). His turn to literature seems to come at the end of a long career that had been fairly well-spent in state employment and seen the better of a transitional Sri Lanka through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The forward to The Kundasale Love Poems is written by Douglas Walatara who attempts a review in brief. Blurb matter for Kandy Revisited are pooled from the likes of Alfreda De Silva, Priya David, and Nanda Pethiyagoda.

Keyt

The first two collections largely emerge from a deeply personal place drawing on memory and family; specially the happy times spent with his wife (referred throughout as “Kusu”) whose death moves the writer to compose “in the pain of separation” (Kundasale Love Poems, Preface). Testament in Autumn, in contrast, occupies a broader thematic range including several politically-instructive verses, and a long epic-scale poem titled “The Scholar”. A key aspect of Karunatilake’s success as a writer is his subscription to a political creed used as a tripod for a well-defined, set worldview. Karunatilake identifies with the Communist line, and betrays a hearty belief in socialism. In particular, his worldview comes into the fore of diary entries he later collected as Colombo Diary (2003), based on reflections in 1971-1975.

Colombo Diary is equally significant at yet another count. It presents a fulsome document for a general audience that strives for U. Karunatilake’s soul – which, for the main, remains untraceable as there is very little public discussion of the writer. The poetry Karunatilake has left behind is not taught in university. To begin with, few academics seem to know of him having existed, leave alone having an academic opinion of Karunatilake’s work. Both Kandy Revisited and The Kundasale Love Poems have been awarded the State Literary Award; but, that’s saying nothing, as that prize itself is heavily dubious, politicized, and more frequently than not given to defy the salients of logic and scientific method. Colombo Diary is at best an insightful catalogue that threads the personal with the political, written with social insight and a degree of maturity worth our attention in reading a transitional moment in modern history, Sri Lanka’s socialist experiment at the dawn of its republican years.

Here, I fixate on a specific entry – that of Tuesday, 21 August 1973, based on a trip Karunatilake undertakes to visit his home-village in Wangiyakumbura, in the Uva hills, and back by train. Home and back, Karunatilake is an intimate witness to Sri Lanka at cross-roads:

The train journey was not too dull - the occupants of my compartment up to Nawalapitiya being a large Burgher family taking their children home for the vacation. Their main bulk of luggage was pillows - this took up one entire luggage rack. They were lively enough, chatting and darting from window to window, teenager to nine years olds. They spent most of their pocket money for the trip on chocolates and peanuts which they served all round, to me, and another young Burgher couple, who got off at Gampola. I handed some chocolates round myself but didn't join the conversation, mainly the usual frustrated adult small talk about the dreadful state of the country. The young couple apparently were migrating to Australia in a few weeks - the man was quite positive in his rejection of Lanka, everything according to him was going wrong - they were not letting him do what he liked with his money, was the most repeated complaint - but his wife was soft spoken and was charming enough not to support her man's views of the country (Colombo Diary115-116). 

At Nawalapitiya, “a Sinhala trained government official” and his family takes over from where the Burghers leave. The wife was a “fat school-mistress type” who was “still clutching the remains of a lunch packet” which she nonchalantly “put out of the window as the trained pulled out” (116). The family consisted of two teenage daughters and an eight-year old son, the parents’ favourite. Karunatilake writes:

The father was pointing out the tea bushes, and the nice women 'tea-pluckers' and the mother was pointing out the waterfalls and informing the son vaguely that they were responsible for electricity - the education of a new citizen was in progress. The couple was polite and pleasant enough though in a rather loud way, and they were the new up-and-coming middle class, who would vote for reaction if they got the chance, because they were just getting a hold in a world that was being threatened by the new forces of change. They were the minor bureaucrats who would relish harassing the peasants from among whom they had themselves risen, and who would indulge in bribery and other corrupt practices without hesitation... These were the 'new forces' that 1956 had unleashed, unfortunately going the same way as the old, complete with the Ariya Sinhala uniform, the Sinhala Buddhist myth, and the bottle of arrack. (116). 

Leaving the train at Boralanda, the author walks through a village track, where he meets familiar village men returning home from their fields. Talk turns to agricultural matters and the prices fetched by vegetables.

'Cabbage and potato prices are keeping steadily up in the towns. How much are you getting for cabbage?'

'Last week we got 35 cts.'

'It was seventy cents in Colombo.' There was a hoarse chuckle.

It was the only comment, somewhat cryptic, on the Five-year plan, and the productivity year, and all the stir about getting the economy into gear. You struggled through a drought, spent all your money on fertilizer and seed, broke your back getting a crop ready for the market. Somebody sitting in his snug cell in the Pettah wholesale market was reapingthe benefit. The officials, Co-operative, and Marketing & Agrarian, who were supposed to protect the peasant from the wholesale merchant were also benefitting - they were actually protecting the wholesaler from the peasant at a price. 

Thirty five cents was actually a record price for cabbage in this area - it was usually only three cents - a price at which the peasant preferred to let it rot in the field. This is why the chuckle was somewhat good natured. Things were not so bad. But they could be better - very much better (118).
Spittel

Reaching home, Karunatilake’s reunion with his ageing father is a happy one as much as it is an unexpected surprise for Karunatilake Sr. Three days later, it is time for the writer to return to Colombo. The belief seems to be that “some of the provincial co-ops had a much better selection,” therefore, the wife had assigned him to check for sarees at the Boralanda co-operative store on which the family’s textile coupon was to be spent. However the obliging husband doesn’t get a chance to carry out the assignment.

Between Gampaha and Colombo, Karunatilake has a conversation with a railway waiter. Together, they watch the rice as the train speeds along the journey’s last stretch. A newspaper cutting with the faces of SWRD Bandaranaike, Mao Tse-Tung, and Mrs. Bandaranaike is pasted to a window of the counter. “All the waste lands by the rail road are now being opened up,” the waiter comments (122).

He pointed to the cleared thickets on the borders of the rice fields where now vegetables and manioc bushes were taking over. I nodded my head. 'We must grow our own food - we must rely on ourselves. We must get out of the habit of depending on outside countries for our food'. 

He pointed out mischievously at patches of march land that were now mysteriously showing signs of human interference - 'They are forced to do it - otherwise the land will be taken over'. 

He was a youngster full of hope - wanting to do things - taking pride in other achievements. He pointed out a diesel locomotive in the yard as we clattered into the Fort station - 'That engine was made totally in Ceylon.' He may have been slightly inaccurate - the diesel unit was perhaps either reconditioned with locally machined parts or transferred from another scrapped engine but still the major part of the job had been done here - he was proud of his railway connections. (122-123).
Mrs. B visit to China in 1972

In writing these entries, Karunatilake doesn’t engage in too much critical commentary. It is reasonable to believe that he holds a tacit optimism for the coming generation of youth: particularly those like the waiter, presumably from the working class, for whom life beckons much promise. But, Karunatilake’s assessment of the lower middle class riding on the 1956 shockwave – as seen in the comments he imparts on the mid-tier educational bureaucrat and his wife – is coloured by a forbidding cynicism. On the whole, the wide and varied range of Karunatilake’s observations contribute to an instructive close up of the writer who comes across as a leftist, but a moderate. The juxtaposition of the Burgher family and its playful and unaffected grace with the its crude and corrupt alternative – the louder-than-necessary Sinhalese couple – bring on masterful selection as, elsewhere, Karunatilake is a nationalist, too. The street-wise observations of land-grabbing and encroachment along the rail track after Gampaha read as glimpses of emerging problems of the new world: but, ruptures that almost inevitably happen when there’s a shake up and a new life ethic takes over.

Works Cited .

Goonetileke, HAI. Editor. George Keyt: Collected Poems, The George Keyt Foundation, 1991.

Goonetilleke, DCRA. Sri Lankan English Literature and the Sri Lankan People 1917-2003. Vijitha Yapa Publishers, 2005.

Karunatilake, U. Colombo Diary. Sarasavi Publisher, 2003.

—. Kandy Revisited. Sarasavi Publishers, 2001.

—. The Kundasale Love Poems. Sarasavi Publishers, 1999.

—. Testament in Autumn. Sarasavi Publishers, 2004.

Jasmine Jayasekara’s “Water Lily”: Its Love Poems

Young lass you are my Spring bloom
I am yours, your yellowish groom
Awakened amidst many morning chirps
Bend I so down your sweet touch seek

Yellow, my sunshine, you are my flower
Heard they chirp and found my lover
Tall your cheek lie jump I higher
Bend my sweet low kissing my hair  

- “Yellow Lover” 


Hey! Village lass
The bunch of water lilies
In your hand and
The one on your hair
Whisper me
The story of your beauty
And the beauty of 
Your soul
That was brightly 
Illuminated by
Your soulmate

- “Waterlily”

In her collection of 37 poems, Water Lily (Queen of Sea Publishers, 2021), Jasmine Jayasekara locates her work according to a range of themes – conventional to anthologies – such as “Family”, “Pain”, “Nature”, “Countryside”, “Love” and so on. However, rendering such classifications futile and redundant, the anxieties, emotions, and thoughts expressed in Jayasekara’s poems often permeate the walls of such boundaries. As a result, the better love poems in the collection are found under the theme/class “Nature”, while, in different shades and shapes, love is also found in categories such as “Family”, “Pain”, and “Farewell”, as well. The two poems I have quoted above, as a frontispiece, are both from the “Nature” category.   

In Water Lily, Jayasekara injects her poetry with a rich pastoral echo seemingly inspired by English Romantic poetry. Textbook-features of this pastoral tradition such as happy and contented rural households, caring domestic relationships, domestic grooming, and romanticized landscapes are abundantly found in all sections of the poems; and sometimes at the risk of being found clichéd, as well. Jayasekara further demonstrates her anxiety (if not influence) of the Romantics in arrangements such as

Good morning swan,
Good morning lass.
I hear you both,
Every morn worth. (41)

and

Hey! Village lass
The bunch of water lilies
In your hand and 
The one on your hair
Whisper me (28)

which breed Romantic nostalgia.

In the pastoral vein, Jayasekara’s “family poems” characterize a girl’s secure childhood spent in a caring domestic overseen by an extended family network of two generations. This space of unwavering and unconditional love is expressed through poems such as “Father”, “Grandmother”, “The Gift”, and “New Eyes” that set the tone for the collection. This tone immediately contrasts with the next batch of poems, titled “Pain”.

The pain that interests Jayasekara originates emotionally, and from – or as a response to – the breakdown of a relationship. This section presents memorable stanzas such as the following found in the poem “Ripped Heart”, which shows refinement in craft and sentiment,   

Beautiful love song whispering full moon
Smiled amid black stain spilling 
My light doesn’t bring sunshine at noon
Yet I burn no heart sweet and chilling (21)

while, the following, from “Mother”, distracts the reader by what, in linguistic terms, reads as the poem’s colloquial preoccupation; unless, its compositional unrefinement:   

There was a tiger mom
In a far dark wood
She had a cub girl beautiful and sweet
This little girl had enormous affection 
Tiger mom was thrilled she felt very loved 
They went inside found some more food
Came back so late hugging they went to bed
Happy and so warm was their dark den…

This little cub girl swelled with big bosom
Has she bloomed now her petals of youth 
One huge tiger lad sniffed the fragrance 
Of the female youth and the womanish beauty
Slowly but steadily stole her heart (22)
Jasmine Jayasekara

Colloquial syntax notwithstanding, the poem underlines a certain force and untutored flow of emotion and physical expression. The choice of a tiger for imagery (again, not an alien image within the Romantic tradition), perhaps, intensifies the rustic and natural sensation Jayasekara desires to immerse herself in. Turbulent emotions – which often borderline the traumatic – are further enforced in sections of poems such as “The unloved lover”.    

The poems under the category “Love” rides on a sequence of union and separation, a continuation of life through new births, and motherhood at the end of a long wait: the latter, an event that Jayasekara likens to a “reward” (46). In “Flame in Ice”, the poet attempts to characterize a relationship begun with the admission of a “lost soul” to one’s life, which terminates in heartbreak (44). While the poem ambitiously strings together a complex sequence of events awkward and skewed use of imagery unseams the poem from communicating effectively:    

Collecting pieces
Mended this heart
Like a carpenter
Collecting wood
To make good furniture…

… Lost soul with broken heart
Solitary blossom with maimed bee
Made such a blessed match 

The furniture-manufacturing carpenter and the image of a “maimed bee”, perhaps, could have benefited from refined poetry.  

In “Birth” – a poem that describes childbirth – the narrative opens with a reference to the new born whose gums are presented (it is implied) as being sweeter than roses:  

It was twilight darkness staggered
Dawn of new life showered rays of light
sweetness spilled soft shrieks lingered
Toothless pink gums defeated roses. (45)

As the poem develops, changes the childbirth brings on the domestic space are given focus. However, similar to “Flame In Ice”, skewed imagery and idiom (which I have underlined for emphasis) undermine the intensity of the poem’s intended expression:       

Love birds flew away, love song mended
Little breast swelled now blood turned snow
Lullabies hanged in the air of love palace
King kissed queen’s head paying his gratitude

This little duckling sought new meaning 
Pampering little chick, her heart melted
Love juice so yummy quenched thirst of tummy
Birth of such wealth gold gift of heaven. (45)

As noted in the outset, some of the “nature poems” in Water Lily read as better love poems, crafted with care and refinement. In places, the poet’s attempt to subscribe to a rhyme-scheme comes across as stifling. That notwithstanding, poems such as “Yellow Lover” and “Pink Petals” are rich and satisfactory:

Young lass you are my Spring bloom
I am yours, your yellowish groom
Awakened amidst many morning chirps
Bend I so down your sweet touch seek

Yellow, my sunshine, you are my flower
Heard they chirp and found my lover
Tall your cheek lie jump I higher
Bend my sweet low kissing my hair... (27)  


... Pink petals
Lie naked
Yearning
soles so pink 
To flower
Their heads

Golden waves 
Of her hair
Tossing here and there
Whisper “no”
To the flirting pink
Floating in the wind

Speeding pace
With floral silk
Up in the air
Walks she there
With burning bosom
To bury her hair
Under his arms so fair (29).

Jayasekara’s expression of desire frequently relies on tactile sensations – often fleeting and momentary experiences which are caught at/as a glimpse – which include a series where the caressing or kissing of feet and soles are prominent (refer, also, the reference to “pink petals” that yearn for “soles so pink”, above). In this regard, the concluding stanza of “Night” is provocative as it is memorable:   

Moonlight peeps like a lover
Into your hut
Not to kiss your feet
But to blind your eyes
And caress your arms
That ached with cruel whips
Of the burning rays. (30)

The defining feature of Jayasekara’s expressions of love in Water Lily is the transience and restlessness she attributes to them. Where love is concerned, relationships, states of mind, intrigues, and consummations are, at best, seen as transits in a continuum of human experience. Love is hardly ever glorified or fetishized. The romance that draws and separates is identified for its intrigue and play. The dictum of Jayasekara’s treatment of love is found in the category “Farewell”, where the poem “Goodbye!” reflects as follows:     

You, a Summer visitor
Know nothing about
The pain
Dumb walls bear
And the emptiness
Surrounded by them 

‘Goodbye’ –
The word of gratitude
Repays the cups of tea
You sipped
And the bread you
Swallowed
Goodbye! (66)

Works Cited

Jayasekara, Jasmine. Water Lily. Queen of the Sea Publishers, 2021.

Her Rural Women & Some Household Servants: Punyakante Wijenaike’s “A Way of Life” and “The Waiting Earth”.

[This piece was written for Sri Lankan English Writers Review and published on 02 June 2022, viewable here].

Punyakante Wijenaike

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 .

Sketch from “A Way of Life”: Ardiris watching Isabella Hamy and Sellohamy bathe

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. 

Works Cited

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.

The Sooty Beard Man in Gayathri Hewagama’s “Conquering Karma”.

In 2022, Gayathri Hewagama published her debut short story collection, Conquering Karma: A Collection of Island Tales. The book consists of seven short stories arranged in two sections and is dedicated “with love” to “the scrawnies of Tear Island”; Tear Island being a caricature of Sri Lanka, the erstwhile Paradise Isle. Hewagama’s stories represent a diverse range and are written to bisect or brush past one another in places. The book’s first half consists of four stories written in prose that is self-contained in its being unprovoked where stories such as “At Mara’s Playground”, “The Prince and the Pauper – Act I”, and “Conquering Karma” stand out. These stories demonstrate an almost meditative quality as they draw on themes of self-discovery, introvert self-questioning, and working-through angst. In contrast, the book’s second half turns on aggressive self-expression notably infused with a measured use of satire and derision which Hewagama employs quite Dryden-like; though, at times, this experiment collapses leaving the writer more adjacent to Shadwell.

Gayathri Hewagama


Take for instance the story “2024” with which the second half of the book opens. The story by itself presents a vocal critique of the mass political culture of the times which Hewagama articulates through an admixture of dystopian imagery pasted over the ignominy of widespread political illiteracy. The symbol of this culture running on mass dependency on political dynasties is the “eheyya”, a political breed quite like the masses in a novel like Orwell’s 1984. In fact, “2024” opens with a ritual atmosphere probably framed that way to echo exercises such as the “hate ritual” in Orwell’s book: state-imposed drills which keep the mass psyche under the sovereign’s thumb. In “2024” there is a parade of sorts in which the eheyyas take part as onlookers:

“On the thirteenth day, of the thirteenth month, when the island clocks strike thirteen, they may catch a glimpse of a scrawny populace in loin cloth, commonly known as eheyyas, gathered by the entrance to the Great House, waving flags with a lion at its centre, clutched in their frail hands. For it was on every thirteenth day, every thirteenth month, when the island clock struck the thirteenth hour that the motorcarde carrying the sovereign clan, six hundred and sixty-six in number, would reach the Great House gates”. (69)

The almost pagan effect Hewagama conjures from the use of repetitive numbers – an effect akin to the sinister arts and witchcraft – energizes the uncritical camp-follower in the eheyya, only to peter out being unable to sustain or develop into a more wholesome critique: “One distracted eheyya,” Hewagama continues that section, “put his palms together at the motorcade instead of waving the Lion flag”:

“The things was that, in the initial commotion generated by the arrival of the first gargantuan conveyer with deep-tinted shutters, [the eheyya] had had his Lion flag thrown from his hand… To avoid being electro-pricked by the taser points of the sentinels, the eheyya did what an eheyya could. He let go of his palm-pressed suppliant posture, plunged his hand below his waist line, pulled [out his penis], which he began to wag vigorously.” (70)

As mentioned earlier, Hewagama’s descend into the bawdy resonates with a neo-classical disciplining on the writer’s part, but with such over-reach what she had thus far developed with the utmost concentration and application is abruptly compromised from delivering a better fruit.

Ashan Weerasinghe

For an audience receptive of Gayathri Hewagama’s breeding ground as a scholar and creative practitioner – one familiar with her Peradeniya days, initially as a student (2004-2008) and then as an academic of the English Department there (2009-2015) – sections of the story “The Prince and the Pauper – Act 1” offer resonant reading matter. In key sections of this story a character bearing the united characteristics of two of Hewagama’s influential Peradeniya peers – that of poet, academic, and superannuated dramatist Dhanuka Bandara (now living in an undisclosed location in the United States) and poet Ashan Weerasinghe – makes the reader’s acquaintance. This unnamed character is commonly referred to as the “man with the sooty beard”; incidentally, an arsenal neither Bandara nor Weerasinghe were known to have, even though on occasion the latter was endowed with a sooty mustache.

The “weather-worn satchel” the sooty beard man carries, the obsession with Nietzsche he demonstrates, the love of Dostoevsky – “Dear Fyodor. J’adore!”, his inner voice speaks -, a general appraisal of Russian classics, and a preoccupation with Arthur Schopenhauer further stabilize the bearded character as an admixture from which tell tale signs of Bandara and Weerasinghe – and, of the duo, more Bandara – cry out. Ashan Weerasinghe – who, at Peradeniya acted in two of Dhanuka Bandara’s plays, majored in Sinhala, was fixated on the subaltern, and wrote the two poetry books ඊළමක් වූ ප්‍රේමය and ද්‍රෝහීන් ඕනෑ කර තිබේ – was often associated in those circles with Schopenhauer, and where the sooty beard man reaches out his free hand towards a Schopenhauer with “yellowed spine” and “pages uncrumpled” one cannot but help think of Weerasinghe. While Weerasinghe on occasion carried books with spines of memorable colour, a poem in his debut collection narrates falling asleep on a Schopenhauer book1. On the other hand, Bandara’s fascination with Nietzsche, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky was often the stuff of conversation over tea. His poetry and theater have, in degrees, reflected their influence on the young artist. In talk these names often predominated. As much as Weerasinghe carried the heavy book and Bandara philosophized about it, in Hewagama the two come together, one as being symbolized by a “wrinkled” book, and the other, in a book with a “yellow spine, yet uncrumpled, unsoiled”:

“The man with the sooty beard sits while in meditation. Then, picking up the books, he stuffs them inside his satchel, the belt of which he flings over his head and across his chest. He stands up, the pile of old newspapers under one arm and starts walking towards his little hideout on the outskirts of the bustling town. Over the lake he goes, crossing the old stone bridge precariously poised above the water. A bustling town with a lake at its center. A bustling town with a name as sweet as Candy” (36).

If, in the above extract, one is to replace the lake with a river, there are many bridges leading away from Peradeniya.

Dhanuka Bandara with Sandamini Ranwalage in, “Like” of the “Aeta” / “Mall Star” / “Like” sequence under “Parallel Theater” which he wrote and produced at Peradeniya.

Intriguingly, except for this singularly palpable allusion to Weerasinghe-Bandara Conquering Karma is devoid of further cross-reference or insinuation of sorts to Peradeniya as a place and space, or to Hewagama’s circle there. For the work of a writer who seems to have transcended the Peradeniya romance – a syndrome that often burdens those who spend at least three years in the university – and to have abandoned other influences on her growth as a literary creator, Weerasinghe-Bandara (via the sooty bearded man) alone remains the karma which Hewagama has not entirely succeeded to conquer.

Notes

1 Ashan Weerasinghe’s poem “Presentation”:

Presentation
"The World is a presentation to me" - Arthur Schopenhauer 

කුලී කාමරේ ගල්තලාව
නොහොත් ඇඳ කියන එක උඩ
ඔබ මා එක්ක
හීනෙන් දැක
අවදි වූ විට
ශෝෆන්අවර් කොට්ටය යට. (37)

Works Cited

Hewagama, Gayathri M. Conquering Karma: A Collection of Island Tales. Jam Fruit Tree Publications, 2022.

වීරසිංහ, අශාන්. ඊලමක් වූ ප්‍රේමය. ස්වාධීන ප්‍රකාශනයකි. 2010.

Menaca Calyaneratne’s “A Fistful of Stars”: A Simple Collection.

Menaca Calyaneratne’s A Fistful of Stars is a collection of 61 seemingly simple and innocuous poems. Written in uncomplicated Spartan lines of an easy metre, “yet grab you I will like its the end of the world”, a line from the poem “My Way”, is the collection’s longest single line. The arrangement is dominated by personal themes which set the general tone of the corpus. Poems, among several others, such as “Braille” (on a sudden realization / a non-religious epiphany), “Peace” (coming to terms), “Teacup” (resilience), “Incompatible” (of life’s ironies) and “Kind” (persistence) deal with abstract ideas and themes, and are poised between sequences of otherwise introspective and soul-searching musings.

Menaca Calyaneratne

The vast majority of poems involve a You and an I (or, much less in appearance, an us). As many as 40 out of the 61 poems play out between the You and the I, peddling anxieties, advertising for acceptance, betraying possession; pleading, urging, demanding, taking, and giving. In those 40 or so poems – except for a few articles that interest an academic point or two – nothing new is presented which the reader hasn’t heard or seen in the last 600 years of English verse. To explain further, in terms of idiom, content, context, and the frills, the poems are somewhat pedestrian. In several poems, (towards the collection’s tailend), however, the You – or the immediate Second Person as addressee – is replaced with a Third Person singular She or – as it happens in the poems “Emergency” and “Water” – with its plural: a They. In the poem “Caring” where this substitution is introduced to the collection, the shift is both disarming and memorably sudden. The pattern set by the You and the I – by then, a familiar and expected sustainment page after page – gives way to the following sequence:

She held me 
Stroked my head
Rubbed my shoulders
Held my hand with both of hers
Asked if I am alright 
Called when she got home 
Cooked my favourite dish 
Watched Star Wars with me
Surprised me 
Left a thin feather on my pillow...

... (Updated my status)
Sang to me
She watched me sleep. (34) 

(Despite it not being for the lines’ poetic merit, this poem constitutes the key moment in A Fistful of Stars). In “The Fetcher” – a poem accompanied by an instructive quotation which claims women and children spend 140 million hours each day collecting water -, the referent She is present as a carrier:

She carries the water
Every drop counts
As tears escape 
She years for rest

To just immerse in water. (46)

The concluding poems also indicate a frustration of feeling built on an implied deterioration of the relationship between You and I. The purring softness of the initial verses where – having “come armed/with a smile” – I yearn to “take your heart hostage” in the “dead of the night” to “demand/a single kiss” (1) is replaced by heartbreak and fury:

Take a bow 
Raise yourself
You are nothing 
Without me

How you played 
That character
Othello never looked
So good

When the curtain falls
Look at me - your audience
You are nothing without me. (49)

The Desdemona-like hysteria in the reference to Othello has written in it a complexity which, at best, insinuates abandonment and male indifference; or, otherwise, a heart thoroughly wounded by its own over-expectations. The proactive intent and torrents of passion seen in poems like “My Way” (quoted below) further demonstrate the growing urgency and fermentation of a desire that cannot hold itself back for poetic refinement:

I don't know how to love
Like you do, my love
Yet grab you I will like it's the end of the world
Kiss your nose, with your eyes closed
When you and everyone else dare forbid
I will leave my print on your forehead
In my embrace you will know
You are everything that I wish to own
But I won't say a word to make a claim. (56)

The strength in A Fistful of Stars is in its emotional build up and introspective poise. The book reads best when considered as a teleological corpus. One might concede that Calyaneratne, through the collection, maps a personal catharsis of sorts. The poetry has its moments in presenting the reader stars by the fistful. But, the book’s success is mostly dependent on the size of the individual palm.

Works Cited

Calyaneratne, Menaca. A Fistful of Stars. [Publisher Not Declared], 2019.

The Early Anandawansa: Reading “I Picture the Mosaic”.

“I am a flower bent over the railway.

How will you come to pluck me?

By foot or by train?”

The Question.

Krishanthi Anandawansa’s Simply Freckled (2014) followed her debut I Picture the Mosaic (2009); a collection that was dedicated to Achintya, the one “incomprehensible, beyond understanding”. Of this unselfconscious and forthright book, poems such as “My Diary”, “Checkpoint”, “Marketing”, “Suicide” and “Tsunami” stand out (a word-economist, Anandawansa thrives in poem titles that don’t test one’s patience). A defining feature of this collection is that Anandawansa doesn’t try to pretend or appear to be cool. Particularly in Sri Lanka, a writer who doesn’t wallow in self-importance is a refreshing find. I Picture the Mosaic presents such simplicity which speaks in the book’s layout and line up, and in its content, artwork and form.

Krishanthi Anandawansa

However, my first impressions of Anandawansa’s poetry go as back as English Literary Association readings at the University of Peradeniya in 2004 and 2005. A poem she presented at a writers’ conference at the Senate Room, University of Peradeniya, I remember, even moved the great stoic Nihal Fernando to nod in meditative agreement. I no longer remember the title of this piece. The poem, however, deliberated on how the world order was predestined and how the insect caught in a spider’s web was a part of that designation. The narrator, who curbs her natural instinct to break the web and save the dying bug, dares not to disturb the universe – Prufrock-like. The presentation of this somewhat complex idea, I remember, demonstrated alluring simplicity. Despite the house being teemed with esteemed Peradeniya and visiting dons who penetrated structure like one did the cheese, Anandawansa steered with clarity that evening in presenting what would have, perhaps, even gone down as a boring, deterministic idea. This was a good five years before the promise of I Picture the Mosaic.

Fast forward in time, Anandawansa’s long-awaited second collection, Simply Freckled (2014), failed to thrill or live up to the tone and temper of its predecessor. Simply Freckled was an ambitious project that collected 48 poems endorsed by a preface written by the late Ashley Halpe which promised the reader “a near-bewildering kaleidoscopic variety of experiences” and “a vibrantly feminine poetic voice” (Simply Freckled 7). However, despite the variation in experience and event – which, after all, is a commendable foresight to have when collecting two score poems – Anandawansa, in this book, often miscues the conversion of ideas into articulations and expressions with the same carrying power as some of her Mosaic poems. In instances, the ideas fail to convert at all, leaving much to be desired in their diminished and crumbled states, simply freckled.

A rereading of I Picture the Mosaic after Simply Freckled encouraged me to rejoice over the Early Anandawansa in poems such as, for instance, “Suicide” where she engages in the existentialist line which marked some of her university verses in the mid-2000s.

What courage and strength of mind in unison needed
to end all for a worthy cause? ...
... What exactly is left? 
The lesson and cause frozen 
with time, to be rubbed away gently from hearts and minds. (Mosaic 14)

Anandawansa’s deliberations in the poem “Marketing” might break the hearts of many university administrators of the 2020s who insist on “learning outcomes” and “course objectives” that guarantee in making the university graduate “employable”, and thus “marketable”. Despite some universities allocating actual cadre positions and curriculum space to ensure the development of Graduate Employability (sic), even as late as the mid-2000s when Anandawansa presumably wrote “Marketing”, it was normal for an undergraduate student to question the hard politics of soft skills. In the corporate world that speaks in such a register, marketing one’s assets is the glory road. Anandawansa’s self-deprecating response is perverse and cynical:

He said "You should learn to market your assets."
How?
I am neither interested in marketing nor getting big money.
It is hard to live with such a conscience, in such a damned market world.
They pass me off as a kid still trying to learn the ways of the world. 

I am a parched coin from ancient history; a golden egg from the white 
hen in the beanstalk castle. 

I only have a market in Fairy Land. (Mosaic 3)      

In “Checkpoint”, the poem’s narrator recounts an embarrassing encounter at a military checkpoint: a premise numerously exploited by creative writers for its violence on the female person. From the screening of personal details and personal belongings to one’s being suspended and made to feel vulnerable and exposed the checkpoint-space, over the past four decades, has cut deep into the imagination of the war-affected country. Her luggage “disorderedly scattered / upon a table in front of the barracks” – her “books, notes, food, clothes / all in one messy heap” – the poem’s narrator is made to “feel like a clown” when she had to ask for soldiers to return her identity card which they held on to:

But now I had to stand there
amidst the tall soldiers,
abhorred by the filthy jokes and comments
on my parents.

Felt like a clown...
The soldiers' laughs, winks, stares, glares, 
the bewildered looks of the commuters
comfortably seated back through the glass.

I was almost in tears.
Seeing this, they gave my most precious NIC
with fears,
and shoved me back into the bus. (Mosaic 25)   

The poem leaves the soldiers’ comments for the reader’s imagination, but little doubt is left as to the damningly personal and uncompromising nature of these comments. Anandawansa’s delivery pitches in the zone of many warzone narratives that reach catharsis in the vicinity of the checkpoint. The rape and murder of Chundikuli Girls’ College student Krishanti Kumaraswamy in 1996 – coincidentally Anandawansa’s namesake – is one such “checkpoint-tragedy” that has reached the public imagination in multiple creative forms. Anandawansa’s experience offers empathy while – especially from a southern interventionist point – extending the range within which gender and identity complexities of the “checkpoint” ought to be read.

Since Simply Freckled, which was published in 2014, there is no record of Anandawansa publishing poetry in the form of a collection. It is understood that she has resigned to a career teaching English in a university. Such assignments generally enrich the poet’s soul. Its harvest, perhaps, is worth our patience.

Works Cited

Anandawansa, Krishanthi. Simply Freckled. Sanghinda Printers and Publishers, 2014.

Anandawansa, Krishanthi. I Picture the Mosaic: A Collection of Poetry. Organization for Literary Accomplishments, 2009.