In 2019, on July 31st, eminent Sri Lankan poet Jean Arasanayagam passed on. Barely four months later, on the 2nd of December, Carl Muller – arguably the most influential novelist in the English language the country has produced – breathed his last. In that order, the two writers were 87 and 84 years in age. Both were well-established, highly respected senior writers of international repute. Both shared in the characteristic that no one – perhaps, barring their own selves – knew exactly how many books each one had written and published.
Both Jean and Carl were Kandy writers. Jean lived and composed at Jansz House, the iconic Arasanayagam residence in Katukelle, along the Kandy-Peradeniya road, while – barely two kilometers off – Carl lived in Bodhiyangana Mawatha, off Heeressagala road. In the often misplaced pride of people, Kandy was quite oblivious to the fact that a generation’s most prolific poet and prose writer both lived within its city limits and the radius of a stone’s throw. Writing in English, perhaps, they were writing in the wrong language to be courted in huge numbers, their trade was unfashionable, or the city had no place for arts and culture. However, with these twin demises within a quarter of a year, the line of Kandy writers and artists has now lost both their front numbers.
Three years before, in November 2016, another literary pillar from Kandy passed on: Professor Ashley Halpe who, for two generations, was the flagship of English at the university of Peradeniya. He had served the university for 42 years, of which 25 were spent as Head of department. He was a translator, promoter of art, and a curriculum developer who had seen through crucial nationalist upheavals in the post-independence nation. Halpe was a poet and an inspiring teacher, but also a dramatist whose guidance helped half a century of Peradeniya and Kandy theater. Of more immediate interest to the essay, Halpe was a key player in Carl Muller’s arrival in the galaxy of writers: in 1992, it had been Halpe who encouraged Muller, then 57, to submit the manuscript of The Jam Fruit Tree for the then newly set up Gratiaen Prize. Muller went on to become the joint winner of the prize and – as the saying goes – the rest became history.
Between 1993 and 1998 – between The Jam Fruit Tree and Spit and Polish – Carl produced four memorable work as a part of an extending family saga set around a Ceylonese Burgher home, that of the Von Blosses. In a series of early to mid 20th century impressions that also included Colombo (1995), Muller investigated the systematic shifts and changes that overwhelmed Ceylon as it gravitated towards national independence which – following India’s freedom from the British Raj in 1947 – the island nation was granted in 1948. Carl and Halpe were close friends, and I have met the former on several occasions during literary evenings the professor used to organize in his Riverdale Road home. The relationship was mutually satisfying and highly beneficial to Sri Lankan literature, arts and culture as a whole. Carl Muller was later decorated with an honorary ‘Kala Keerthi’ by the state.
In late 2018, seven months prior to her demise, Jean Arasanayagam had written a memorial tribute to Ashley Halpe. A lengthy, epic piece, in it Jean recollects with characteristic emotion the early mentoring and friendship she received from Halpe. The relationship ran back to the 1950s and had been a fountain spring from which her literary and artistic flourishes were nourished. The poem was titled “An Ode in Memory of Ashley Halpe” and, in addition to its nostalgia for an ethic of a collaborative, mutually shared creative culture, the poem also powerfully encapsulates the personal relationship between Halpe and the young artist in Jean:
We staged, in that past, enactment after personal
enactment in our personal dramatic life-
sequences, remember how our rehearsals took
place anywhere at any time in those carefree
days, inserting our own words, our own speech
as each scene took shape, and the plot thickened,
the climactic moment reached with its
river banks, mountain tops, solitary cul-
de-sacs, secret enclaves, summer houses in that
Ornamental Park in our idyllic landscapes
of Academia in that forgotten century were
our venues, scraps of conversation, impromptu
utterance, desultory conversations formed our
unwritten dramas, compounded of romantic,
unreal dreams and illusions.
The times recollected here were the formative days of an illustrious career in literature in which Jean was both poet and painter. At the same time, she was also a teacher and a theater director – an energetic dynamo who, like her husband Thyagarajah Arasanayagam, influenced the lives of thousands of student who came and went to their home. Even to this day, the Arasanayagam residence is known among the sundry Peradeniya road commuters as the ‘house with literature’. Jean’s life as a poet took a decisive turn in the early 1980s with anti-Tamil violence mopping the Sri Lankan socio-political landscape. Her Apocalypse 83 (1984), as a single edition, is perhaps one of the most powerful and consistent efforts by a Sri Lankan composer. Through the 1980s and 1990s, her writing investigated violence against the Sri Lankan Tamil community and the larger dislocations and rupture patterns that stemmed from it. Even to her 80s, Jean continued to be prolific and at her work desk, composing poetry, fiction, memoir and plays. In 2017, her collection The Life of the Poet was awarded the Gratiaen prize.
The destiny and direction of Kandy writers have now arrived at a crucial juncture. The role played by the university in the culture, arts and literature of the post-independence nation resulted in a string of writers and arts practitioners to emerge, live and hobnob around Kandy through the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. In fact, Ashley Halpe was one of them. Originally from Colombo, he was an emigrant to Peradeniya in the early-1950s, from whereon he set his roots in the hill capital. However, with changing times, the contribution of the university to a sustained arts and literary culture has changed while, in the emergent smart-techno world, literature itself has been re-positioned within the hierarchy of creative expression. The collaborative and sharing cultures among practitioners too has changed while, to begin with, very few academics in English academia today showcase a creative nerve.
Between the generation to which Halpe, Jean and Carl belonged and the generation to which I belong there is a 50 year gap. As a Kandy-based writer who has persisted and been consistent in her output over the years, only the name of Kamala Wijeratne comes to mind. But, Kamala, too, is more 75 than 35. While it needs to be analysed and carefully understood, the chasm that stares back is overwhelming. Throughout the 20th century, Kandy was at a pivotal front of English literary productions. Whether the deaths of the Halpes, Jeans and Carls embody a rupture of this creative lineage is for the future to see. But, from where I view things, it is indeed a curtain call for a certain spirit of creative enterprise – in that sense, indeed, a transition of an age.