The Continuing Relevance of Martin Wickramasinghe

By Uditha Devapriya | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 29 2021
Columns The Continuing Relevance of Martin Wickramasinghe

By Uditha Devapriya 

I wonder how many people remember Tisara Prakashakayo. Long before Sarasavi and Vijitha Yapa, or even Godage, Surasa, and Visidunu, everybody bought books at Tisara. If offered a wide range of titles, authors, and genres to choose from, include not just history, but also social theory, cultural anthropology, and Rupa Saparamadu’s Sinhala Geheniya. It published Paul E. Pieris’s ambitious works on Portuguese and Dutch colonial history, as well as Ananda Coomaraswamy’s Medieval Sinhalese Art. More ambitious in breadth and vision, Father Vito Perniola’s study of the history of the Catholic Church in the country also saw the light of day here, as did Knox, Baker, and other accounts on Sri Lanka by other white men. 

If Visidunu’s focus has been on Munidasa Cumaratunga and Gunadasa Amarasekara, Tisara’s world revolved around Martin Wickramasinghe. The dots aren’t hard to connect, since the owners of Tisara were related by marriage to Wickramasinghe. It didn’t just publish his short stories and novels, his essays on anthropology, Marxism, and Darwinism; it brought them all together. Today Wickramasinghe’s books have another publisher, and people have perhaps forgotten the role Tisara once played in disseminating them. But copies of those books are, if I’m not mistaken, still there, neatly bound and available for the ardent litterateur. 

Located in Dutugemunu Street between Kohuwela and Kirulapone, the Tisara building is easy to miss. When I first paid a visit in 2019, I had to find my way through an endless maze of cobwebs and stairs. By then I had lapped up every copy of Vito Perniola’s histories of the Catholic Church Colombo’s bookshops could yield, and I needed the missing volumes. Awed at the literary antiquities Tisara had to offer, I returned weeks later with a friend. Surveying the books and tomes, my friend pored over the Martin Wickramasinghe collection. 

He had read the man, yet shuffling through the covers and tomes, it seemed like he was discovering him for the first time. He was particularly fascinated by the English titles. “He wrote in English?” he asked, clearly not having read them. “Yes,” I replied, proceeding to point out that Wickramasinghe wrote more than 2,500 essays and many of them were in the coloniser’s tongue. My friend looked disconcerted. “How?” he mouthed. Popping out like a bolt from the blue, the question felt both amusing and confusing. 

An aberration 

But the source of the confusion was clear. For someone who went through a monolingual, monocultural education, a figure like Martin Wickramasinghe represents both an aberration and a problem. He is, simply put, a norm to the rule, a departure from the norm. Today, for all intents and purposes, the bilingual poet and novelist, and critic, are dead. The Sri Lankan writer operates in the vernacular or the coloniser’s tongue. 

For him, at least a great many of his peers, a midway compromise seems almost unimaginable. In its own special way, this is both a tribute to, and a critique of, 1956: that while it cut down the power of the anglicised elite, it did so without providing a proper anchor for a new generation. Wickramasinghe’s emergence as a novelist and critic of renown was conditioned by two factors: Sinhala nationalism and cultural modernity. 

The one dovetailed into the other: the revival encouraged many artists to experiment in the arts, thereby unleashing a wave that swept over the country’s cultural landscape. Particularly in the realm of the theatre, but also painting, exciting strides were made, with artists pioneering one innovation after another. These represented both a rejection of and response to colonialism. In that scheme of things, the press, the polemic, and the pamphlet occupied a special place and played a prominent role. 

It disseminated the spirit of revival, but did so borrowing many of its tactics from its own enemies, using the latter’s tools to upend them. The first Buddhist press, built and begun in the 1860s, gave a much needed impetus for the revival to take off. In the early 20th century, its impact was everywhere, its influence undeniable: in the Sinhala and English periodical and journal, the medium of literature soon became a rallying point for both Buddhist reformists and Sinhala nationalists. In the long run, their interests converged: while no two nationalists ever viewed the revival the same way, an unyielding belief in the traditional, the local, led them, thereby becoming the defining feature and guiding principle of their movement. 

Decay of traditional 

values Some arts underwent a modernist revolution rapidly. Others took time. Thus theatre, the most open and expressive art patronised by the Sinhala middle-class, projected a unique if peculiar attitude to colonial rule: while it lamented the decay of traditional values, it tended at times to promote a history in line with colonial historiography. Perhaps the best example of this would be John de Silva’s Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe: while the play does lament a lost heritage, a Sinhala ‘Arya’ heritage, it at the same time depicts a key figure associated with that heritage, the last king of Sinhale, as a mad tyrant, a drunkard laggard. 

One realises just how contradictory these two aspects of the play are when one infers that this unflattering portrayal of the king was in line with most colonial era accounts of him, particularly that of the intrepid Orientalist soldier-spy, John D’Oyly. At least as far as ‘nurthi’ plays went, hence, the nationalist revival affirmed an essentially colonialist historiography. In the realm of literature, the relationship between colonial presence and cultural revival played out slightly differently. 

At the turn of the 20th century, two writers stood apart and away from their peers: Piyadasa Sirisena and W. A. Silva. Sirisena’s polemics, populist and pugnacious to a fault, pitted the indigenous against the “Other”, which was almost always the para sudda; he also railed against public and personal examples of cultural creolisation, deploring both Westernisation and mishra vivaha. De Silva was of a different mould, peppering his retellings of history with Victorian adventure thrillers. Yet even he could not resist the temptations of being a nationalist at a time of revival. 

Thus while Sirisena railed against Westernisation and turned the Christian evangelist and convert into antagonists in his stories, de Silva made subtle, snide remarks against these objects of ridicule; just notice how he treats Portuguese fidalgos in Vijayaba Kollaya. There is no doubt that de Silva borrowed from the West, while Sirisena rejected the West. Yet both, in their own way, embraced the spirit of nationalism. 

Dynamics of social change

Martin Wickramasinghe played to a different audience, and chose a different path. Much like Sirisena and de Silva, he was self-taught, perhaps more so than latter two. On the other hand, he absorbed much from the press: not just the currents of nationalism, but also Marx, Darwin, the Russian Revolution, and world affairs in general. This was no mere smattering of knowledge on his part, but a reflection of a wide range of interests. 

From history to anthropology, from Darwinism to Marxism, he picked up a more than slight grasp of the dynamics of social change, witnessing these changes first-hand and committing them to memory. If Upan Da Sita seems more evocative than any Sinhala autobiography I have come across, it is because you feel what the man felt; more so in his Sinhala prose than his English, there is a tactility transcending what is written. Simple though his language is, it is charged with a fullness of meaning rarely matched by any other writer. 

Wickramasinghe’s concerns went beyond Sirisena’s and de Silva’s preoccupation with the traditional and the indigenous. His engagement with history, our history, was arguably more critical, and hence reflexive, than any of his predecessors. He did not valorise national values if he considered such values inadequate to the task of forging a future for the nation from which they had sprung. His writings thus reveal a sensibility far removed from that of vulgar nationalists and uprooted cosmopolitans, both of whom he deplored. 

These essays and pamphlets delve into different, yet interrelated topics. Most of them are about traditional culture, while the rest pore over such themes as education, socialism and nationalism, and religious history. They are critical in that Wickramasinghe only rarely offers a definite answer; reading through these essays, you are immediately struck by an evenness, a frankness, that borders on but does not quite embrace the polemical; thus while criticising the failures of colonial education policies, he criticises nationalists who wanted to turn back the pages on those policies by replacing English with Sanskritised Sinhala. 

He did not limit these judgments to the literary realm, but went on to embrace the political also. This is why, for instance, he excoriated Buddhist monks who held a protest fast at the Prime Minister’s residence against the Banda-Chelva Pact; for him, the protesters not only tried to deny Tamil people “the rightful place to the Tamil language”, but also “treat[ed] the common man’s spoken Sinhala as a vulgar language.”He did not see much of a difference between those who called for ‘Sinhala Only’ and those who wanted to replace English with a ‘chaste Sinhala.’ This is a point seldom appreciated by critics who see Wickramasinghe as a nationalist, but that is how he saw matters concerning his country and culture. 

My friend managed to pick up what he could from those English essays. He found them uninteresting, passé, not on par with the Koggala Trilogy and the novels and short stories. For a generation that reads Wickramasinghe as a novelist and a nationalist, this view is not hard to agree with. Yet Wickramasinghe’s world existed beyond Koggala; though rooted in the world he sprang from, he belonged to other worlds, worlds he wrote of not in his novels or short stories, but his essays. It’s time we reread the man, I think. We could start by going back to Tisara, and buying what little of his work remains there. 

The writer can be reached at [email protected]

By Uditha Devapriya | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 29 2021

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