On the  occasion of the DSC South Asia Literature Festival, London – October 2010

I must thank the organizers of DSC South Asian Literature Festival for giving me this opportunity to introduce from Bridging Connections, the first anthology of short stories to showcase writing from all three Sri Lankan languages. It was published by the National Book Trust of India, and has now been translated into several Indian languages, including Tamil which is of course one of the Sri Lankan languages too. 

Regrettably the Sri Lankan education system until recently ensured that most Sri Lankans were stuck in reading knowledge of one language only. Students were compulsorily educated in their mother tongue, and in most parts of the country schools were segregated, not only as Sinhala and Tamil schools, but also as separate Muslim schools. Though English was in theory a compulsory second language, it was not necessary to pass any exams in it, so it was usually neglected. The other language, Sinhalese for Tamils and Tamil for Sinhalese, was rarely taught.

 Fortunately that situation has changed in the last decade, with the second national language being made compulsory in schools, though as yet with no compulsion to pass in it. However knowledge of this is now compulsory for new recruits into government service. In addition, English medium education is now permitted, which will once more enable people of different ethnic groups to study together.

For the older generation however the problem continues. Though this volume will at least enable some Sri Lankans to read stories written originally in the other national language, we must remember that this will be confined to a small elite, namely those who read readily in English. We have yet to develop better policies and abilities in translation, though I should note that steps in the right direction are at long last being taken.

Before I read a story or two, I should say something about the selection. Naturally, a large number of stories deal with the ethnic and political violence that has plagued Sri Lanka over the last quarter century. In choosing stories that deal with this subject however, I looked also to cover other social aspects, while seeking too for a range of characterization. I have tried too to highlight the sensitive manner in which writers have tried to empathize across what some might call the ethnic divide. The stories by Sunethra Rajakarunanayake and S Yoganathan and Maureen Seneviratne suggest why, despite the increasing violence of the last years, we continue to hope that a nation with a national identity can be constructed.

I will begin with the shortest story in the book, written by Aiyathurai Santhan, who continued even in the most difficult times of the recent conflict to maintain contact with literary colleagues in Colombo. He teaches English, and writes in that language too, though this story was written originally in Tamil. It relates simply what seems a day-to-day occurrence, and it is only in the swift and sudden reference to a historical period at the end that the writer creates a sense of the enormous tensions the people of the North went through at that time.

 Aiyathurai Santhan – THANKS

Maniyathar belched to his satisfaction. He took four long gulps of water from the small brass pot.

            When he carried out the empty plantain leaf on which he had eaten, he saw the bitch Sivappi standing in the backyard.
            ‘Are you still here?’ he asked the dog.
            Without putting the empty plantain leaf in the garbage bin, he went back into the house. Sivappi, thinking she was wagging her tail, was really shaking her whole body, in her joy at having been addressed..
            ‘Why are you bringing back the empty leaf?’
            Maniathar, without replying to his wife, only stared at her as though he were thinking. Then he said abruptly, ‘Get me a stick of firewood. A big one.’
            His wife looked down. ‘Let it be there, poor soul,’ she said softly.
            ‘Who is to look after the puppies of this bitch? This creature we reared?’
            ‘But it’s you who brought home this stray dog, even it was a bitch from the
street.’
            Maniathar was raging with anger. But his wife didn’t stop.
            ‘Even if it is a bitch, didn’t we depend on her all these days? We always knew if anyone was coming.’
            ‘That was then. But now the Indian Army has left. What do we need her for now?’
            He went in search of a piece of firewood.
            Sivappi was still wagging her tail as she looked up hopefully at the door of the kitchen.

The next story belongs to a much older period, and was written by Alagu Subramania, who had been part of a literary circle in England on the lines of the much more famous Tambimuttu. The story is in comic mode, but deals with the very serious problem of caste, something which, if less obviously now, still affects both the Sinhala and the Tamil communities in Sri Lanka.

Alagu Subramaniam – PROFESSIONAL MOURNERS

             My grandmother died late at night on a Saturday. We were wakened in the morning by the cries from grandmother’s house and the sound of drums. We dressed hurriedly and ran to her place.  We had hardly entered when we heard the shouts of the ‘Master of Ceremonies’, who was in charge of all arrangements on such occasions. He was our uncle, a teacher in a small school and a trifle mad. He always spoke rapidly and loudly. And when he was angry he would shout at the top of his voice until the whole village heard him. This morning he was furious because the professional mourners had not yet arrived. ‘I’ll go and fetch them myself,’ he said, and stamped out of the house. I left my brother and sister, and ran after him.

              We walked through sandly lanes and narrow winding footpaths. There were no dwelling houses about and no noise, though I thought I heard the hissing of snakes under the bushes and the howling of jackals in the distance.

             Presently we arrived at a row of huts near the seashore. By the beach stood fishermen, some mending their nets, assisted by their wives, others on the point of putting their catamarans out to sea.

‘Stop, stop, you stupid rascals,’ cried my uncle as he ran up to them. ’Don’t you know that my aunt’s funeral is to take place today? You low-minded fellows! You should be there instead of on the seashore.’

 ‘We didn’t know about it,‘ they said, as they left their fishing nets and catamarans. ‘We shall be there soon.’ They clasped their hands and bent down.

 Admonishing them again, my uncle walked on in search of the mourners. ‘That is where these wretched women live,’ he said, pointing to a few huts even smaller than the ones we had left behind.

 He stopped outside and called. Two women, dressed in coarse saris which did not come over their shoulders or heads, came out. They wore bangles from their wrists to their elbows, and anklets that jingled as they came forward. He shouted at them angrily: ‘I sent word to you that my aunt’s funeral will take place today. Why haven’t you come all this time?’

‘We were getting ready to come, master, please pardon us for being late,‘ said one of them.

‘Where are the other mourners?’ growled the Master of Ceremonies.

            ‘There are only two at the moment, sir, two sisters. We don’t know where the rest are, but even these two cannot come as their mother died this morning, and they will have to attend the funeral.’

          ‘Nonsense! Where do these wretches live?’ he demanded.

          ‘Not far from here , sir.’

          ‘Lead me there!’

          The two women led the way and we followed them. They stopped outside a hut and yelled for the two sisters who came out, tying the upper part of their saris which had slipped down over their pointed breasts.

         They stopped suddenly, stared for a moment ,and then prostrated themselves before the Master saying, ‘Please excuse us today, Sir. Our mother died this morning and we are too much overcome with grief to come and cry at the funeral of outsiders.’

        ‘Impudence!’ cried the Master. ‘Two mourners are not enough for my aunt’s funeral. Remember who she is.’

        ‘Please excuse them,’ said the mourner who acted as the spokesman. ‘It is not fair, as they will have to shed tears of genuine sorrow on the loss of their mother instead of pretending at your place.’

              I noticed that the lips of my kinsman were trembling and his eyes were dilated. The woman who had spoken looked down. I shook my head in sympathy. The Master’s anger was now diverted to me, rushing like water through fresh sandbanks.

        ‘Don’t be a silly fool,’ he scolded. ‘What do you know of these things? Your father’s lawyer friends are expected. His Honour the Supreme Court Judge and the Police Magistrate are coming, and what will they think about us if we don’t have enough mourners?’

             The sisters, still on bended knees, begged to be excused.’ We didn’t mean to be rude, sir,’ said one of them, ‘but please let us go this time. On the next occasion when there is another funeral at your place, we will come and howl until our throats give way!’

        ‘Insolence!’ shouted my uncle. ‘So you are wishing for another death in my house. Probably you desire mine, you miserable creatures!’ And getting hold of their saris he dragged them along the ground for some distance.

         ‘Please remove your hand; we are coming,’ they wailed.

 The Master of Ceremonies released them and strode forward leaving the four mourners and myself to bring up the rear.

             On reaching grandmother’s house the women threw their hands in the air, unfastened their hair, and began to cry. In the course of their professional duty they heard some of the genuine weepers whispering that grandmother might have been taken away from us long ago, but the great god Siva had spared her till Cousin Thampoo, her favourite grandson, returned from Malaya. This gave them a new slogan. They rose from the carpet, ruffled their hair, crossed their arms, beat their shoulders and cried :

            ‘Your grandson has come, wake up, my beloved!

 Your grandson has come, wake up, my darling!‘

             Meanwhile, the Master of Ceremonies had boasted of his great deed to his friends who, contrary to his expectations, were horrified. They protested against the inhuman act of the Master, who was forced to apologise to the two mourners. Many of the guests, too, offered their condolences to the sisters, and my father, after promising to compensate them adequately, told them to go home.

             Now that the Master of Ceremonies had been reprimanded, the women preferred to wait till the entire ceremony was over, declaring that they might as well stay a little longer and give the full benefit of their services.

 The Master, on the other hand, since an action of his had been severely criticized, tried to make up for it by undertaking extra work and engaged himself more busily in his duties than before. He scolded the drummers for slacking, ridiculed them because they could not even drown the voices of the professional mourners, and exhorted them to beat faster and louder. Then he carried bags full of rice, packets of incense and other ceremonial necessities to the bedside of the corpse. By this time he was tired and panting. 

              The effort, following on the walk to fetch the mourners, had exhausted him. Suddenly he fainted and fell flat on the ground. Some of the visitors shrieked, while others ran to his assistance, carried him to a corner, washed his face with water, and fanned him.

              The two sisters among the mourners, whose voices had till now lacked their usual intensity, rose and rent the air with their shrill cries, quite unconcerned about the fate of the Master of Ceremonies. The four mourners now worked in unison, their bodies swaying like reeds in the wind, and lamented in chorus:

‘The poor will miss you, oh, you charitable one!

Who is going to feed us on festival days?

Your grandson has come, wake up, my beloved!

Your grandson has come, wake up, my darling!’

 

Finally let me read one of my favourite stories, by Punyakante Wijenaike, who is I think our most distinguished writer in English. She began writing in the sixties, but in those days academics disapproved of English, and suggested that writing in that language precluded genuine understanding of Sri Lankan experience. It was only in the eighties that the contribution of such writers was recognized, though I should note that the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, had been more generous in its approach early on. This story, ‘Monkeys’ , is an example of the writer’s capacity to empathize with different mindsets whilst also making readers think and feel.

Punyakante Wijenaike – MONKEYS

 The sun was right overhead and the rock was warm. Its heat bounced off and touched him even through the heavy folds of his yellow robe. The robe hindered free movement, but nevertheless he managed to clamber up, so strong was his desire to see his monkeys. At last he sat on the rock surface. The monkeys, running barefoot like him, did not appear to suffer from the sun. They jumped and frisked, their furry bodies accustomed to heat. Their mothers and fathers watched them from a dignified distance.

He brought out the black begging bowl hidden in the folds of his yellow robe.

‘Here, here,’ he called to the baby monkeys.

They came to eat out of his hand. A simple diet, bits of left over food for which he had gone a-begging at noon with the older monks. It was his sole meal for the day, for at night even samaneras did not eat. From his meagre meal he had managed to save two slices of bread and a plantain. He now broke these into pieces and fed the monkeys.

No one in the hermitage knew about this daily meeting with the monkeys. Each day, at this time, he stole away from his disciplined life during his sole leisure hour – twelve noon to one o’clock – just to be with his monkeys instead of resting from the heat of the sun, as he should be.

Now he stretched out on the rock, ignoring the scorching sun. The little monkeys clambered all over him. They pulled his robes, tickled his bald scalp, brushed his cheeks with their long tails. One or two of the mother monkeys came near. Suddenly he wished he was a baby monkey with a monkey mother who allowed him to tug at her pink breasts, drink her warm milk. Gingerly he put out a hand and touched a nipple. But the mother monkey giggled, chattered and sprang back into the herd.

He shaded his eyes with his hand and wondered about his own mother. She had died at his birth. The Head Priest of the hermitage had told him so. His grief stricken father had gifted him, as a babe, to the hermitage to be trained as a monk. ‘His horoscope must be very bad to have him kill his mother at birth.’

And so he had lived in the hermitage in the forest, knowing only the yellow robed hermit monks, and now he was six years old. He had been content until the monkeys came into his life. Now, when he was with the monkeys, he was not a young priest but a child with his playmates. When he touched the monkeys, and they touched him, he touched love. And he had never known love till now. No one in the hermitage touched him with love. Compassion, understanding, yes, but not love.

When the sun grew stronger he know it was time to return to the hermitage, to return home. He got up reluctantly, and the monkeys scrambled back to their mothers. He went sadly, leaving the monkeys laughing and screaming in the treetops. He went back to silence and obedience.

He was tired. He had been up from four in the morning and now he was sleepy. Every morning the hermitage woke before the sun came into the sky. Every one washed their faces in the cold darkness and mist that rose around the hills. Then ice-cold water of the stream at that hour was invigorating. It shook the sleep  out of his eyes. But now he was sleepy. He tried to sit down to his meditations but found it difficult to concentrate on the breath coming in and out at the tip of his nostrils. He kept falling asleep.

The next day he rose again to the summons of the temple bell. He found it difficult to keep his mind on his breathing, knowing that in a little while he would witness the glory of the sunrise over the hills. It was the birds who warned him of it. Quickly he opened his eyes a little bit and saw the first pale pink streaks of light growing longer and then turning gold in color. The song of the birds grew stronger. And then suddenly the sun exploded in a burst of scarlet splendor. Quickly he closed his eyes. Now he could concentrate on his breathing. But the temple bell summoned him to his daily tasks.

First he went and worshipped the Buddha, sitting still with half closed eyes on his slab of cold cement. He removed the dead flowers and laid down freshly plucked flowers and cleaned out the black oil. It was his duty, as the youngest samanera, to keep the altar clean and fresh. Then he swallowed his breakfast of gruel made out of boiled rice and coconut milk mixed with green leaves.

His stomach full again after a night of fasting, he went and sat next to his guru the Chief Priest to learn his letters, learning, memorizing religious verses, until it was time to go a-begging for his noon meal. He followed the older monks, his head bent low over his black bowl, waiting patiently until food was put into it. They went down the forest footpath down into the valley and from house to house. Climbing back to the hermitage he could feel his friends the monkeys calling to him from the treetops. But he dare not lift his eyes to them for fear the other priests would see.

After the noon meal, when the heat of the sun was unbearable and the monks rested, he ran off into the forest to climb his rock again, his bowl filled with some sweetmeats given him by a house holder. He was trembling with tiredness because he had got up before the sun. But the sight of his monkeys banished the weariness. He even dozed off on the rock surface.

The Chief Priest was tolerant of his youngest samanera as he nodded off to sleep during the afternoon meditation. But in the evening when the boy went to bathe in the pool, he took a peek at his face reflected in the water and he saw the face of a monkey grinning at him above his head. Quickly he put his hand and stirred the water into ripples and the monkey vanished.

Later, while he was sweeping the compound with an ekel broom, he stopped to watch the sun set. Sunset was the opposite of sunrise. Brilliant hues fading into soft pastel shades which gave way to darkness. And then he became aware of dark shapes in the treetops – small mischievous eyes blinking and looking down at him.

As the sun rose and the pure light of early morning sharpened the outline of the branches the following day, he saw his monkeys, hordes of them, waiting and watching him. Now they came boldly down, some jumping, some climbing, and they walked all over the hermitage compound, startling the priests out of their morning meditation. He was bewildered. Why had they followed him here, why? Now his secret was a secret no more. His hidden love was out in the open. The monkeys plucked the fruit and berries and flung them down at his feet. One even hung on the bell rope and rang the temple bell. The other priests were laughing at the invasion of the monkeys but not the Chief Priest. He looked grave.

After the monkeys had run all over the compound chasing him, they climbed back, screaming and laughing, into the treetops. And it was then he saw the Chief Priest look at him sadly. The Chief Priest took him by the hand and led him into an inner room where the monkeys could not follow him.

He tried to understand the advice of the Chief Priest. He must not allow monkeys to dominate him, follow him here to the temple. He must not play with them or feed them, for then they would always follow him. Nor must he spend so much time  looking  at  the sun rise and set.

‘You are yet a child and are drawn to nature. But the natural life is not what we are seeking, my child. We are seeking to withdraw from life itself, not be born again. Therefore it is not too early to start training yourself not to be distracted by those who leap from tree to tree, chattering, laughing, but clinging mindlessly. They are only monkeys but you have been gifted with the mind of a man. You must seek to liberate yourself from bondage. My son, always remember this, remember how fortunate you are to be born a man.’

He refrained from going to his rock that day and the next. He could hear his monkeys call him, screaming, crying, but he did not go to them. If he went on playing with them, feeding them and loving them, they would always haunt him. They would not let him go. And so, with a sad last look, he turned away from the trees and the birds and the muted brilliance of the failing light of day .He must remember he was after all born a man.


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