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Sunday, 20 March 2011





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Revisiting Aravinda Jayasena in Wickramasinghe's Viragaya

‘The Buddha said to Venerable Upali, and his foster mother Mahapajapati Gotami, “whatever Dhammas you know lead to nibidda...” This beautiful word nibidda means revulsion from the world, pushing us away from the things of the five senses.

It leads to Viragaya, dispassion or fading away, which leads to nirodha, cessation, the ending of things, which leads to upasama – this is perhaps the most beautiful term in the list – the peace and tranquillity’.


Many critics believe that Viragaya displays the best of Martin Wickramasinghe’s literary prowess. His skill in crafting the personality profile of Aravinda Jayasena, the protagonist of the narrative, makes it unique among his many works of creative literary expression.

A scene from Viragaya

Often dubbed the ‘psychological novel’, Viragaya’s appeal is in the behavioural profile of Aravinda, which leaves the ‘psychologically minded’ reader to mull over the complexities of his character. That makes it the piece of art it is: ‘something beyond the tried and true’, attracting international attention, leading to translations in Tamil, English, French, Japanese, etc.

Viragaya is the autobiography of Aravinda Jayasena presented by Sammy who was curious to discover his friend’s ‘inner self’ by reading his memoirs, after his death. Sammy throws a challenge to the reader in his epilogue: “what kind of man was he? If you can answer that question after reading this, you must have a deep understanding of human character and indeed of life itself”.

He asserted that demarcating the character traits of Aravinda was as difficult as discerning the colours of the rainbow. On my part, I have tried to look at the rainbow from several vantage points and have admired its beauty, but will not expect the reader to believe that I have seen all its colours!

The problem is: ‘there is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is’. [William James]

Buddhist family

Aravinda was born to a traditional Sinhala Buddhist family in the South, presumably at the turn of the nineteenth century.

His father was an Ayurvedic physician held in high regard by the village folk for his dedication to his profession, with no pecuniary interest, although his colleagues considered him to be rather unorthodox in his practice. With a desire to brush shoulders with the upper rung of society, the native doctor had a strong ambition to make his son a western-trained doctor.

Aravinda’s mother, on the other hand, had an affinity for the village folk and wished her son to be a ‘good’ man than a ‘big’ man.

Martin Wickramasinghe

Aravinda was the younger of two siblings; his sister Menaka was described as shrewd, controlling, temperamental, sharp-tongued and tight-fisted. She was the dominant partner in her marriage, sensitive to local convention but appearing to be partial towards her family. Despite his undoubted affection towards his family—more so towards his mother—Aravinda felt dislocated within his own family milieu.

Despite his good academic potential, Aravinda did not wish to succumb to the pressure of his father in choosing a career in medicine. An aversion for blood and the exposed human body [after seeing illustrations of venereal disease], and having to dissect toads and corpses, were given as reasons for not wishing to study medicine. Even suggestions by his family to take over his father’s practice by empirical learning of herbal prescription were turned down.

He selected subjects that inspired him rather than those which paved the way for a professional career. He studied chemistry, and saw it in parallel with alchemy, occult sciences and abhidharma. The shift in his focus from science to the transcendental, in search of hidden secrets of the universe, raised the ire of his teacher.

His ambition was to take up a less demanding job as a clerical servant and to pursue his interest in alchemy, but was troubled by the thought of having to go against his father’s wishes. The untimely death of his father resulted in mixed emotions of grief and relief.

At school Aravinda desired the attention of those who opposed him, in preference to that of his close associates. Although the school was a happy place for him, he never desired to maintain the relationships made at school. He believed that this approach to interpersonal relationships led to his progressive isolation throughout life. After leaving school he became increasingly introspective: “I tried to live within the world of my own mind”. “My inward eye became fixed on the recesses of my heart”.


Aravinda believed in maintaining privacy in the expression and articulation of love. He loved Sarojini [Sara] dearly, and was physically attracted to her. She loved him in return, with the expectation of their relationship evolving into a more meaningful one. But Aravinda conveyed to her that he had no clear plans for the future in terms of income, marriage and accommodation.

The strength of her affection towards him was revealed when she wrote to him suggesting that they run away, in defiance of her parents’ wishes to give her in marriage to a doctor or lawyer, and set up house in another district and live in a de-facto relationship. “She didn’t care for wealth, she wrote; she wanted nothing more than to live happily with her husband, bearing his children and bringing them up to be decent men and women”.

Aravinda was overwhelmed by Sara’s suggestion; he did not see beyond meeting with her and dwelling in the happiness of talking to her and dreaming of her love.

He relented and agonised over the social stigma attached to eloping, and finally succumbed to his brother-in-law’s caution that he would face the risk of prosecution for abduction as Sara was still a minor at nineteen. He wrote back turning down Sara’s proposal. His cousin, Siridasa, who also loved Sara, was affluent, self-confident and had a clear vision about his future.

After gaining her parents’ approval to marry her, he also succeeded in ‘winning her heart’. “He [Siridasa] was like a farmer preparing the field; when she was ready to respond he would sow his love, to be nourished by the warmth of her affection”.

Within two years of his father’s death Aravinda was faced with many changes to his life and family. It became apparent that father had no savings and had not ensured the financial security of mother.

To add to her despair Menaka produced a deed executed by father in favour of Dharmadasa, handing over the house and property to him, in return for the money he had borrowed from his son-in-law. Aggrieved by this transaction and the escalating disputes between mother and daughter, mother moved out of the family home permanently to live with her sister.


Menaka came to occupy the house with Dharmadasa and their son, Sirimal, but was soon to realise that Aravinda’s ongoing experimentation with alchemy [trying to convert base metals to gold], causing a few explosions, placed her son at risk.

This resulted in Aravinda too leaving the family home, which he would have inherited by convention, and finding alternate accommodation in a small house in a coconut grove beside a paddy field.

Aravinda found freedom in his new home. He pursued his interest in alchemy and became increasingly preoccupied with Abhidarma and the occult. He developed a friendship with Kulasooriya, a retired postmaster, and was drawn to his way of thinking. Living a life of detachment Kulasooriya ‘viewed the past without regret and the future without fear’.

As the friendship grew Aravinda became more and more withdrawn from society. He earned money only to meet his basic needs of food and clothing. His emotions regarding the death of his father, parting of his mother and the ‘loss’ of Sara faded away.

He reviewed his love for Sara:”the feeling that she had aroused in me was nothing like a real passion, or love: it was rather a romantically vague fondness for her-a passionless passion”. He believed he developed a greater insight into human nature by learning from experience.

Dismissing any suggestion that his change in lifestyle was a result of losing Sara, he detested any expression of pity by his family.

After moving into his new home Aravinda found a widowed woman [Gunawathie] with an eight year old daughter [Bathee] to keep house for him. He enjoyed having the little girl around attending to minor tasks, and wondered whether he was getting too dependent on her. Aravinda became the target of harsh rebuke by Menaka when she heard that he bore the cost of Bathee’s education and that the girl had started calling him ‘father’.

As Bathee reached adolescence she started paying more attention to her figure, grooming and cosmetics which made Aravinda re-evaluate his feelings towards her.

“Bathee was no daughter of mine, no relative; she was merely the daughter of my servant. When she was a child I had pitied her; as she grew older pity had changed into something else without my even realising it. By the time she became a grown woman pity had changed into attraction”.

But when he came to know through Menaka that Bathee is seeing a young man [Jinadasa], has written ‘vulgar’ love poems to him and had encouraged him to visit her at night, he became overwhelmed with a sense of impending loss, jealousy and anger.”I had been living in a dark, strange world shaped by my own imagination. Bathee had brought a little light into that world. I had been happy in the fancy that she would care for me like a faithful slave until my death.

I was angry and disappointed now over the mere fact that she had fallen in love with a young man, and not because the young man was a driver”. After much thought, Aravinda decided to give Bathee in marriage to Jinadasa and to buy him a car so that he could make a living as a driver.

The so-called scandalous gossip regarding Aravinda spreading in the village was too much for Menaka to bear. Employing a relatively young woman, supporting her daughter in her education, and when she grew-up, giving her in marriage with a dowry, provided much food for thought for a gossip-hungry village community. Menaka came down heavily on her brother accusing him of bringing the family to disrepute. She thought that if he had their mother living with him he would not have been subject to such innuendo!


After Bathee left home following the registration of her marriage to Jinadasa, Aravinda experienced a deterioration in his health. He lost interest in everything except Abidharma. He developed aches and pains, became increasingly weak and was breathless on physical effort.

The Ayurvedic doctor declared that ‘years of neglect had led to anaemia’. The patient did not respond to the medicines; in fact believed that it made him worse. As he became more and more incapacitated he was an invalid out of work after a medical assessment.

An attempt by Menaka to take him to her home to be nursed [the plan supported by Sara] was rejected by him. But in the terminal stages of the illness Bathee and Jinadasa took him to their home to be looked after.

“Bathee nurses me with a care and devotion that I hadn’t seen even in Menaka when she was nursing father. I would have found it incredible if anyone had told me earlier that Bathee, who is not my daughter, sister or wife, would show me such affection and sympathy”.


Embarking on an assessment of the personality of Aravinda Jayasena, I was reminded of the adage: ‘like a sailor without a sextant, a psychiatrist who sets out to navigate the dark waters of the unconscious without a theory will soon be lost at sea’! I have sought the assistance of several theories to guide me.

In his attempt at understanding human behaviour, Sigmund Freud proposed a theoretical framework which, despite alterations with time, has retained some basic elements.

Freudian theory of Psychoanalysis [Psychodynamics], if I may remind the reader, divides the psyche into two domains—the Unconscious and the Conscious, and three mental systems—Id, Ego and the Superego. The Id occupies that part of the Unconscious mind which contains the instinctual drives—sexual and aggressive.

The conscious part of the Ego, the moderator of all others, is in touch with environmental reality. The conscious part of the Superego consists of the individual’s moral and ethical conscience and societal convention. The unconscious parts of the Ego and Superego are believed to contain repressed fantasies and defence mechanisms.

It could be argued that faced with a series of challenges to his Ego by powerful forces of convention {Superego], Aravinda gradually resigned himself to a life of detachment.

He agonised over having to go against his father’s wish to make him a doctor with intensions of ‘upward social mobility’, until his untimely death eased the pressure.

He evaded the challenge placed before him by Sara to get married against her parents’ wishes and without a marriage ceremony dictated by custom.


He suffered immensely at the hands of the local community who spread malicious gossip regarding him and Bathee, raising moral concerns. “I saw myself in spirit as a hero battling the flood, staunchly resisting convention.

When the opportunity came to plunge in and show what I could do, my strength just melted away and emotion overcame my judgement.

So convention always won the day”. The character of Menaka [beautifully crafted by the author] was a destructive force on Aravinda. She was a hypocrite: acting as the conveyor of moral standards of the community, she was possessed with ‘primitive [Id] impulses’ of greed and manipulation. Kulasooriya, on the other hand, was a stabilising force on Aravinda’s Ego operations as they identified with each other in their philosophy of life.

‘As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined’: it is recognised that childhood experiences have a lasting impact on an individual throughout life.

Did Aravinda have unresolved and suppressed sexual anxieties that extended back to his formative years? A Freudian would revel in the thought of interpreting Aravinda’s aversion to the exposed female body [developed after seeing illustrations of venereal disease] and his dislike of dissecting human corpses [given as reasons to avoid studying medicine] as arising from suppressed sexual and aggressive impulses.

Did such unconscious sexual anxieties contribute to his decision to turn down Sara’s offer of marriage? With Sara, he didn’t see beyond ‘enjoying her company and dreaming of her love’. Sara as his ‘object of love’ was replaced by Bathee by ‘transference’. “Sarojini’s image had been gradually erased from my mind and Bathee’s had imperceptibly taken its place”.

“My feeling for Bathee had developed insidiously into something like the love I felt for Sarojini”. The battle within Aravinda regarding his sexual impulses is brilliantly portrayed by Martin Wickramasinghe in the following passage, when Aravinda called Bathee to his room on the night before her marriage to Jinadasa.

“Before she came in I lowered the flame of the lamp a little. I was afraid of betraying the confusion into which my mind had been thrown by the conflict going on within me. Thoughts which must never be revealed to Bathee or indeed to anyone at all kept rising in my mind. They were thoughts which like evil spirits preferred darkness to the light”.

“I had often thought that Bathee would be by me to look after me and to share my joys and grief as long as I lived”. Such a desire by Aravinda seemed to be at variance with his move towards detachment, and does raise questions about his emotional bonds and unmet affectional/ dependency needs during his formative years. He certainly felt disillusioned with his family which fell apart after father’s death.

“Bathee and Sarojini were the only human beings left for whom I felt anything like affection”. He fell into a state of melancholia after he ‘lost’ both of them, and in the final stage of his life ‘regressed’ into a dependent ‘infantile’ state and had to be carried across to Bathee’s. “I don’t need nursing—it is not that sort of illness”.

In many instances in his life Aravinda exercised his choice in an idiosyncratic manner. This was more apparent in the subjects he selected for study at school, the type of occupation he wished to make a living from, the way he related to others, and even in the issues of love, intimacy and marriage.

Choice is the central theme in Existential Theory, a philosophical movement started by Soren Kierkegaard, which emphasised individual existence and the freedom to act on one’s own convictions avoiding systematic reasoning.

‘Man exists; in that existence defines himself and the world in his own subjective way; and wanders between choice, freedom and existential angst’. Aravinda took responsibility for the consequences of his existence and did not place any blame on others.

He experienced plenty of anguish especially in relation to Sara and Bathee [in different ways] but was averse to any expression of pity by anyone.

According to the philosophical position of Existentialism Aravinda’s personality is defined by the choices he had made, and not as reflected through the interplay of conscious and unconscious mental processes as postulated by Freud.

Quoting the work of Erich Fromm, ”To Have or To Be”, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera in a brief commentary on the cover of The Way of The Lotus, ‘Viragaya’, states, “in Viragaya we see this dimension projected into creative literary art, in the conflict between having and being in the lived experience of human beings in a village in Sri Lanka”.

Menaka is the very epitome of ‘having’: miserly, hypocritical and exploitative, driven by a desire to possess, placing self-interest before human values.

Aravinda, although not infallible, is portrayed as attempting to take the path of ‘being’, with ‘love, care, responsibility, respect and knowledge’, as an alternative to the ‘destructive’ path taken by modern man by ‘having’.

The philosophical stance of Erich Fromm, [a social psychologist, psychoanalyst and social democrat] brings in a useful perspective to look at the life of Aravinda from a socio-political point of view.

In contrast to the above abstract considerations of human nature, phenomenology, introduced to psychiatry by Karl Jaspers, deals with describing conscious human experience.

Once described, the deviation of such phenomena from normality is judged by those with expertise, in a statistical or socio-cultural sense, and the distress it may cause to the individual or others.

By his own admission, Aravinda did not have the ‘self confidence’ to go against convention, and as Sara pointed out to him his ‘avoidance’ of situations was due to his ‘lack of assertive skill’; all such phenomena forming a cluster with his desired ‘dependence’ on Bathee.

It is rather poignant that Aravinda lapsed into a state of ‘depression’ characterised by ‘mental agony’, ‘loss of motivation and interest’, ‘generalised aches and pains’ and ‘weakness’ after Bathee left home to be married to Jinadasa. The associated development of chronic anaemia, placed him at a ‘biological disadvantage’, posing a risk to his life, which according to Scadding is the hallmark of a disease.

The sub-title of the English translation—The Way of The Lotus-- points to the spiritual dimension of the narrative. Adopting a verse from Anguttara Nikaya, the title is a metaphor for the path taken by Aravinda: “Rising above the world into which he is born.

The Superior Being follows the way of the Lotus”. Was Aravinda a superior being? With an interest in Abidharma, he had a propensity to rise above the rest from his childhood.

He resolutely pursued a solitary course except for sharing some common ground with Kulasooriya. He strove for self-mastery of his senses.

As a child, his approach of gaining rapport with those who opposed him at school was a harbinger to his future interpersonal relationships. He experienced anger and sorrow as anyone else, but never expressed his emotions, and with any build up of anger he turned it into compassion.

He has revealed his inner struggle at times to contain his passion for the opposite sex or any impulses of the flesh.

He tried to be dispassionate towards the painful and to bear much ridicule and contempt both from his sister and the local community, exercising patience and forbearance.

Despite being accused of being either naive or cunning, he continued with his obligations towards Bathee. Charity, he believed, should not accompany any exploration of hidden motives of the recipient. He was moderate in his eating habits and was free of any desire for status, wealth or pride. He lived in the present, striving hard to free himself from the past, and hence the future.

Aravinda writing during the last stage of his life, being looked after by Bathee and Jinadasa: “I know that I will not survive this illness.

But the sense of despair, of loss, of futility has left me, because here kindness, love and affection are palpable human qualities”. Was his alchemical explorations to find gold, a metaphorical quest to find peace and tranquillity?

“For him, who has completed the journey, who is sorrow-less, wholly set free, and rid of all bonds, for such a one there is no burning [of the passions]” [The Dhammapada, Verse 90]. Aravinda may not have completed his journey; he was certainly on his way.


Whatever way one sees the life of Aravinda Jayasena: as a series of conflicts between instinctual drives and convention; a struggle for freedom and choice; a deviation from the destructive path taken by modern man with a desire to possess; a spiritual journey towards peace and tranquillity shedding off all passion; or simply the maladaptive functioning of an inadequate personality, one cannot help being filled with awe [with all the nuances of meaning of that word] at the depth of intellect of one of our greatest Sinhala literary figures of all time, Martin Wickramasinghe.

Like a Ruddy Turnstone, the migratory bird, that keeps turning stones by the lake-side in search of feed, I have turned the pages of this great narrative –Viragaya—looking for food for thought.

I fly away, like the winged creature, with a full stomach, but with a nagging feeling that there may be many more stones unturned!

[This review of Viragaya was written after reading both the original [Sinhala version], and its wonderful English translation –The Way of The Lotus—by Professor Ashley Halpe.

The quotes are mostly taken directly from the English version and does not reflect any expertise on my part on Sinhala to English translation.]


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