Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 10 June 2012





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Gajaman Nona and Emily Bronté

Punchi ruwan, punchi ruwan, punchi kalé
watura aran linda uda tabuwaya kalé
ata paha nodanna jadayek meka kalé
gedara yanna denawada magé punchi kalé

Gajaman Nona

A little golden coloured pot filled with water was placed on the ledge of the well. A scoundrel who doesn’t even know five from eight has hidden the pot. Give me the pot to go home. <P>This was the poem uttered by an angry 8-year-old girl who had gone to fetch water and found that her pot of water was hidden impeding her going home. Her quick impromptu repartee chided the prankster. The little girl was none other than Gajaman Nona. When her father heard what happened at the well he smiled. He was pleased as his daughter had displayed her prowess in poetry which was a characteristic of his lineage.

Growing up

Gajaman Nona of Sri Lanka (1748-1814) lived in the end of Dutch and early British rule of the country in the south of Sri Lanka. She was able to spew out poetry as answer to any question, anytime. She had an erudite mind and was keen to learn. Teaching, at that time was only in Buddhist temples by Buddhist monks and no female students were allowed. Education was only for males and girls were expected to stay at home to manage a household, learn to be efficient in making good homes and to be housewives. The desire to learn was inherent in Gajaman Nona and the rules of the times could not keep her from getting educated. Disguised as a boy, she enrolled herself as a student in the temple school. She was strong even at that age to go against the norm.

Emily Jane Bronté (1818 – 1848) was born after the demise of Gajaman Nona far away in Britain and lived in a remote area in the North of England in a place called Haworth in Yorkshire where her father was the Anglican parson. Emily’s mother died when she was very young and she had two sisters and a brother and they lived in Haworth’s parsonage. Emily became a well known writer and author.

In the parsonage they lived, the Bronté children were taught by their father in their young days. The father was liberal minded and every day he, himself, or their aunt who minded them or an older child read out from the daily newspapers to the children. In this way the children even at a young age were well versed in politics. There were many high quality magazines too that arrived at the parsonage.

These and the classics added to the children’s information and knowledge. The garden of the parsonage and church looked out into the wild moors of Yorkshire and it was the children’s delight to walk the moors. They even took their reclusive father in their walks and included him in some of their games. Thus, they did find plenty to interest them.

As children, the young Brontés had one another and books as their companions. In their isolation, they created a fantasy island kingdom called Angria and wrote notebooks describing its turbulent history. When their brother received twelve wooden soldiers as a gift from father, the soldiers became characters in their imaginary world. One was Duke of Wellington, (Wellington was then the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom,) and another was Napoleon Bonaparte.

As Emily and her younger sister were often relegated to inferior positions in the game, they staged a rebellion and established an imaginary world of Gondal for themselves. Their stories pertaining to Gondal , an island in the South Pacific, were full of melodrama and intrigue, with history of wars and kings. Unfortunately, the stories of Gondal were lost but the through their diary entries and poems they wrote to each other, the outlines of the stories were constructed. These were not a few stories but sagas that all the Bronté children wrote.

In earlier times Emily was working out her place in the world and it is reflected in the poem “true to myself and true to all, may I be healthful still and turn away from passions call and curb my own free will.” In a late Gondal poem Emily’s assessment of society and the world was adamant. “Twas grief enough to think mankind, all hollow, servile, insincere; But worse to trust to my own mind and find the same corruption there.”


Though, in time, the life span of Gajaman Nona preceded that of Emily Bronté, they were like two peas. Emily and Gajaman came from different parts of the world, one from Europe and the other from Asia with very different climates, cultures and languages but the two displayed similar traits.

With poetry pouring out of their mouths and writing about nature or any subject that caught their fancy, they were examples of the romantics in literature. Actually, Romanticism, an artistic, literary and intellectual movement did originate in Europe, had its peak roughly from 1800-1840.

This movement began partly due to the Industrial revolution of Europe and more, a revolt against the aristocratic social and political norms as well as a reaction against the scientific realization of nature. It was embodied most strongly in the visual arts, music and literature. The movement emphasized strong emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience and awe, especially that which is experienced in confronting untamed nature and its picturesque qualities.

Gajaman Nona’s poetic expression on the Nuga (Banyan) tree of Denipitiya is very well known. It is a powerful outburst of hers on the aesthetic beauty of massive tree in scenic Denipitiya in contrast to its surroundings. The alliterative metre is well seen in this poem of hers as well as the abundance of her ideas and language, displaying her creativity.

Other poetry is what she sang in praise of Mudliars and other important people who patronized her. On her father’s demise she wrote a sorrowful ballad of many verses. Her poetic appeal to John D’Oyly, the Government Agent of her area manifested her inborn flair for poetry polished by learning and experience. This won her a nindagam land which she used for living and farming.


Many poets at that time preferred to exchange ideas in verse with her and she replied to every poet in verse, Emily Bronté in her short life left behind a number of poems that described mostly nature and one novel. This book is one the greatest books ever written. Wuthering Heights, her novel is surely the most profoundly violent love story ever written and so beautifully too.

Despite her good looks, Emily appears to have had no experience of love but she seems to have had an anguished knowledge of passion. She had the knowledge which links love not only with clarity but also with violence and death. Perhaps, living in the bleak areas of Yorkshire she had seen and realized the harshness of life.

Emily’s poem “Love is like the wild rose briar,” continues as, “Friendship, like the holly tree. The holly is dark when the rose briar blooms, but which will bloom most constantly.” This rhyming verse poem has three stanzas, each with four lines of equal length. The poem is Emily’s unique approach to comparing love and friendship. It is extremely effective in communicating her message and the style in which it is written makes it interesting to read.

To a posthumous 1850 anthology of Emily’s poems an undated poem was added. This poem had a couple of verses and the last was: “I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading; it vexes me to choose another guide; where the grey flocks in ferny glens are feeding; where the wild wind blows on the mountain side.”

Rebellious nature

The society at that time failed lamentably in understanding Gajaman Nona, such an erudite woman. It was society that made Gajaman into a kind of rebel even when young as nothing stopped her getting the education she wanted. Later, Gajaman was left with four children out of two marriages with two husbands dead.

When her father too died she had to fend for herself. She did acquire a tough resistance, one that could easily distance trouble makers invading her privacy. For this purpose she sensibly used satirically violent and sharp verses in direct response to people’s off-colour remarks.

Unlike the typical Sinhala woman who was largely limited in her freedom to behave freely in society, Gajaman dressed herself like a Dutch lady, joked and spoke with every type of person and used to go alone wherever she wanted. Her close association with the Dutch society in Colombo during her childhood made her unblushing before men and her attitudes and thinking contrasted noticeably from contemporary women.

Emily Bronté, the author of Wuthering Heights present women that rebel against constraining and oppressive social norms attempting to free their passionate natures from the many limiting forms of the yokes and moulds of convention. Rebellion pervades Wuthering Heights. Its key note is passion and this made female imagination free from the previous social and literary conventions of the monotony of the domestic sphere.

In the novel, the characters, Cathy and Hareton’s revolt against Heathcliff, mirrors Caherine and Heathcliff’s revolt against Hindley. Emily uses this to emphasise that Catherine ought to have rebelled and married Heathcliff. This is the crux of the novel, favouring passion over convention.

Catherine Earnshaw prefers to explore the moors with Heathcliff instead of making puddings and sewing. This demonstrates a passion and a restlessness that cannot be compressed into the conventional female sphere. Her wanting to marry Edgar Linton, to be the grand woman of the neighbourhood would traditionally be commended by the Victorian society but Emily portrays it as having disastrous consequences.

The readers of Wuthering Heights could hardly comprehend the love of Catherine and Heathcliff but no reader ever forgets it. Emily Bronté created a dynamic and passionate alternative to the dreary domestic monotony that faced many Victorian women and gave way to free thinking about relationships between love and social convention.

This passion has remained with the readers since the novel was published, and has left hearts and minds, as well as the wild moors, haunted by the restless ghosts of Catherine and Heathcliff.

Economic hardships

Both Gajaman Nona and Emily Bronté, underwent economic hardships. The former had to battle with all kinds of domestic adversity and only her razor-sharp intelligence opened a way to improve her life prospects. Though she was without substantial property left by her two dead husbands, she invariably found a way to sustain her four children.

She earned a scanty income teaching the children of higher class families and by eulogizing important personnel. Her father’s death plunged her into deeper misery and it was only her poetic flair that made it possible for her to tide over bad economic times.

For Emily too, there was no regular income. They had managed all their lives on a poor clergyman’s wage. Some days the meat on their dining table was a gift from one the parishioners. Emily and her older sister Charlotte were teachers for a time.

It was the youngest sister who was a governess and kept her job for a long time. When Aunt Branwell , who minded them when little and kept house for the family, died, she left a legacy for the all the children and they managed well for some time.

If both these clever women lived 150 years later how well they could have managed their finances and their lives. They could have had their own school or they could have written poetry and novels and collected their money. Imagine what they would have done with a crowd like that would come to an open air pop concert?

Would Gajaman have thrived and held sway spouting poem after poem? Would Emily have taken one look at the crowd and run away to the bleak and lonely moorland? Mostly, perhaps they would have liked lecture auditoriums filled and a university ambience. It is not easy to surmise but what opportunities they would and could have had! The first would be the recognition for what they were worth, their overwhelming literary value.



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