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Sunday, 8 July 2012

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A journey of self-discovery

"Ta hayi ta yat yami..." ('When you go, I shall go with you'). wrote the 8th century poet on the mirror-like wall of Sihigiri. One of the most experimental novelists today in Sri Lanka, Karunadasa Sooriyaarachchi, titled his latest Sinhala novel 'Mama Tawama Yami' (I am still on my way). With every new novel he is showing his growing maturity. He does not have to follow anyone else, he can go on his own way, on a path created by himself.


Mama Thawama Yami
Author: Karunadasa Sooriyaarachchi
Dayawansa Jayakody Publishers

The book further establishes that the Sinhala novel is alive and advancing, and is far ahead of the Sri Lankan English novel. The Sinhala writers have ignored the comprador critics who try to read and understand the Sinhala novel based on their western literary standards. Such modern day compradors, have been parroting Mikhail Bakhtin, E. M. Forster, even up to the 21st century.

Most of them always tried to study, review or appreciate the Sinhala novel and Sinhala poetry by the standards set by the western writers, and always tried to see what western influence could be seen in the Sri Lankan writing, believing that the Sinhala and Tamil writers were not capable of producing their own creative works.

Our writers have developed their own styles, and defied the literary compradors who try to trace similarities with western novels, or western films, whenever a good Sinhala novel gets the attention of the readers.

Traveller

Karunadsa Sooriyaarachchi's novels are not for light reading, to be skipped through. They are not 'page turners', we do not turn the page till we have read every line on it. Sometimes we have to turn a few pages back, to read and cherish a paragraph we have already read. He has reminded us about this in the opening page, where the narrator identifies himself as a traveller. For the reader to judge if he is wandering aimlessly, or searching with a definite aim, some of his comments may have to be read again, not once but several times.

That is why a story like 'Mama Tawama Yami' should not be labelled just as a novel, because like a poem or a painting, we have to take our own time to grasp it.

Before beginning his narration he tells us, "Instead of searching for 'me', search for him, because it is only then one becomes a traveller". He gives a hint in the beginning, that we should try to identify the narrator, or the traveller. Kasuri makes us search within ourselves. Then he gives a second hint when the narrator visits 'father's grave' and again at the end, through the four omens, aged mother, sick Erandathie, dead Rajini and the bhikkhu.

In his 2011 novel, 'Ratu Idda', Sandawathie is able to converse with the trees in her garden and even the jungle beyond the village. The trees talk to her, when they realise that she could empathise with them. In 'Mama Tawama Yami' the dog 'Natta' who swings from 'Netta' to 'Naatta' talks to us, tells us the story of Amarabandhu, and fills the gaps in the story.

The dog becomes one of the narrators. "When dogs begin to speak, men become speechless". Who is Natta, and who is the traveller, are they both the alter ego of Amarabandhu or is Amarabandhu the non-existent character in the narrator's mind? Perhaps I will know when I read the novel for the third time, which I look forward to. This is possible because Kasuri doesn't take us along a definite time-line. There is no time-line in the novel, time and space have merged into one and the traveller is on a space-time journey.

Brain tumour

Erandathi, the girl with the brain tumour says, "I don't let go of life. I collect it". While Amare says, "I don't collect life, I let it go, little by little. It lightens my burden and I feel free". When he decides to leave the newspaper, Erandathie tells him, "You don't belong to yourself. You belong to the people. When you turn your back on them and walk away, from that moment you don't belong to them."

What Sepalika does not say to Amare on that late night visit, "though I exposed myself while bathing at the tank, now I don't. I will get you a cup of plain tea with a piece of jaggery. Our body is something we begin to hate one day. But we never get fed up of tea with jaggery'". This is Kasuri's own way of expressing the thoughts of his characters.

The restraint Kasuri shows in describing the incident in Nuawa Eliya between Amare and Rajini, is an example to our young writers of how to handle such a scene without degrading it to a level of cheap pornography. Writers sometimes exploit the misery and suffering of the people around them. "You got this jeep because of Sepalika's tears. The jeep runs not on state fuel, but on Sapalika's tears". Kasuri describes the changes in the family relationships in one sentence, "My mother was an English teacher. She doesn't come to me in my sleep to stroke my head. She would only adjust the mosquito net, but I know my mother loves me".

Jataka tales

Long before Kasuri had become familiar with English novels or their translations, where trees and animals talk to human beings, he would have read our own Jataka tales and folk tales from very young days. With the collective inherited consciousness of our culture, It is not difficult for us to believe that a dog could talk to us, just as trees could weep and wail in agony.

As he did in Ratu Idda and Kalu Donkaraya, again Kasuri brings out the strength and the resilience of our women, not only in the older generation, depicted by Amare's mother, but the younger women in Sepalika and Erandathie.

Amare's mother tells him, the day he smashes his graduation day photo, "I fed your father till he died. I can feed you till I die. You are not a burden". She does not accept defeat. He has embedded a subtle message of the positive aspects of Buddha's teaching, while also reminding us that greed and desire are the cause of all suffering.

Many great writers began their careers as journalists, not only in the west, but in our country too. They have an added advantage of learning about people, about their behaviour, but not everyone could turn these assets into novels that deserve to be called masterpieces.

Some writers have the talent to tell their story in beautiful words, mind-enslaving dialogues, but they do not have enough imagination to weave a good story.

Others have the imagination to create fantastic plots, but do not have the language to narrate it in a readable style. Rarely do we get a Kasuri among us, with an ocean of stories from the experience he has gathered, and the poetic vision to create a dramatic novel.

Translations

His publisher has understood the need to take our Sinhala novels to the rest of the world, and as English is the international language available to us, the importance of translating these novels into English. The English translations are needed in our country, for those who are not able to, or do not want to read the Sinhala novels. It is only through the English translations that they could realise how advanced the Sinhala novel is today,

Yet we cannot say this about all Sinhala novels. Out of about 200 Sinhala novels published annually we find novels written by authors who have never read a novel, but try to write after watching teledramas on the idiot box.

There are others who have read a few western novels in their Sinhala translations, and are influenced by such novels, yet are ignorant of our own early literature.

Dayawansa Jayakody has already published 'The Dark Star', Kasuri's 2009 novel 'Andakara Tarakava', which was shortlisted for State, Swarnapusthaka and Godage Awards in 2010, and should have won all three awards. The translation was shortlisted for the State Award in 2011 'Ratu Idda' has also been translated and ready for publication. We can look forward to reading it soon.

Kasuri has the imagination, and he has the right words for the right situation, almost poetic and yet philosophical in his style. As his new title says, 'Mama Tawama Yami', Karunadasa Sooriyaarachchi is still on his journey. We hope he will continue to tell us what he finds on his way, for many more years to come, and we wish him the strength to follow the Buddha's advice to Nakulapita, "to keep his mind unafflicted'.

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