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Sunday, 30 March 2014





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Historically valid lively narrative

The Kaluarachchi Saga
Author: A.M. Karunaratne
Translated into English
by Jayalath Ameresekere
Published by Samira Publishers, Battaramulla

The Kaluarachchi Saga has sold three editions in the original Sinhala and now appears in English. Its title invites comparison with John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga, a long family-story about generations of Forsytes.

But unlike the British Victorian novel it is not truly a story of generations, like a family history or an epic. It is more about the changes brought about in an inland village in Ceylon through interaction with modernity, represented to a large extent by the coastal culture of colonial Ceylon.

One could compare it with Leonard Woolf's The Village in the Jungle, published in the first quarter of the 20th century. The author, like Woolf, is a civil servant but one who appears to have been born and bred in the “sweet especial rural scene.” To Woolf “all jungles are evil and none or so evil as the jungle which surrounds Baddegama.”

But the love that drives the hero of the novel, the Aarachi of the village, is his love of his village in the jungle, in which generations have lived a certain “way of life” symbolised by the village tank, paddy farming and its routines, the social hierarchy and its practices and Sinhala Buddhism.

Tradition and modernity

Unlike in Woolf's novel where everyone seems in some way evil or at least deficient or at best tragic, the Aarachi and many others are admirable in defeat.

No doubt the historical process of colonialism must have its way (the novel seems to say) and characters have their appointed roles to play as hero or villain but that's a story worth the telling. But would it be worth the while to resurrect the past?

To resurrect the past? That is the question which colonial societies confronted in the middle of the last century, when empires collapsed. That question still survives unanswered in the middle east where the struggle between tradition and modernity is indeed violent. But it was always a difficult issue and Karunaratne, the novelist, takes a realist's viewpoint while presenting a flattering picture of the past, where all is pure and virtuous.

He describes the symbols of the past excellently and re-enacts the attraction they once held so that the reader is convinced of the validity of the thesis that the past was good. But he does not bring it back.

One is reminded of this dilemma in a very modern and famous novel, where Jay Gatsby, the hero of The Great Gatsby tries to rebuild the past, which he inhabits emotionally with his lost love, Daisy. The narrator of the story and Gatsby's confidante interrupts, “But you can't bring back the past,” and Gatsby replies, “Bring back the past? Of course you can!” And so dies Gatsby, shot by a crazed husband.

The Kaluarachchi Saga does not propose to bring back the past except in the imagination. It provided a very stimulating reading experience for me, who has a one-time civilian administrator in the rural areas of Ratnapura, Polonnaruwa and Ampara had the good fortune to witness and sometimes share the way of life that A.M. Karunaratne and his English translator Jayalath Ameresekere recreate in this extremely well-written novel.

To present the novel in another perspective I would like to talk about it as an aspect of Sri Lanka's Modern English Literature, A Case Study in Literary Theory, as presented in the book published by Navrang, New Delhi and authored by me.

In the chapter titled “Narrating The Nation” Michael Bhakthin's idea that the epic as the art form of the tribe, can be differentiated from the novel as the art form of the nation is applied to five novels: Dr. Lucian de Zilva's The Dice of the Gods, Dr. R.L. Spittel's Savage Sanctuary, P.B. Rambukwella's The Desert Makers, Ediriweera Sarachchandra's Curfew and the Full Moon and James Bulner's The Eurasian.

Because The Kaluarachchi Saga is now presented in excellent translation it too can be brought into the discussion, as a representative novel of a certain component of the nation and its outlook. It does represent the realistic view that though the past is past its virtues remain in memory.


Apart from the theme, the value of the story lies in its narration, in making the events come alive. Karunaratne and Ameresekere are very skilled. In chapter seven is told the story of the building of a tarred road into the rural scene. I, as a child in the mid – 20 century, wondered and was bemused by the huge black steam rollers which ran along our urban roads,

The fly wheel, which supplemented the energy created by the steam engine, was so huge to our childish vision that we watched it in wonderment, as the black mechanical elephant trundled slowly along. The book confirms my personal memory.

“It was during this time that a gang came to tar the road from Kuliyapitiya to Hettipola. This gang of workers brought a huge roller drawn by a pair of oxen.... People flocked to see layers of stone placed on the road crushed.... The leader of the gang.... wore a moustache that twirled upwards towards his ears.... a fearful appearance.... spoke of him as Yakka (devil)....

When work began the tar gang worked briskly like ants. There was hardly anyone in the gang who had not experienced his (yakka John's) blows.” (Karunaratne p75)

Village belle

The drama of the tarring of the road is developed with houses being demolished, the headman representing the villagers talking to Yakka John and obtaining a couple of days time to move elsewhere, Siriyawathie a village belle having an affair with Yakka John and becoming pregnant, some youths from the village joining the gang to work and visiting Negombo, the main coastal town and taking a haircut, and meanwhile trees being cut from the forest and transported elsewhere (“These are not trees but heaps of money”). When the youth were criticised for cutting their hair they replied, “You have no idea about modern trends, father. Young men

do not wear their hair long now. You are trying to make us remain godayas (ignorant villagers).”These quotes, hopefully, give the reader the liveliness of the narrative, its happy sense of dialogue, its historical validity and how the translator, Jayalath Ameresekere, has succeeded in conveying in English, to the Sri Lankan reader the underlying Sinhala movement of thought. This is an excellent historical novel, though some readers may dislike its ideological slant, while others may admire it. Good fiction is never neutral and this story may well suit a teledrama or a film, though the varied backgrounds may be costly to film, compared to the dialogue, which take most teledrama time.

The writer is the Professor of English American National College.


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