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DateLine Sunday, 23 March 2008

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Ghost writers

It would be an exaggeration to say that ghost writers are a breed as old as ghosts. Ghosts have existed in airy and weird forms or in the imagination of homo sapiens ever since the beginning of human history while ghost writers own a genesis trailing the art of writing.

My straying mind riveted around ghost writers recently in a certain social gathering when and where, conversation was meandering from one topic to another. On such occasions following the policy of Dehigama Nilame, the Sinhala representative in the Legislative Assembly during Governor Robinson's period, my policy is just to keep my trap shut for it is just chat-ups for the mere sake of chat - ups.

But this time I had to deviate.

"Did you read the review of the Speaker's recent book in Writer's Den?"

"Yes. It was a good piece."

"But do you think that the Speaker really wrote that, immersed in all that constitutional work or mess?"

"I too have my doubts..."

"You know there is a species known as ghost writers. May be someone else wrote it for him," pronounced some body. A consensus seems to have been reached on the issue, a very unfair consensus.

So, I decided to open the trap for two reasons. One was that I was involved in the editing of this book, "Mystique of Sigiriya" to a certain extent. The other reason was that I was personally aware of every step of the emerging of the Speaker's recent work. His first acquaintance with Sigiri gee had been when he had to study six gee along with their meanings.

They had been prescribed for a law exam syllabus. His interest aroused he began devouring "Sigiri graffiti" that giant work of Dr. S. Paranavithana that encases some 685 plus poems inscribed on the Mirror Wall of Sigiri between the 8th and 11th centuries by visitors.

Their labour in inscribing their lines of appreciation on hard granite is only equalled by the professor's perseverance in tracing them in the jungle wilderness that had crept on the rock fortress of King Kasyapa and the Speaker's ability of memorizing them and quoting them in apt places.

Actually Mr. Lokubandara was so fascinated with these verses that generated the book, "Sigiri gee Siri" that opens the curtain on the aesthetic potential of the author. Next he translated the work into English. The labour had gone on for many years.

I am not sure whether I convinced my small audience by relating these facts as tersely as possible but I had done my duty and see to it that he never let ghost writers lurk around him in broad daylight or midnight.

Jealousy is a rampant malaise in society and affects the higher - ups more than plebians of my calibre.

I may spill out pages and pages to get out my writer's itch but nobody would bother to degrade me by saying that I do not know my English (there was one such) nor my content and that ghosts are merrily at work, behind all that labour.

For example these ghosts activated themselves when Sir Solomon Bandaranaike Maha Mudaliyar penned "Remembered yesterdays" in his library at Horagolla Walavva. The English was silky as Chinese silk and the humour par excellence.

No. They said. That book was not written by him. A Wasala Mudali, he was burdened by much work aligned to statecraft, a more polite and alternate way of putting it as "holding the flambeaux to the governordoru and the Suddas."

He never had the talent for writing, the critics opined more cruelly. One Souza, a Burgher wrote it for him, they said. After all English is Souza's mother tongue. By what intricate logic, English is considered the mother tongue of these descendants of the Dutch and the Portuguese is indeed a conundrum.

And now literary masterpieces are produced in hundreds in English and other languages by writers whose mothers spoke another language. In our island Tibet S. Mahinda thera was perhaps the first to set the trend. He composed brilliant poems in Sinhala while back home on the roof of the world his dear mother jabbered in Tibetan as cold winds blew to and fro, freezing her.

Genius on our land is usually associated with the middle group. The poor are too starved of facilities to foster inborn talents which undergo a cruel death while the very affluent just bask in life's comforts that they never take the trouble to foster their talents.

Of course a good many of this class have shone themselves in various fields, helped by the very silver spoon they were born with and the consequent contacts. So Sir Solomon too would have been born not only with the silver spoon but with a gift for writing.

His famous son, who convulsed the island with a great social revolution was the author of "Maha hene reeri Yaka". No body ghost - wrote it for him. It wove itself around a demon in their Ambepussa estate. The Kandy Colombo road that zoomed the family fortunes of Horagolla Walavva thus inter-wove itself with this family in various ways.

Nobody ghost wrote "Buddhist essays" nor "Golden threads" of President J. R. Jayawardena, who had a writing mania. But to cast a dark shadow on these historical icons many a tongue would wag. Even the novels written by President Premadasa have not escaped this taunt. Writing seems to have been a hobby desired by many at the top. That the descendants of our last king had all taken to journalism as a profession cannot be merely a coincidence.

The moment Sir John Kotelawala lifted the ban on these royal descendants from entering the island again (a ban imposed by the British Govt. to guarantee a non-resurrection of the Nayakkar monarchy), what did one of them do? He came back, sat in the House by the Beira and wrote and wrote till he was drowned in the Indian ocean. Another descendent lived in the vicinity of Chennai (Madras), worked on the paper" Madras Mail "and died in a railway compartment of a heart attack while returning home perhaps after a strenuous bout of work. I got this info at Chennai itself.

Back to the island and its ghost writers. A strange fact is a good number of our authors and poets have been the crowned heads of state. Did they have the time for it in the political turbulence this island had always been subject to? And did they do so to counterbalance the pressures of statecraft? Maybe then too, knots gathered here and there and speculated as to who ghost - wrote the great work.

Surely His Majesty is too busy to indulge in such a leisurely activity as putting out a book. What they forget is that you can stretch out or create the time if you wish.

When those holding responsible posts write books that ghosts are at work has been a thought process developed from ancient times.

Curiously these ghosts had activated or non-activated themselves in the production of our first two extant works in Sinhala i.e. Siya Bas Lakara - Sena I (826-846 AD) or Sena III authored it according to mention in the book. (nirindu kale Salamevan) Dham Piya Atuwa Geta Padaya - Kasyapa V (908-918 AD) authored it."

Salamevan Kasup Maha raju kale me sanne" Kavsilumina, acclaimed as the most brilliant Maha Kavya put out in Sinhala has been composed by Parakramabahu II (Methkith pathala kalikal - savani nirindu kale me). Were ghosts busy then too?

P.S. - I hope no one would think that this article too was ghost - written. Ghosts have to just seethe around me as I go on and on, in not one but two languages. (Source of these ancient Sinhala works is a highly academic work titled "Parani Sinhala Vivaha samkrtya" by Premadasa Sri Alawattege, a book published by Godage International).


Beggars can be choosers - sometimes

"Completely convincing... a joy to read" (Prof. Yasmine Gooneratne), "Witty and eloquent (Sita Kulatunga), "Sweet and simple" (Dr. Tissa Abeysekara. These are just some of the reactions to Anthea Senaratna's latest collection of short stories. So, what makes them tick?

Think of all the short stories you have ever read till now. Hmmm... short stories written by Sri Lankan English writers. So many brimming with nostalgia, yearning for the 'uncomplicated' past; so many about personal encounters important to the writer but to no one else; so many focusing on racial differences; so many highlighting the tsunami...

How many do you remember in detail? How many do you remember at all?

Anthea Senaratna's stories are different. They are different because as Dr. Tissa Abeysekara says on the back cover they are like Maupasant's tales - "lean and taut like a wire". They provide the reader with a total experience in a form which is brief and concise. Anthea demonstrates she has developed the art of writing a good short story to bring back to quote Dr. Abeysekara "the magic voice of the oral storyteller".

Take "The Get-together" from her new collection "The Mango Tree". Most of us can easily identify with this situation "Ever since they left school, the four of them vowed to meet as often as possible.

At the beginning they met every year, but as time went on other responsibilities crept into their lives and they lost touch with one another. And now, over a decade later, here they were at the Golden Dragon, meeting together for lunch." Especially if you are a writer you are bound to feel close affinities with Ruwani when her friends begin to pick on her.

"Andrea looked at Ruwani. "You are so quiet. So- what have you been up to" "Oh-all kinds of things" "What kind of things? You must do something with yourself no...Charlene's face creased in abject sympathy.

"I write" the words rushed out. "Write? What do you write about?" She takes a deep breath "Oh-articles, stories - some poetry" "Poetry for what?"... the clatter of cutlery broke through the silence that followed. "You must take yourself in hand Ru"

The story ends proving that Ru's decision to go out there and do what she thinks is right is exactly the right thing to do. This is my favourite story in the collection not only because it strikes codes very close to my own heart, but because Anthea communicates a sense of poetry, romance, a sense of the sublime through an extraordinarily ordinary incident - four women having lunch at a Chinese restaurant and ogling a "handsome hulk" who saunters past the window.

Here is flash fiction at its best; stories you can read on your feet, oblivious to everything around you turning the pages breathlessly, devouring every moment, yet waiting eagerly for the end. And savour and devour are surely fitting words, for, there is a recurrent motif in the collection, of food - cooked, shared, stolen.

From the two pieces of chicken in the opening story to rotti in Aftermath, the ice cream with vanilla and mint in Moments in Time, the chilli in the chicken curry in Better Half etc.

A second common thread is that of the challenges that come with ageing. Characters in several of the stories are faced with the realisation that they are no longer young and need to confront where they are in their lives. In the Mirror Reflections the protagonist sighs realizing that twenty years ago a different reflection had looked back at her from the same mirror - a large oval one which had belonged to her mother.

But what is surprising about these stories is that they are not packed with action, intrigue, heart-breaking sorrow. On the contrary they are about "Two pieces of chicken' a pair of shoes a swing a tuition class and other equally seemingly mundane topics. Perhaps it is because the stories are propelled by beggars and housemaids that they seem so refreshing.

Or perhaps its the humour; look at Francis or Prancis with his complaints" How can I be cleaning the house and the garden every single day - too much of work - no Aiyo Missi the salary is not enough, they will pay only two thousand five hundred - that's very little no".

Francis has proven my suspicion - beggars can be choosers is true. There are no run-of-the-mill stories here about a Sinhala boy falling in love with a Tamil girl, no mother crying over a son lost in the tsunami, no protagonist recording every detail of a trip down South with her husband.

And no banging the reader on the head with messages. Thank you Anthea.

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