17th February 2002

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Gentle literary giant

Eranda Jayawickreme meets Michael Ondaatje 

The figure that I encountered on entering Distiller Commons, where an hour -long question and answer session with Michael Ondaatje was due to commence, could almost have walked out of The English Patient; a man of imposing stature with the rugged features and far-away gaze of one whose adage could easily have been the same as that which unites the characters of his most famous novel: "we are all communal histories, communal bodies". 

However, as the session began, and as he removed his dusty-brown coat, sat down and warmed to the audience of 25 selected students, this quasi-mythical character was replaced with that of a middle-aged professor: unassuming, friendly and almost endearing. Ondaatje had arrived at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on February 4, (fittingly on Sri Lanka's Independence Day) to deliver the English department's Hausman lecture. For the past 20 years, the college has invited an eminent writer to speak to the student population, and previous guests have included Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, the pioneering exponent of magical realism Jorge Luis Borges, and poet Maya Angelou. This writer was fortunate to be invited for the pre-lecture Q&A session involving Ondaatje and had the opportunity of questioning him on a variety of issues regarding his work. 

Given that Ondaatje is known in the USA almost solely as the writer of the book which formed the basis for the film The English Patient, it was both surprising and pleasing to discover that the three books of his that are taught on campus are all concerned with Sri Lanka- Running in the Family, Handwriting, and Anil's Ghost- which in turn made for a very interesting discussion. 

Responding to a series of questions made by this writer and several others on Anil's Ghost, Ondaatje said that one of his primary intentions in writing the novel was to present a protagonist who returns to her motherland at the beginning of the 1990s and finds it almost unrecognizable; a country ravaged by senseless killings. However, he was mindful of the fact that the character of Anil could easily be taken to be representative of the author: "One reason that I made Anil a female character was that if I presented her as a male, everyone would say, 'That's really me.' Also, women characters are so much more interesting and I wanted to try and write from a woman's perspective." Nevertheless, he admitted that Anil's alienation from Sri Lanka was a reflection of his own relationship with the island- one explored so deftly in his memoir Running in the Family- and said that it was the only way in which he could have written it: "I was born there, but I'm now a complete Westerner, so I had to write the book from that perspective." 

He also defended the deliberate historical haziness that pervades the book: "I didn't want to put too much historical detail, and talk about what the JVP and LTTE did and what they stood for...I could have, but it then wouldn't be a novel but a political main intention was to create a sense of the atmosphere that existed at that time."

Reacting to the charge that in focusing on Buddhism he was making the automatic assumption that the other minorities in the country were either unimportant or irrelevant, he said, "I wanted to show the country from a particular perspective and I felt that a Buddhist perspective would be one that most people could identify with." Given the darkness of Anil's Ghost, Ondaatje's intention with the poetry collection Handwriting was to present Sri Lanka in a different light: "When I did Handwriting, I was working towards Anil's Ghost, so some of the themes are similar...however, Sri Lanka is also a country with many deep traditions and that is the focus of the collection."

Speaking of the success of The English Patient, he humourously observed "Well, it would be terribly mean of me to say that I was displeased with its success... and in a way, I did learn a lot from the making of the film. For me, the central character on the novel is Kip, yet he doesn't appear in the novel until about a third of the way through. Now, in a film, that won't do. Your main character has to make an appearance at the beginning. So they had this lovely little scene in the beginning with Kip; he didn't say anything, but it was just to introduce him to the viewers. I've always kept that in mind when writing since then." 

The lecture itself consisted of readings from a variety of his works, which included, as he promised beforehand, "both the appropriate and inappropriate". He began with The Cinnamon Peeler, a poem included in Running in the Family. He then read extracts from that memoir, and then proceeded to a passage in The English Patient, which evoked the mad social abandon that preceded the Second World War. The mood became lighter with his rendition of the "inappropriate" Elimination Dance, a collection of one-liners. He then read the single poem in Handwriting that did not deal with Sri Lanka, "The Great Tree", before moving on to a selection from "Wells". He concluded with passages from Anil's Ghost, and his moving depiction of soldiers "(screaming) for their mothers as they were dying, "Wait for me!' 'I know you are here!'" reminding us once again of the horrors of a war to which many Sri Lankans have sadly become desensitized. 

Whilst signing a stack of books for my benefit following the lecture, he told me that he made a point of returning to his homeland each year. It was pleasing to know that he still maintained a strong connection with Sri Lanka. It was also gratifying to discover that one of the most lyrical and innovative figures in contemporary literature should bear his talents so lightly. (Michael Ondaatje's next book, "The Conversations: Walter Murch & the Art of Editing Film", will appear in fall this year) 

Chilaw to honour poll tax hero

The Urban Council, Chilaw at its monthly meeting held on October 29, 2001 passed a resolution that C.E. Victor S. Corea be honoured with his statue erected along the Chilaw-Colombo road.

Victor Corea, an advocate of the Supreme Court, is best known for his valiant fight against the iniquitous poll tax. He was arrested and jailed but relentlessly continued his protest against the British government, forcing them to finally abolish the poll tax.

Another episode connected with Victor Corea is that when the beating of Hewisi at the Dalada Maligawa was stopped by the British Government Agent, Kandy, because it was a nuisance to his wife, he courageously asked the GA to remove his wife to any place he liked, saying that the Hewisi in the Maligawa must continue in accordance with tradition. If the Diyawadana Nilame was not prepared to continue the beating of Hewisi, he vowed that he would come to the Maligawa and beat the Hewisi himself. Since Victor Corea, by that time was know to be a man of his word, the GA withdrew his order. The beating of Hewisi at the Maligawa has continued ever since.

Very few of the present generation are aware that Victor Corea was the forerunner and the pioneer of the labour movement in Ceylon. He had the distinction of being the first President of the Labour Union which culminated in the formation of the Labour Party of Ceylon - the first political party to be formed in Ceylon. A.E. Goonesinghe who succeeded him was his second-in-command.

At the zenith of his popularity, following the abolishment of the Poll Tax, Victor Corea contested E.W. Jayewardene (father of President J.R. Jayewardene), a formidable opponent who was also his relative, and defeated him to win the Colombo North seat in the Ceylon Legislative Council by a handsome majority.

Although a Christian, Victor Corea initiated the construction of two Buddhist temples in Chilaw which cemented a strong bond of friendship between the two religious faiths. He was by tradition, also associated with the Munneswaram temple and handled its legal matters.

When the villagers of Merawela were prohibited from selling limestone by the government, the elders went in deputation to Victor Corea. He took up the issue, fought against the government and had their rights restored.

Victor Corea and his brother C.E. Corea who were a powerful force protected the Muslims in the Chilaw area from the wrath of the embittered Sinhalese during the Sinhala-Muslim riots of 1915. The Corea brothers were responsible for completely exonerating the people of Chilaw from paying damages which was a penalty imposed on all citizens of Ceylon.

Sri Sangabo Corea, Victor Corea's son said that plans were afoot to make this memorial a landmark in Chilaw. A famous architect has undertaken to design the memorial as a worthy tribute to commemorate a son of the soil who loved his country and its people, he said.

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