and fiction remind us of our richness
Island Story- by J. Vijayatunga. First published 1949.2nd
edition 2004 published by Visidunu Prakasakayo (Pvt) Ltd. 211pp,
Rs 480. Reviewed by Richard Boyle
Jinidasa Vijayatunga (1903-89)
is one of those authors who, though reasonably prolific, are mainly
remembered for a single title. In Vijayatunga's case it is Grass
for My Feet (1935), his childhood reminiscences of village life
in Ceylon published in London. This book caused the Times Literary
Supplement to declare, "Here one almost fancies is an eastern
avatar of Mark Twain." Together with R. L. Spittel, Vijayatunga
was one of the first Ceylonese writers to convey the essence of
the island to the world and helped forge the identity of Ceylonese
at Mahinda College, Galle, and across the Palk Straits at the University
of Madrapalle, Vijayatunga then went back to India in the early
1920s and worked as editor of the magazine India & Ceylon and
as a teacher at Tagore's Shantiniketan. Afterwards he settled in
England, only returning to Sri Lanka in 1989, the year of his death.
While nothing else he wrote matched the evocative excellence of
Grass for My Feet, there are several other works of his that deserve
attention, in particular Island Story, which has the bonus of being
handsomely illustrated by Ivan Peries.
published by the Oxford University Press in Madras at the dawn of
Independence in 1949, this delightful book now appears in a second
edition courtesy of Visidunu Prakasakayo, the publishers garnering
a reputation for reprinting lesser-known but notable works from
English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka. Sensibly, Visidunu have
largely retained the original format and cover of the book - the
latter an attractive mosaic of the emblematic Sri Lankan motifs
of drums, elephants, fishermen and Kandyan dancers. Thus the temporal
dislocation brought about by the modernized design of many reprints
island story Vijayatunga tells is not solely a historical or legendary
one. It is also the story of the extraordinary geographical package
that is Lanka, and of the truly remarkable culture that suffuses
the island. While Grass for My Feet was an exercise in nostalgia,
his method with Island Story, as the cover of the book states, "is
by weaving fact and fancy together, to relate his intimate knowledge
of Lanka both to its present-day life and to its ancient traditions."
opening chapter, "Forty Leagues from Paradise," presents
an array of notable quotations concerning the island, from sources
as diverse as the Pujavaliya and The Arabian Nights' Entertainment.
Ensuing chapters explore the land in lyrical fashion, in particular
the verdant river valleys of the southwest - Gin Ganga, Kelani Ganga,
Kalu Ganga - the green hills - Pidurutalagala, Namunukula Kande,
Gonagala - and the vistas to be witnessed from the central plateau
- Haputale, Haldumulla, Ella.
"The Gift of Water" Vijayatunga waxes eloquent about the
island's numerous rivers while demonstrating environmental awareness
by frowning on the denudation of the forest in the catchment areas.
Naturally the Mahaweli Ganga is given pride of place. Of particular
interest are the author's descriptions of the padda boats and ferries
plying the rivers and the 'river-folk' that operate them - "the
scene that wins your heart is that ferry where you stand on the
steep bank of a river and halloo out to someone across on the other
side to bring over a canoe."
and Heroes of Old" relates some of the legends and historical
smatterings from the Mahavamsa and Chulavamsa, starting with that
of Vijaya, about which the author declares without explication,
"If there is the slightest foundation for this legend, then
we have certain good clues to the psychology of the Sinhalese."
There follows Pandukabhaya, Devanampiyatissa, Duthugemunu, Gajabahu,
Mahasena, Buddhadasa, Dhatusena, Kumaradasa, Vijayabahu, and Parakramabahu,
before the advent of colonial dominion. "Rather an anti-climax
to a history which began on a heroic scale and which was sustained
for 2,000 years in heroic tradition," remarks Vijayatunga.
reviewer's favourite chapter is "Our Folk-Songs," a summary
of a fading musical tradition that includes verses from cartmen's
and boatmen's songs, the virudha songs of wandering minstrels, and
the varams of Sinhala New Year to accompany the seasonal use of
vel-unchillava (swings). "We are not a very musical race,"
confesses Vijayatunga, "but we have always shown a great love
of poetry; and, comparatively speaking, we have honoured out poets,
even though like other nations we have ignored the composers of
other chapters on the sea and fishermen, the coconut palm, the Rodiyas,
craftspeople, Sri Pada, and Kandy, Island Story is an intriguing
collection of aspects of Sri Lanka written in a highly engaging
style. The book contains a wealth of traditional information, much
of which has now seeped from the lives of twenty-first century Sri
Lankans. And therein lies the importance of this book's reappearance
at this point in time.
as the intellect is drawn to Vijayatunga's writing, the eye is drawn
to the expressive line and pen-and-wash illustrations of Ivan Peries,
a co-founder of the '43 Group and arguably one of the finest artists
the island has produced. These illustrations are little known in
the context of Peries' work and were last exhibited in Colombo -
sponsored by the '43 Group - in September 1951, according to Senake
Bandaranayake and Manel Fonseka in Ivan Peries Paintings 1938-88.
No doubt the new edition of Island Story will bring Peries' illustrations
to public attention once again.
landscapes are the most striking - but then landscape was the most
important element of Peries' art. Eschewing the exotic portrayal
of tropical landscapes beloved by most European artists, Pieris
instead imbued his paintings with mood and emotion. A painting of
padda boats on a canal from a high angle, a long distance view of
Sri Pada, a painting with the self-explanatory title Green Hills
and Valleys, and another of trees in bloom titled Final Scene of
a Flower Ballet, stand out. Then there are some simple yet exquisite
line drawings - of a girl on a swing, a group of fishermen, a tea
plucker, girls performing the kalegedi-pimbini (pot dance), and
pilgrims on the way to Sri Pada, among others.
pairing of Vijayatunga and Peries, both England-domiciled Ceylonese
émigrés, demonstrates remarkable foresight on someone's
part, presumably the author's. The prose and pictures are entirely
complementary, giving the book a harmonious quality. In this respect
it is reminiscent of Island Ceylon by Roloff Beny and Lindsay Opie.
While Island Story is unlikely to displace Grass for My Feet in
the hearts of those who appreciate Vijayatunga, the book deserves
to nestle beside his magnum opus in any library worthy of the name.
of contrasts woven together
Creative Expressions-Edited by Nimal Sanderatne.
Reviewed by Vihanga Perera
Creative Expressions, an anthology of short stories edited by Nimal
Sanderatne is likely to get a warm reception, from a literary standpoint.
This collection of 14 short stories is more than a mere assortment
and should be an engrossing read.
anthology can, on the one hand, be taken as a truly 'Sri Lankan
collection of stories', Sri Lankan in origin, matter, manner and
thought and on a wider context, as an analysis of our social structure
over the past six or seven decades.
collection binds together the current electronic age with that of
the colonial era. Urban culture is posed against tradition; Modernity
is set against the 1930s. Creative Expressions thus covers a wide
scope of time, class, ideology and personality, but with one central
element- the Sri Lankan social context.
Expressions, succeeds in building a sense of identity with little
reference to those hackneyed clichés of the 1983 riots and
the north-east conflict. There is little to bring out massacre,
chaos and politics. Yet, the Sri Lankan backdrop is evenly placed;
the identity is built out of the people and the places and not through
dark patches of history.
the likes of Tissa and Somasiri Devendra to Lakshika Weragoda, a
13-year-old school girl, (see box story below) the writers vary
in terms of age, experience and exposure, presenting an intriguing
his introduction the editor mentions each writer having a distinct
style. For instance, The Tongue Twister by Wimala De Silva comes
immediately before Somasiri Devendra's story. These two have contrasting
narrations, with the latter relying heavily on retrospection and
flashbacks. Such contrasting techniques being juxtaposed maintain
the momentum. Sriyani Hulugalle's, Till We Meet Again deploys four
or five 'scenes' cutting into each other quite delicately.
curiosity and the unexpected are typical in this volume. For instance,
Serendipity deals with Rangit who "is resurrected" to
answer an e-mail. Even A Thief In the Night bears witness to the
same fact. This arousing of curiosity goes well with the familiar
real-life facts that give shape to the stories. For instance, the
same story - Serendipity - has references to contemporary personalities.
Thereby the initial suspense is neatly balanced by a tint of credibility
to maintain a real-life effect.
Creative Expressions binds variety and novelty to the best interests
of both the reader as well as the local literary scene.
that is grim, vile and nauseatingly damning
Journal of the end time-Extracts from a diary
by Maureen Seneviratne. Reviewed by Carl Muller
Maureen Seneviratne is an inspired writer,
and she can word-lash with cutting exactitude when it is demanded
of her. In this insistent record from her diary - each entry like
the blazing bead of an olive-wood rosary, she calls on us to think
of an "end time" - a time of havoc, bitterness, hatred
and pestilence - not the pestilence of some epidemic but the pestilential
forces that still bubble to the surface in this witches cauldron
that has become our island home. In a "Word Before" she
justifies her stance. All four great religions tell of this "end
time" and it seems that we are witness to the manic rush to
it in this so-called Paradise. It may be trite, but even the original
Paradise knew no peace or order, did it? There was disobedience,
rebellion, evil and expulsion. One may well say that it was the
locale for the first "unethical conversion" where, with
a promise of divine knowledge and eternity, the woman fell to the
wiles of the serpent. And Maureen asks: "Where, after all,
in all of human history, has any nation achieved peace with honour?"
And she adds: "There is too much darkness, too little light."
gave to the Army her son, but yet, was it his war? Whose war was
it? When the 13 soldiers killed at Elephant Pass were brought for
burial at Kanatte, Borella town was set ablaze. July 1983... and
as a friend told her, "Galle Road is an arc of fire!"
Helpless, decent Tamils who never said it was their war either...
"Like the German people," Maureen says, "in the 30s
and 40s were helpless when the Nazi gangsters burned the houses
of the Jews and took them away to destroy them..."
diary record is a stunning one. What is more shame-making to us
as Lankans, is to face the stern castigation of the writer - words
that spit cobra-fashion, into the faces of so many who should cower
the Church of Martyrs in Mannar. Bleak- eyed Tamil refugees say:
"We have lived in Kotahena for centuries. In the shadow of
the cathedral." Then came death, looting, burning, ships to
carry them North. It was here that the King of Jaffna slaughtered
all his subjects who had converted to Christianity. And the sad
decision: "We'll go to South India... why should we stay in
a country that does not want us?"...
1987... India moves in. "History, I thought, is being repeated...
Invasion by Invitation... 3000 Indian troops in Jaffna... more to
come... already Colombo is in flames... people anti-people. Destroying
each other in the name of... a Pact to bring in the clowns?"
Maureen asks if it would not have been better if JR had taken the
people into his confidence, formed a National Government. But no,
thousands had to die, divisions were fostered, a Peace-Keeping Force
invited to overlord a part of our island. And she reminds: the Portuguese
came, also to sign a pact, support a king at enmity with his own
brothers. "We are indeed a cursed generation," she declares.
"We have perpetrated our own misery. We are paying with our
shame for our follies."
IPKF... Guzzling gallons of coconut oil, eating every banana they
could, slaughtering the village goats, raping young girls, robbing
every village boutique. The accursed Javans. Their assault on the
Muslim village of Vallichenai; hundreds of refugees fleeing to Polonnaruwa.
These diary entries take in all that is grim, vile, nauseatingly
damning. Tiger massacres around Somadevi Chaitiya; people hacked
to pieces, innocent people. Everywhere, the blood of the innocent.
1990... the slaying of Richard de Zoysa; the outbreak of war in
Batticaloa. Why did scores of policemen have to die the way they
did? Couldn't they fight back? But no, they ran - only to be caught,
bound. They said they had their "orders". "Dear God,"
Maureen exclaims, "what 'orders' a man to give up his life
lamely - tamely - like that? All the useless waste of it - this
war - the PR, the tea parties, the jokes cracked, the smiles beamed
and the promises writ in water... l can only think: 'Truly are we
all to blame... every one of us. Us, the people most of all.'"
the South - so quiet. Only shows how well the horror of 1983 was
orchestrated. One woman tells Maureen of the North and the East:
"Doomed places, no?" and Maureen hit back, "It is
we who are doomed," and she took umbrage. The contrasts, too,
are vividly presented. In Colombo are the nattily-dressed young
men in Majestic cities and Liberty Plazas, or playing cricket -
well-fed, healthy ("on diets of sausages, so they say")
and the villages ransacked of young men now crouching in their bunkers,
praying for moonlight. Who should we shed tears for? The living
or the dead? For the pea-brains with their shackled bureaucratic
minds who hold the scales of power with crooked hands?
diary also records the "business of war" - something that
must choke at every throat. Her comments come thick and fast and
she cracks a remorseless whip. "The average citizen feels this
country is a rudderless state... the people themselves, weak, puny,
like pawns in the hands of master chess players... the future of
a people that steadfastly refuse to be a NATION... All politicians
are dancing the Dance of Death - on a pinhead... Those we elect
to Parliament, we, the sovereign people as it is claimed we are,
are kicked in the teeth the moment we put these tragic-comic actors
on the stage... we are offered the anodyne of cricket, hours before
TV watching the 'flannelled fools' while we let ourselves, like
puppets, be manipulated over and over again... a religious conflagration
will devastate what is left of this tortured country, but who understands
this?... thirst and lust for blood in a country that gods have evidently
decided should be made mad before it is utterly destroyed...."
is a book that must be waved under the noses of all this hyena breed
that infest our entire social fabric. It is the big whip - the people's
silent scream. End times? We do not have to wait their coming. We
are in them right now!