ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 30, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 31

Taking a wider readership back to those good old days

‘Martin Wickramasinghe – Selected Short Stories’ – Translated from Sinhala by Ranga Wickramasinghe. Published by Sarasa (Pvt) Limited. Reviewed by D.C. Ranatunga

For a son of a renowned writer to translate the father’s work thereby providing a wider readership an opportunity to enjoy the writer’s creative work may be a rare happening. Ranga Wickramasinghe has just released some of Martin Wickramasinghe’s short stories. Ranga confesses that being familiar with the people and social and physical environment that inspired his father’s creative writings prompted him to try his hand at translating a selection of short stories into English. He concedes that the translations were done leisurely over several years, possibly after he retired from his medical practice a few years back.

Titled ‘Martin Wickramasinghe – Selected Short Stories’, the Sarasa publication contains ten short stories out of 104 authored by Martin Wickramasinghe. It’s a mixed bag covering a wide range of themes portraying the life and times of the “good old days”. While readers of our vintage are familiar with the situations depicted in the stories, Ranga provides the present day readers with vivid descriptions making it possible for them to visualize the situations. The opening story, ‘Diversion’ (‘Vinodasvadaya’), for example, is set at the time when passengers disembarked from ships at the Colombo harbour. Just as it happens at the airport today, people used to go to the jetty opposite the Grand Oriental Hotel (GOH) to meet their relations or friends. The story revolves round a boy who is frequently in the area. “The thick tresses of windswept hair of women, their hips swaying to the click of high-heeled shoes, and the rounded knees peeping from below a short frock, caught my eye as I descended the steps. The people on the lower deck ambled towards the rails that enclosed the triangular floor. Some leaned back on the rails and faced the crowded jetty. Others leaned over to watch the boats as they glided hither and thither. The puffs of smoke from the funnels of ships far out in the harbour rose like little black clouds and disappeared into the air above. Life-boats hung from metal frames on the deck of a ship. Seen from this distance, they resembled ‘kolopu’, the boat shaped outer pods of the coconut flower. The hooting of an incoming motor boat sent children racing in that direction. A berthed ship sent out a loud boom, as if it were releasing pent-up energy, and sent the children scampering in another direction.” The days of passenger liners are no more. Colombo of yesteryear is captured vividly in the story.

The opening paragraph of ‘The Cemetery’ (‘Kanatta’) creates the mood for the rather intriguing story of a lone person seeking shelter from heavy rain but later starts hovering around a cemetery. “April brings sudden darkening of the sky accompanied by thunder and lightning, heralding the end of the months of drought. The sparkling blue canopy of sky with its fleeting patches of fleecy white clouds can suddenly become overcast, as if a dirty gray curtain has been drawn across it. Not uncommonly, these threatening rain clouds disperse equally rapidly without shedding even a drop of rain, replacing the gloom with bright sunshine once more. On other occasions, when the rain does come down, the sky is washed clean and the parched earth soaked by raindrops that seem to be as big as logan fruits.”

‘Bondage’ (‘Vahallu’) is the lovable story of carter Upalis and his faithful bull Handaya. When Upalis is sick and lying in bed on the verandah, Handaya visits him every morning. “Handaya raised one foreleg onto the verandah where Upalis lay on his bed. With laboured effort the other leg followed. Exhausted as if he had climbed a steep hill, the ageing animal dragged his hind legs and rear quarters onto the verandah. Upalis stroked the face of the animal, who responded by licking his hands. Upalis’ long black hair was drawn tight against his head and knotted at the back. It had the gloss and neatness of recent combing and oiling.”

The cart was the main mode of transport then. It helped people to earn their living as was the case with Upalis. The reader gets an idea of its role in the overall context of life in those days. “To Upalis, his life was inseparable from that of Handaya. He was a carter and Handaya was the second cart-bull he had bought. Over the years, it was with Handaya’s help that Upalis had managed to support himself and his wife and their two children. Each day, early in the morning, it had been Upalis’ routine to yoke the cart-bull to his hackery. The hackery could carry four passengers. Near the Poloya bridge, Upalis would regularly pick up three passengers bound for Galle town, either to attend to some business matters or, not infrequently, to go to the law courts in connection with litigation over property rights. Upalis would reach Kadawatha well before nine o’clock in the morning. That was as far as he would take his passengers. He never went beyond the Kadawatha Bridge, as he did not possess the licence that authorized him to take the vehicle into Galle town. The hackery drivers resident in Galle could operate within the town throughout the day. Upalis did not find it worth his while to pay the extra licensing fee.

“Except on Saturdays and Sundays, the run to and from Kadawatha had been Upalis’ daily routine for the past twenty years. His daily earnings rarely amounted to more than two rupees. On Sundays, he yoked Handaya to an open cart and leisurely transported coconut-husks or a load of coral limestone for the villagers. He did not put Handaya to even such light work on the day of the full moon, the day for Buddhist religious practice.”

The helplessness of the ordinary folk is portrayed in the two stories ‘Money’ (‘Salli’) and ‘Mother’ (‘Amma’). They also expose the cunning individuals who make a quick buck at the expense of the innocent folk. A victim would look at such people thus: “You know Anu, even dumb animals have become crafty by imitating human beings. Every time I visit Uncle Andiris his dog barks at me. When I get near him, he wags his tail and licks my feet. He does this to others also, not just me. So you see how crafty this dog has become! He knows very well that I am not a thief or an enemy. He has learnt to bark to please his master. The dog has become like the layabout road-mender. When the overseer is around, he starts to wield his pickaxe vigorously to attract the overseer’s attention. The dog was not crafty to begin with. It is man who has taught it to be crafty. It will not be long before all animals also become crafty like human beings!” chuckled Sammy, looking mischievously at Anula.” (‘Mother’).

From the crafty individual to a miser: “Siman Mudalali’s hands were not accustomed to giving. Rather, like the jaws of a crocodile, they were adept at retaining firmly whatever they seized. Getting five cents out of him was as difficult as breaking a chip off a lump of granite. Suffering is like a searing drought, and comfort like soothing rain to most people. But such feelings did not seem to touch Siman Mudalali’s indifferent heart. He lived like a recluse, isolated like an oyster within its shell.” (‘Eve of the New Year’).

In ‘Woman’, the opening para is a beautiful landscape painting. “It is a serene night. Clouds float like giant heaps of cotton wool under the huge dark canopy of the sky. The moon, an overflowing bowl of liquid silver, pours its radiance on the expanse of the lake, transforming it into a carpet of sparkling crystals. The twinkling stars are like white Na petals floating in the night-sky. To those with bodies bruised by toil, and heart weighed by anxieties, the cool night is a soothing balm.”

For those who have read the Sinhala stories as well as those who have not, the book is most absorbing. The neat drawing in each story illustrating an interesting incident adds colour to the publication. Ranga Wickramasinghe certainly has done justice to his father’s writing. As he has hoped in the Note from the Translator, the collection of short stories will undoubtedly provide the “serene joy given to many, in the original Sinhala”. And to many more.

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