It even surprises me to think that I have never tried to write about Carl Muller. I am not pleading a case, but it was the manner of the man that stifled me. Let me skip a lot of what has been written before. He seemed to revel in a mess that included himself, his family, his relatives and friends - and what can one make of a man like this? But a couple of years ago I found that the man did have a serious side and had got into all sorts of writing - from science fiction to poetry, had produced story collections and travelogues and books like Spit and Polish and Colombo - a Novel, that each carried a sort of power he revelled in.
It was when his glorious masterpiece, Children of the Lion was released that 1 saw something I could scarcely believe. What a book that was and so huge, carrying so much research and a quality of prose that was superb. What is more, he hadn’t finished with it. Even his publishers, Penguin-Viking of India seemed to have cried halt. It had to be continued, and this time about, Penguin must have looked at yet another monstrous book and told him that something had to be done about it.
This is what I now hold in my hands - a Part One of Book Two. With good grace, Muller split the monster into four, and in this Part One he has reminded us that while this is titled City of the Lion, his publishers will soon bring out Part Two: Grandeur of the Lion, Part Three: Intrigues of the Lion, and Part Four: Decline of the Lion. And when is it all going to end?
I listened to him read out a short excerpt Part One at the recently held SLAM conference at the University of Peradeniya and, cornering him outside if only to give him my best wishes, he told me that he couldn’t leave things to sink into some sort of unfinished history. “I got into it,” he grinned, “It will be done when I yank the British in, and that’s centuries away. I don’t know - I may not live long enough to finish it.”
It is this beautiful book, City of the Lion, that I wish to write about. It’s part of a monstrous saga, richly embedded in myth and legend, carrying forward the story of the Sinhalese people, their return to Anuradhapura after that bold, reckless prince Duttha Gamini Abhaya slew the usurping Elara who had ruled there for 44 years.
Even his publishers admit that Muller is an unusual man. He is no academic; never went to university, was kicked out of three schools and served in the Royal Ceylon Navy and the Ceylon Army and the Port of Colombo as a pilot station signalman. He then got into advertising, entertainment, is pianist, keyboard wizard, artist and journalist. With 38 books under his belt, he is quite unstoppable and recently, the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (Sri Lanka Chapter) felicitated him on his 75th birthday and his contribution to literature. He seems to be quite unstoppable.
Let me quote from his Introduction:
“This is the story of the greatest Asian Buddhist city of the times before the Christ. ..(it) grew, flourished, and the edifices of Buddhist glory rose to be as the wonders of the East, monuments as enduring as the pyramids, monuments that kiss the sky to this day.. .All I am attempting to do is to bring back a cloudy part of life, pump blood into veins that have ceased to throb these many centuries...This is my tribute to those “men with giant purpose” and “their works of wonder” for they will be remembered as long as Lanka will endure.. .and sure I am that even as the stars fall, the mighty works of the City of the Lion will stand - a testimony of faith. What God will seek to destroy such as this?”
It is the writing that thrills. How much love does Muller have for Buddhism? He lives next to a Buddhist temple and is much in store with the monks there. And he is a Christian - or is he? He has made so many challenges to so many faiths that no one can say what his reaction to organized religion truly is. He ends his first chapter, “The Indian Factor” with a harsh-voiced view of the past as it even swarms in today:
“...Once again it is Sinhala resentment against Damila invasion on a more subtle plain. It began with sporadic invasion by daring persons seeking their fortunes in this island. It grew to organized invasions by south Indian powers, but the Damilas stayed on, even in defeat. They dug in, they mixed, they bided their time. They adhered to Hinduism just as Elara did. They looked on parts of the land as theirs. Scratch them even now and one sees this great great ambition - to make Lanka theirs! But let the story unfold. Duttha Gamini had killed Elara. The path for the Sinhala is now of greater glory...”
What enthralled me, insisted that I write, was the research Muller has so, shall I say prayerfully, brought into his work. Telling of the thousands who still come to the City of the Lion, to sing the praises of the Buddha, he recounts those days when the people streamed through the jungles and paths, between the mountains of Malayarata, from the coastal glades and the sandy coverlets of the East:
Even as they trundled on the broken roads, they sang of the great renunciation of the events (of the Buddha’s birth), of his attainment to Buddhahood in the Sal Park of Kimbulwatpura. They sang of his power over the lord of the demons, Mara, who had sought to bewitch him with 108 spells and 84,000 sorceries:
Going to the shade of the Bo Foot
Mounting the Vajrasana
Sitting upon the throne
He preached the five precepts in this wise.
They sang of the great flood that overtook the world at the dawn of the Kalpa, when all mankind was destroyed and the sun and the moon had ceased to shine ... And then the gods lit once more... and the days were formed...
Coming to the days of Bhalluka, he tells of how the Ramanayana epic had moulded the minds of the Hindus for centuries and, as he claims:
Was not Ravana, who had raised a fearsome image of the deity - a seated statue, four-armed, holding an axe in a right hand, a deer in a left? ... and had not Ravana been king of Lanka both in the north and in the south? No, the Damilas could not be easily routed. They would fight desperately for the land they had seized, raised as a Hindu enclave and around which they had woven many false claims and a barrage of pseudo-religious myths and legends...”
Let Muller say more:
"The North,” said Duttha Gamani ... “is ugly! Nothing beautiful nor pleasant rises there.. .what is soft and feeling about them? Nothing!”
So much is assembled to make this book one of the most fascinating that Muller has written. From George Keyt he has picked these lines:
It is not speculation on the possibilities of remoulding a changed image But it is the dream of an occurrence - The confluence of circumstances once more,
The flowing of a favourable flood...
Muller will not hesitate to quote Tenent, Coleridge, Arahat Mahinda’s telling of the Sonnamali and the Lohapasada, of the holy monks of the Mahavihara who would make their mission to the Tavatimsa realm. He will tell you of Vihara Maha Devi’s insistence that he should be as a king, also a man - and as a man, a king.
We come to the Prasada- the Sanskrit mansion of many storeys. The ‘Jatakas’ tell of the Vimanas - an arial palace: ‘dibba-vanama’ or ‘akasattha - vimana’, the ‘thamba’support and thousand-pillared palaces. Muller tells of Smither’s record of the stone columns with the motifs of the cakra, camara and chatra - universal monarchy, divinity and kingly authority - and in quoting Professor Nimal de Silva:
Landscape is a product of philosophy, art, technology, creativity and Nature. This evolved as a ‘Shilpa’ in Lanka and was carried on with all the accumulated wisdom of the past. It enhanced the pattern of life for centuries - aesthetically pleasing.”
This work is so overwhelming a presentation that I had to ask how long it took him. “You mean this first part? Oh, I think about 40 days. All four parts were tougher. About 16 months, I think. Yes, about that.”
I was sure he was kidding. “That can’t be,” I said. “All this research. Hours and hours in libraries...”
“Me? Sitting in libraries? My library is at home. Everything I need to look up and turn to lies on my shelves.”
I could not be so sure, but later, I met many others including Professor Ashley Halpe who said: “Carl is a make-himself man. He has surrounded his life with books and doesn’t need to waste his time running around. I know. I’ve been with him. He’s the sort of writer who keeps on happening.”
So, if Muller brings in the Skanda Purana and the Dakshina Kailaya Manmiyan, don’t ask him where he got his information. The books are on his shelves. “The Hindu Puranas call the ages the Kaliyuga Varathan,’ he said, “and Skanda, the god of six faces is Sadakshara -count the syllables if you like: Sa - da - ak - sha - ar - ra. That’s Skanda’s mantra!”
I thought so much about Muller that had made him such an impossible man. “What about all the terrible stuff you have written of - your Burgher Books, those words you so proudly Sinhalised in “Maudie Girl’s Kitchen...”
“Terrible, eh? So don’t read them!”
“What? Everybody I know reads them!”
“Good Lord! They must be worse than me!”