30th April 2000
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Two winners and many similarities

By Alfreda de Silva
Visakesa ChandrasekeranThe 1999 Gratiaen Prize for creative writing was won jointly by two young men - Visakesa Chandrasekeran for 'Forbidden Area', a play and Neil FernandopulleNeil Fernandopulle for 'Sharpnel', a collection of short stories. One notes some similarities between the two writers. They are both 30 years old. They studied throughout their school careers in the Sinhala medium and neither had a formal classroom education in English literature. 

They both read and enjoy Sinhala literature, while Visakesa is a well-known writer in Sinhala. They write plays and act in them and are award winners in this genre. 

This is the first time that Visakesa and Neil submitted their work for the Gratiaen, each of which focuses on the war situation in this country. 

They were both encouraged to participate in the competition by their friends. 

Visakesa is the son of a Tamil doctor and a Sinhalese nurse. He is trilingual, with his main strength being Sinhala in which he has written extensively, since his childhood. His mother's religion, Buddhism, and her language have been significant influences in his life. In his growing years he studied in various rural schools because his parents used to get transferred every two or three years. He passed the Grade V Scholarship examination and entered Royal College in 1981. 

He has a Master's Degree in Mass Communication from the University of Sri Jayawardenepura. He has won prizes for his short stories and television scripts and at Youth Club drama festivals. 

He says, "But I could continue neither writing nor drama activities till I entered the Law Faculty in the University of Colombo." He collected a number of awards at the University Arts Festival for writing and drama. He is an exponent of Bharatha Natyam, which he considers a good mental and physical discipline. 

It was in 1996 that he wrote his first long play in Sinhala - 'Thahanam Adaviya', after his Law College final examination. It was first performed at the Lumbini Theatre. 

It won seven awards at the National Youth Theatre Festival in 1997 and in 1998 won the prize for the best published Sinhala theatre script. He played one of the main roles in the performance. 
After seeing this play, an Australian friend, Matthew, wanted to produce it and asked Visakesa for an English translation of it. 

"As I had hardly any knowledge of English literature it was a challenge for me. I had to refer to the dictionary to select suitable words and also get friends to proof-read my drafts," he declares. 
And that is how 'Forbidden Area', translated from 'Thahanam Adaviya', found its way to the Gratiaen. 
Visakesa had visited Jaffna after 12 years and was shattered by the chaos he saw there. The pastoral beauty of the landscape he had left behind was gone. He saw the sufferings of both the Tamils and the Sinhalese of the border villages, caught up in the war. 

Then he was stirred to write 'Thahanam Adaviya', the sombre and moving play set in one room in a deserted building with its horrifying reverberations of destruction.

'Thahanam Adaviya' will be staged at the Wendt at 3p.m. on May 16. "Forbidden Area" in its English translation, will go on the boards shortly in Colombo. He has chosen to be a human rights lawyer in a centre which offers legal aid for those who need and deserve it. 

Visakesa says, "My mixed parentage has been a privilege in a way. It has given me the ability to communicate in three languages and relate to people from different cultural backgrounds." The other joint winner of the 1999 Gratiaen, Neil Fernandopulle, had his schooling at Wesley College, Colombo. Although all his subjects were done in Sinhala, he had the reading habit instilled in him at Wesley and that was how he had an introduction to stories in English. 

He started writing in his teens. A play written when he was 17 years old was selected for the International Festival of Young Playwrights in Sydney, Australia. It was produced at the Sydney Opera House. Not only was this Neil's first important experience as a writer but it was also an opportunity to meet and interact with writers from different parts of the world. He received the encouragement of his parents, his lawyer father and doctor mother.

Neil is presently reading for his Ph.D. in molecular biology at the University of Colombo, where he has been involved in the English Drama Society and acted in many of their plays. He has also written a play 'Spare Ribs' for one of the Inter University Drama Festivals. 

The short story has been his forte. "I believe it's a good training ground because it makes you concentrate your effort into a small sphere. It demands a great degree of word selection, economy of usage and sustained effort,"stresses Neil. 

He enjoys the books of a variety of writers, mainly those who author short stories, because he cannot fit novels into his busy schedule. 

James Joyce, Faulkner and Nadine Gordimer are writers whose work he admires. He also enjoys the Sinhala writings of Gunadasa Amarasekera and feels that "writers in Sinhala are closer to the ground level", where rural culture is concerned. 

Neil Fernandopulle's prize-winning work is called 'Shrapnel', meaning that it consists of sharp, short pieces. He has not chosen one single story as a title piece, because the theme and styles are diverse. 
He maintains that he writes mainly as a diversion from science. He feels that he has been able to develop his own style because of his lack of a formal education in English literature. "Minimal action and tight penetrative dialogue" is how he describes his style. 

The stories consist of characters who find communication difficult and decisive action even more difficult. The plots flashback and forth in time and take the readers to an inspired unexpectedness. 

Tension and promise 

Book review

I am the Wings - by Christine Wilson. Reviewed by Carl Muller Second Imprint, Sooriya Publishers, 2000. pp. 220

Golden gorse-covered, spagnum moss-wreathed Horton Plains. Hills hung in mystery. Lucent waters. Silent shade. A dream. Below the mountain torrents rave and the mist is balmy, the wind wanton, the air a revelry of light. It was Christine Wilson's father, Dr. R.L. Spittel, who hailed Lanka with these lines: 

But, oh, for the trails that the wild men tread, 
The hills that are home to the hiving bee, 
For the tuneful bill and the branching head! 
O Island, wild Island, you are home to me! 

lt is another sort of wild man that treads the hills in Christine Wilson's engrossing book. Craig Owen, murderer, walled in stone, then set free; flying to Ceylon with a Kandyan Sinhalese and a girl in a red coat with something on her mind. 

Christine has again shown us her tremendous flair for a story well told. She has this facility to hint - yes, hint about what she unfolds and yet, keep the clamps on, arousing just the right reader -impatience to read on and on. She treads the trails herself, always a way ahead, shielding the candle in her hands. This is why Craig's destination is the Ghost Peak, the Tagapana that people shun.

The way she weaves her characters together is masterful and suddenly there is the teenaged Tara who offers him her love and the Swami who shows him how well the Middle Way should be trod to inner peace; and what is important even as we read, is Horton Plains, that extensive tableland more than a thousand feet over Ohiya, upon which we, as a people, have scrawled our signatures under the foulest of proclamations: "Mark our ways! We are the despoilers!" Seven thousand feet does not deter us from making our mark. 

This was, of old, the Sambhur Plains - home of elk and red deer, wild boar and leopard, threaded by its winding stream. Somehow, it becomes so like Craig's own life stream upon which he is borne to his own "core of stillness". Perhaps, this is why he asks the Swami, as his spiritual journey begins: "Suppose a man has done some great wrong, in self-defence, say, or under much stress or provocation: suppose, for the sake of argument, he has committed murder. Do you believe that he could ever learn to live with himself again in peace?" A good question, that. And, I wonder, are all torturers and killers of this land asking themselves the same? Is the absence of social peace because so many have destroyed the peace within them? 

Yet, for Craig, the journey is not easy. He has to countenance the mysterious disappearance of his brother, Simon, and Simon's partner, Ian Murray. He has to be told that in a land of many demons, nothing - not even sudden disappearances - is really absurd. Not even when the men on Rock Eerie become recluses; not even when a planter kills himself and his wife is carried away, a lunatic. Not even when the girl in the red coat is his brother's partner's daughter. It is certainly necessary, at this point, to congratulate Christine on her fine handling of the story and its many characters. The nicest thing about this novel is its utter readability and the well-woven cliffhangers. It is part of the true art of a writer to impel. This is not the sort of train that races past stations and pulls up, inexplicably at signals. Let me illustrate: Craig reaches Rock Eerie, the car panting as it butts a howling wind on the road up. The driver Arnolis brings the vehicle to the small wooden house. . . 

"He turned suddenly his face pinched with fear. 

"'Sir! ~Sir! This is not a good place!'

'What's the trouble?' Craig was just behind him. 

"'Listen sir!' 

"Craig could hear only the soughing of the wind. 

"Then he heard another sound. 

"Inside the empty house something was moving stealthily." 

This is a classic end-of-chapter. Tension and the promise of a strangeness to come. An un-putdown-able situation and a bit of an eye-opener too, when, in the following chapter, the police inform Craig, with scant consideration, that "our crime rate is the highest in the world. you know..." The mystery of Rock Eerie is well-fashioned. What a place. What a fantastic, beautiful, accursed place. In her foreword, Christine tells it well: "The chemistry of ever-changing moods sharpened one's senses. What was real became unreal; the unreal real. It nursed different values with shifts of mood. Drifting mists took identity colours defined and separate..."

This was a time when the leopard skulked in his lair and the elephants drifted through the forests. But the magic was there too - the same weird forests, the masses of niloo scrub, old trees sporting beards of rich moss, wild flowers, orchids, the masses of Strobilanthes, heads blossom-clustered, and where Sooweena, the Rodiya girl gathered faggots. Yes, the magic place, so lonely, so exposed to gale and storm, able to make hate grow where love once was. The place where, in the leopard's lair lay - Anne's father or Simon Craig? It is now that the magic swells. What other peace will there ever be? Christine has given her novel a sublime, quite Buddhistic ending. Overhead, in the bowl of night, lies Tara's lovely Milky Way. Within her hero's tortured self, in the chalice that holds his spirit, the beauty of Horton Plains drips its message of hope. 

lt is the end of all unease. It is certainly a gift, this reprint. The novel was first published in London in 1961. Today, almost 40 years later, it still carries its strength and vigour. And I will say it. A better time there is not! The Horton Plains is now under attack. Go visit, look at its sorry face and say with Bishop Heber: "Only man is vile!"


Not many English readers are exposed to contemporary Sinhala writers. They may not even know their names. Madhubashini Ratnayake's work 'Contemporary Sinhala Fiction' to be launched on Tuesday, May 2 will introduce some of the leading writers in the literary scene.

Most readers may remember the popular column, Panhinda, which appeared in The Sunday Times a few years back, in which Madhubashini featured Sinhala novelists, short story writers, dramatists, poets and lyric writers and their work. Now she has gathered them into a single collection.

It is a collection of personal interviews and a translation of a selected work of each writer. "They are as varied as the personalities involved. Through them, I hope that the readers would also be able to understand some aspects of Sri Lankan society in the time relevant to the writers, for rarely is literature divorced from the social, cultural and political contexts of a country," says Madhubashini. 

Arranged in alphabetical order, the book features 32 writers - from W. A. Abeysinghe to Sarath Wijesuriya. Three of them - Fr. Marcelline Jayakody, Dr. Ediriweera Sarachchandra and Madawela S. Ratnayake - are no longer with us. Madhubashini has invited the other 29 writers to the launch .-Ranat 

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