Slices of Sri
reflects, consciously and unconsciously, the time in which he lives,"
says Lal Medawattegedera, who was among those short-listed for the
Gratiaen Award 2002 for his work The Window Cleaner's Soul, along
with Ashok Ferry who wrote Colpetty People. Both works, collections
of short stories, are reflections of not just our time, but also
the personal convictions, experiences and concerns of each writer.
However, where Medawattegedera chooses to wander off the beaten
track and listen to the throb of life that emanates from grassroot
level living, Ferry (writing under a pen-name) opts for the madness-infused
pedestrian lifestyles of - no, not the rich and famous - rather,
everyone's favourite, upper middle class.
brief chat I had with the two writers about their work, one struck
me as being intensely funny accounts of life from people to relationships
to social institutions. The other was a funnily intense collection
of narratives that touched on potent issues from exploitation to
social change, from the homophobic nature to the troubled times
of 1989, from issues of class to that of social stratification.
But, what was
more striking than the apparent differences was the common link
between the two: both writers are champions of the human spirit,
applauding in their work what Ferry calls "survival against
Colpetty People is not just about the people of Colpetty, rather,
the work brings within its scope city people with their own brand
of madness - "Whether we live in Colpetty, Havelock Town, Panadura
or even London or Nigeria where some of the stories are set, there
are certain essential characteristics we share; we are all a little
bit mad - in a nice kind of way."
has been writing since about the late 1970s - sporadically - with
some time spent in Oxford and a gap year in Nigeria talks about
his greatest concern: How does one make a life here? People go abroad,
he says, and then they decide to come back because they don't want
to lose their roots completely. The sad thing is that, more often
than not, when they do come back it's too late; they've been forgotten.
For most people this is quite agonizing and still they go on - this
is what Ferry explores - human nature and its will to 'go on'.
Was he, as
a writer, influenced by personal experience? Says Ferry: "When
you do hear of such stories from someone close or watch a friend
go through a difficult experience, you do experience the situation
personally and it may influence you. In such situations, the writer
in you thinks 'story', while the human in you responds differently.
While you may respond with empathy, something of this experience
may creep into what you write."
As far as personal
style goes, Ferry's work is dressed up with wit and good humour.
This is because he believes that while that which is serious is
important, it should be something that the reader can hear the echo
of, rather than have it laid out in front of them. "Life is
quite tragic, really," says Ferry, "We need to live it
lightly, we need to laugh and carry on."
people in The Window Cleaner's Soul are those who have to learn
to carry on. As a creative writer, journalist and documentary writer,
Medawattegedara talks of his experiences of travelling to, what
he calls the "nooks and crannies of the country". With
his first-hand experiences of unique ways of life (which he jots
down in a notebook he always carries around with him), a will to
bring a fresh perspective into themes already written about and
his feminist heart, Medawattegedara's short stories revolve around
the disempowered - "their lives, lifestyle, language, fears
things inspire Medawattegedara. Say a man in dirty clothes
gets on the bus I watch the way people react to him. I find the
germ of a story idea in that situation. Or sometimes you overhear
people talking and realize that there's a story in that conversation.
I always go back and try to imagine more to that situation
- and a story is born.
When The Window
Cleaner's Soul was short-listed the comment made by the panel of
judges (comprising Tissa Abeysekera, Prof. Kamal de Abrew and Dr.
Ruvani Ranasinha) was that Medawattegedara's work was one that captured
the Sri Lankan idiom. On this issue Medawattegedara says, "I
have always thought writers like Salman Rushdie and Carl Muller
have captured the idiom of a nation and a community successfully,
perhaps this influenced me. I know I did try to capture, as best
I could, the spirit of Sinhala and maybe I did. As this was my first
literary effort, it was nice to find out that I have been doing
some things right."
With no experience
of publishing realities, but with the clear intention of publishing
his manuscript Medawattegedara talks of how long his work had been
tucked away. Having finally decided last year to get cracking on
his book, his "pulling them out" coincided with the call
for entries for the Gratiaen award. It was then that he decided
to work toward the deadline as his goal.
For both writers,
to be shortlisted for the Gratiaen means a personal honour. Beyond
that, the Gratiaen, Medawattegedara says, celebrates the efforts
of writers. "This year the Gratiaen saw nearly 40 entries and
each one of us has been encouraged to continue with our efforts.
In addition, all of us who were shortlisted have had our work reviewed
- we can learn so much from such an experience."
is the country's premier literary award for creative writing in
English, and despite the many opinions on the subject, it is the
reason why manuscripts are "brought out from the bottom of
the almirah" (as was Ferry's) or "pulled out from somewhere"
(as was Medawattegedara's). This, both writers hold, is its contribution
to the development of Sri Lankan English Literature.