Slices of Sri Lankan life

"A writer 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.

During the 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 impossible odds."

Ashok Ferry's 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."

Ferry, who 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."

Medawattegedera's 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 and emotions."

The tiniest 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."

The Gratiaen 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.

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