Several questions, missing answers
Sunset Years and Missing in Action by Punyakante Wijenaike. Reviewed by Vijita Fernando.
Punyakante Wijenaike's two most recent works in this omnibus volume are a study in contrasts. The one, ‘Sunset Years’ is a nostalgic journey into the past spanning several decades and the other, ‘Missing in Action’, is a commentary on the stark realities of our times.

‘Sunset Years’ is the story of Wijenaike, the celebrated writer of fiction in Sri Lanka, winner of many awards nationally and internationally. It is a saga of her youthful years, her marriage and later, more importantly, how the chrysalis in her emerged as a full fledged writer. It is not an easy story to write but she does it with sincerity and wisdom, never once slipping into sentimentality.

Running through the reality of her life is a silken thread, the bond that she shared with her husband who died early leaving her to grapple with life alone. The encouragement he gave her when she started writing; getting up early, feeding an infant and writing for two hours is treasured throughout the book.

Interspersed among her personal reminiscences is the story of her writing. Often this takes second place to her family and her daily pursuits. But a careful reading shows the early attempts, the successes and the striving to write, shining through the pages. Even when actual writing was dormant through the dark days of her husband's illness, the will to continue urged her and during this time several of her well known books were written and published.

People ask her ' how do you write about people you have never met, who have lived far away from you?' Her creativity is her answer in which, as she says, her imagination makes her think, feel and react, just as if she herself had lived the incident...

That is a simple explanation of the realities of her fiction. ‘The Rebel’, in the title story of a collection of short stories, in which Kumari reveals another aspect of the 1971 insurgency, ‘Giraya’ with its dark overtones, ‘Anoma’, a harsh comment on incest, ‘Yukthi’, a soldier's dilemma, ‘Amulet’ where a son worshipping mother "never allowed her daughter to send roots in her father's garden," and ‘Enemy Within’, a story on the aftermath of the Central Bank bomb attack.

And so many others.
Wijenaike does not have answers to whether she has a social responsibility when she refers to other people in her life. She wonders how a writer can determine her position in relation to humanity. She says, "All I can say is go where the story takes you, taking care though, that nothing is irretrievable. And in any case it is not the writer who decides these issues but the reader..."

In style as much as in content, the second book ‘Missing in Action’ gives us another kind of writing, away from the even tenor of ‘Sunset Years’. Here the atmosphere is stark, deadly, often uncompromising and the writing brisk and unemotional.

The title story ‘Missing in Action’ combines a number of strands, from the early childhood problems of the protagonist, the traumas of growing up, the problems of adolescence and the thorny path of an arranged marriage till she reaches peace and love with the man who becomes a number in a long list of “missing persons”. It is a harrowing story in which the reader at times gets lost.

‘Anoma’ is a prize winning gem, the tender treatment of a nasty subject - incest. The conversation which the child/woman victim has with the growing foetus in her womb is an indictment not only on fathers who sexually use their daughters but on mothers who leave them.

This is not the only story in this collection that the author has written on current social problems. There is ‘Memories’ in which the age old problem of parents not having enough time for children's needs is vividly related.

Foreign Investment is very much a story of these times. Sixteen-year-old Jagath from a poor fishing family stands poised between two worlds, unable to make a choice. Should he follow the two German men who befriend him, give him wrist watches and Levis and “turned him into a whore”? The boy's dilemma is genuine and as he makes his choice, he watches the two foreigners repeating the same sordid tale with another and then another victim.

Realism is the strong point in Wijenaike's narratives. There is nothing surreal except perhaps very briefly in the story ‘Guess Who is Coming to Dinner’. Even here it does not take centrestage.

Many of Wjenaike's stories in ‘Missing in Action’ pose questions to the reader. What was it that made a woman unable to face her life alone when her husband is missing in action in Mullativu? Was it her upbringing, the harsh treatment at her mother's hands that made her so in adult life? Are we too quick to indict the mother who left the little teenager with an aged grandmother so that her father could seduce her, and turn our eyes away from the social circumstances that compel her to leave the child for the sake of a better life for her family? Even a cursory reading of Wijenaike's stories will leave the reader pondering on these issues.

A false consciousness
Jathika Chinthanaya by Sankajaya Nanayakkara. Reviewed by Vijaya Jayatissa.
One of the most paramount obstacles for the progress of Sri Lankan society has been the resistance to re-conceptualise the State in Sri Lanka. This kind of resistance is clearly identified with the extreme right of the Sinhala society. Right wing resistance to political reforms that attempt to accommodate the aspirations of the marginalized sectors in Sri Lankan society has usually been violent. It has assassinated populist prime ministers like S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, progressive-left-of-the-centre politicians like Vijaya Kumaratunga and radical student leaders like Daya Pathirana. Until the emergence of the Jathika Chinthanaya ideology or the Chinthana Parshadaya School in the mid 1980s, the Sinhala extreme right did not have a well-articulated discourse. An extreme Sinhala ideology gradually emerged in the writings of Gunadasa Amarasekera and Nalin de Silva, the pioneers of the Chinthana Parshadaya School.

Sankajaya Nanayakkara's extensive essay on Jathika Chinthanaya makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of a discourse that has been the prime inspiration of anti-political reform politics in Sri Lanka. In this essay Nanayakkara traces the historical development of the Jathika Chinthanaya ideology with reference to texts and newspaper articles of the school. He elucidates the contours of this particular ideology. The author has fulfilled the long felt need for a comprehensive critical scrutiny of the Jathika Chinthanaya. This essay is not confined to a mere analysis of secondary sources of data such as books and articles of the Chinthana Parshadaya School. It is evident that the author has used primary data, which most probably has resulted from interviews conducted with informants who have been activists of the School and opponents of it. Nanayakkara characterises Jathika Chinthanaya as a false consciousness that emerged in certain sections of the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie as a reaction to disorienting economic, social and cultural changes of the post-1977 era. In conclusion, the author emphasises the need for a more inclusive identity that will reflect the plural nature of Sri Lankan society.

The author who is a lecturer in sociology and anthropology at the Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka has presented his essay in a comprehensive and accessible manner. Yet one cannot overlook his scholarly style of writing which probably is a result of the academic training he has gained. This extensive essay is an invitation for scholars as well as activists who are interested in understanding the ideological foundations of the Sinhala extreme right.

Many storms brewing in this teacup
Coffee Stains in a Camel's Teacup by Deepak Unnikrishnan. Reviewed by Carl Muller.
Deepak Unnikrishnan is just 23. That says nothing, does it? But how many 23-year-olds possess a heart that swells into a stunning glory-hued flower, bursting into voice that makes of life's way a sheer lyric of sliding, gliding words?

Deepak's first collection of short stories is surely but an aperitif. Someday, I hope, a feast awaits us. He asks us to sip lovingly and not consider the small measure of the glass. Just seven stories told with such uncontrolled power. One gets that champagne taste, turning to a rare Medoc, then to ambrosia. It simply has to be like that - and then there is that scent of a burning rose that, long ago, George MacDonald told us of in his enchanting children's classic, ‘The Princess and the Goblin’.

One cannot help but revel in the way each story in this slim book conveys the author's deepest emotions. He is in them all - both male and female - and with the sort of ease that only rare artists can embody on canvas. He allows his mind to speak, as though his tongue, deadened by the mystery, the grandeur of it all, has no need for words. The writing flows, gathering colours, sights, sounds, winding with the wind and city din, living room windows, urban conscience riding the subway.

Whether the waters of Lethe or the waters of Avalon, it matters little. It flows, remorselessly, and in its gathering detritus there is spilled orange juice, stray dogs like Bombay prostitutes, an ugly West 19 street pigeon, lottery tickets that tantalize. It is first person writing that compels and, with ease, he also becomes the female giver and lover and non-lover in a sacrificial dance of longing.

What makes this little book a joy to read is the deep humanity that undercurrents it. Life to Deepak is not lived enough, yet he has reached inward for depths and the thoughts cascade. Sexual frustration spurred by desire clashes cymbals. In ‘Travelogue’ he is turning to Nabokov's ‘Lolita’; then to ‘Perfume’. In ‘The Silence is a Shout’ he is the grandfather, watching a lovely girl buying brinjals in a supermarket:

Her soft and touchable fingers played the purple vegetables like men, and they almost juiced with desire under her torment.
"Need help?" I questioned.

"I am not sure, grandpa," came the answer in a playful, lilty voice that made my body ache with grandfatherless venom... Never before had I crept into a woman's skirt so seamlessly as she spoke.

He tells of the day he had been to the Met, seen a painting by Balthus:
Oh, I almost came when I saw this sensuously vibrant painting of a little girl...
Everyone in that room that day, every single lover of art, stared at that painting in silence and in awe - for her parted limbs, I assure you, were like a tunnel of immense vacuum, sucking all that looked into her being, impregnating her with a lustful sexual alloy, gathered from a mixture of silence.

What is the author really telling us? He invites us, actually: Read - read my soul. This is me in the growing-up time, the now-time and the time to come. I will keep my senses alight and even as age steals everything else, the Roman Candles with their craving light will keep me ever needing, never satisfied.
Above all these are the word pictures he weaves. They are abso -bloody-lutely marvellous. Walk the streets of Bombay with him ("Laugh Lines hidden in a Lamp Post") and listen to what he says:

...the colour, vibrant spider webs of colour gushing in and out like spasmodic cannonballs of life... wandering second-hand colours, flirty bright hues, and even old shrivelled rainbows... Trousers and jeans pass in some sort of pre-calculated, confused sequence... some sort of synchronized bedlam in a coinductorless land.

Strangely personal, intimate, broken-egg-raw in spots, impressions that come from the stench of torn-up carpets; experiences that buzz-saw their way into the crevices of awareness, then settle like mining dust to taint or taunt.

It's hard to put Deepak's seven torrid tales into a cannister and say: "There, I've got it all pegged down." He comes through like a new wave, overwhelming the turgidity of the commonplace, breaks on some sun-dazed shore, scattering word-pearls that startle the very air into a wondering, receptive breathlessness.

This is the first offering of a true, gifted literary artiste. There is precision of thought behind the seeming ramble that turns into the many molehills of the senses. It is not that the author cares whether we squirm or not for blatant or otherwise, he writes from an innermost part of his own questioning self.
If that is not Truth, what is?

A Haiku moment for each day
Firefly Crossing - Haiku poems by Rohini Cooray. Reviewed by Ameena Hussein.
Haiku is small poetry with an oriental metric that appeared in the XVI century and is popular in Japan. In this century it gained in popularity and today has become a worldwide phenomenon. It has an old and long story that blends the ancient spiritualist philosophy and the Taoist symbolism of the oriental mystics and Zen Buddhist masters who express much of their thoughts in the form of myths, symbols, paradoxes and poetic images like the Haiku. It's done to transcend the limitation imposed by the usual language and the linear/scientific thinking that treat nature and human beings as machines.

Haiku in its traditional form is composed of 3 lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables respectively. Contemporary international haiku however, usually relaxes the syllable-count restriction. In English Haiku, 1-3 lines of 17 syllables or less is the norm (14 syllables is often recommended).

Haiku are poems about nature and generally follow the principles of minimalism and immediacy. Immediacy refers to the sense of a scene being directly presented to your senses. A Haiku tries to capture a concrete image in place and time. It's contemplative poetry that valorizes nature, colour, season, contrasts and surprises. It must register or indicate a moment, sensation, impression or drama of a specific fact of nature. It's almost like a word photograph of some specific moment of nature. A Haiku moment is a moment of transcendence; after reading a Haiku and where the imagery has its sensorial impact on you. Probably the idea of a Haiku moment was meant to be parallel to the brief moment of enlightenment after reflecting on a Zen koan. Thus a Haiku moment is a sudden sense of urgent immediacy as, upon completing the reading of a Haiku, you feel yourself thrustfully and tangibly drawn into the scene described.

All traditional Japanese poetry has historically been deeply involved with nature. Natural cycles, such as the seasons and the course of love relationships, have long been subject matter for composition, the primary source of figurative language, and a large part of the basis for organizing poetry collections. According to principles of Japanese poetry, certain words and phrases embody ideas that go beyond their literal meanings. For example, using the word ‘blossom’ (hana), without the name of a specific blossom, means the blossoms of ornamental cherry trees. For any other blossom one must specify: ‘peach blossoms’ (momo no hana), and so on. Further, the word ‘cherry’ (sakura) always means ‘cherry blossoms’ - unless one specifies ‘fruit of the cherry’ (sakura no mi).

For the Japanese many natural phenomena and human activities, and the words and phrases traditionally used to name them, bring to mind the seasons in which they typically occur along with a whole range of temporally-related images. Every culture has phrases, often used in literature, which bring to mind whole complexes of associated images and feelings. In Japanese traditional literature those ‘words or word groups’ associated with the seasons have been particularly appreciated and even catalogued.

Firefly Crossing is a delightful book of Haiku poetry. In Haiku the poetic form appear deceptively simple yet embody a complex array of possibilities. In this collection of one-breath poems you find more than a full spectrum of colour among the pages. The poems move from serenity to startlement, sadness to hilarity and from purely innocent attentiveness to playfulness. The quality of work is excellent and thoughtfully arranged. The preface is comprehensive and instructive. And each subsequent reading of this collection of poems produces a wealth of new pleasures and inisights. The richness of the poetic material here proves the inspirational nature of Haiku as well.

At its best Haiku gives the reader unique insights into everyday situations. The best Haiku poems in Rohini Cooray's collection compress complex observations into a few perfectly chosen words. These Haiku combine Cooray's lyrical gifts of strong musical language and unique, personal insight with a disciplined form. The poems in this collection range over a broad spectrum of topics from the poet’s reflections on places of nature to situations of war and reflections on people.
The stillness
Of sob-sodden graveyard;
In the camera still.
Dead soldier in noon sun;
Armour ants assembling
In vulture's shadow
Not its sting; just
Shooing away mosquito
Sleeping child awakes.

Cooray also has many poems that meditate on nature of which she is evidently passionate. Many of these poems tend to capture a picture - a photograph of words. There are some that go beyond this and perceive nature as a living entity that is connected to all of creation.
Golden rays of dawn
Caressing laden sheaves of
Paddy; harvest time.
A sunny spot:
Glistening on a spider's thread
A dewdrop.
Tropic night
Full moon beams trickling down
In garden plants.

The words caressing, glistening and trickling transform this Haiku from a snapshot of a moment in time into a vision of the paddy fields as being alive and a part of an interconnected universe. It suggests a relationship, a conversation between the earth and the heavens.
Cooray's experience as a poet is evident in the vivid compelling images she creates, and the gentle voice she has developed. Traditionally, Japanese Haiku require that each poem contain a kigo or season word that tells the reader in which season the Haiku is set. Her vivid earthy sensual imagery provide a rich treasure trove of season words:

An afflicted heart
In a violin.
Honey locust trees
Weeping golden tears scatter
In the autumn wind.
Long ago ghosts -
Empty pumpkin promises
Chilling a fall night.

It is said that more than inspiration, one needs meditation, effort and perception to compose a real Haiku. Rohini Cooray's collection is one that successfully combines all of these to allow the reader the luxury of a Haiku moment for each day.

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