Thirst by Daya Dissanayake. Reviewed by Priyanthi Wickramasuriya
Daya Dissanayake says it all in his preface, that the idea for his "Thirst" germinated in his mind on May 3rd, 2003, after seeing a demonstration against the envisaged Upper Kothmale Dam - a project said to be denounced not only by Minister Arumugam Thondaman, but by concerned environmentalists. It is claimed that it might be an ecological disaster. Offending nature.

Nature when offended can become extremely angry and bloodthirsty, as demonstrated by the tsunami that lashed our shores on Duruthu Poya as it happened, the day following Christmas, leaving thousands dead and many homeless. And this is what his story is about, one despot megalomaniac king with Ozymandias-like zeal of being immortalised by building not only a colossal palace, but then the largest tank ever - not only in his own kingdom, but in the whole world itself! Never mind, the fact that the area already had all the irrigation facilities the people needed, that many broad acres of paddy and the cultivators' homes and temples that had stood there from olden times would have been submerged, and many rare plants and beautiful shady trees and animals both large and small would have their lives snuffed out in the waters of the proposed wewa.

Kala wewa legend
Mind you, Daya Dissanayake does not call it a wewa, but rather refers to it as a tank, along with other 20/21st century terminology, but a wewa it is. For though he says, that the story is not placed in any definite place or time, but only that it is an island lying somewhere in Asia around the 1st millennium, the bare bones of the story bears some resemblance to that of King Dhatusena and the building of his Kala wewa, and the usurping of the throne by his eldest son Kasyapa born of a non-royal queen.

According to legend, when the bund of the Kala wewa was being built, it happened that there in the way sat an Arhath deep in meditation. No amount of arousing would awaken the monk from his mediation, and the king in his impatience ordered that the bund be built over the monk, thereby burying the venerable Arhath alive. Of course, according to some versions of the legend, it was not deliberately done, but the men did not see the monk until it was too late.

This version is more credible, as in Mr. Dissanayake's book itself, the common folk would have revered even a simple village monk to the extent, that they would not have harmed a hair of his head even on the pain of death to themselves. In the story, Uti the foreign irrigation engineer orders some of the King's mercenary soldiers to do the dastardly deed over the monk Tissaguptha, who stays thus deep in mediation not in a trance but as an act of protest against the building of the dam and as a last ditch attempt to stave off the impending doom.

Be it as it may, like in the case of Dhatusena, the sin rebounds on the king of this tale too, resulting in his meeting his own death in like fashion by the order of the Prince, his son at the head of an unruly mob who had finally rebelled against the evil despot's despotic rule. The king's thirst for power lets him imagine that he is quenching his subjects' thirst for water for their fields, heedless of the relevance or the necessity of a mega-tank, which ultimately leads to his ruin and death. So much so, when - as the original local chief irrigation engineer has foretold - the seasonal rains do not provide enough water for the new Mahavapi tank, he orders the breaching of the dam of the tank supplying water to his capital, in order to divert water to that Mahavapi. Though I doubt that King Dhatusena did thus! But this is a parable for modern times, the times we live in, and the king in this tale seems to be a caricature of the worst in some of our politicians, especially of Sri Lanka - greedy for power and glory!

Puna and Cita
The Commander-in-Chief is a man unrelated to the king, but loyal to him until political necessity makes him choose otherwise. He has lined his nest to the extent of providing for seven generations of his descendants. But there are other kinder characters, much more humane and definitely likeable. Especially, Puna, the Chief Minister Reta's daughter, and even more important, that of Cita, younger sister of the monk Tissaguptha, very much junior to him in years, so much so that she seemed to have regarded the revered thera as a sort of a surrogate father. She reacts equally badly to his death on orders flowing directly from the king.

Both Cita and Puna, are pivotal to the development of the story, though to Cita at least, the end seems to be as almost as traumatic as the beginning. For as so often happens in modern times, her non-violent movement to try to force the king to abandon his mega-foolish project finally gathers momentum only when the eldest prince (piqued at not being made the yuva-raja the vice-king) hijacks her movement to attain his own ends! I won't say more about the actual story as elucidated by Mr. Dissanayake, lest I spoil it for the reader.

But I must say, I feel that the unfolding of the king's personality strikes me as being not quite credible. The king in this novelette is not only a petty tyrant and megalo-maniac, but a fool! Would such a fool however ambitious have succeeded in subduing those provincial kings and chieftains, and 'unifying his kingdom'? It is clear that Mr. Dissanayake does not like kings in general, whatever our Mahawansa and other Wansa Katha tell about them and of our Lak Bima once being the granary of the East!

The portrayal of Cita and Puna, is done with much more skill and sensitivity, as also that of the other main characters, the Chief Minister Reta and the Tissaguptha Thera. However, I have my reservations about the Chief Minister appointing his beloved elder daughter as Progress Chaser and de facto 'Man-In-Charge'. Mr. Daya Dissanayake is no doubt a man, but seems to be more of a feminist than even myself - a woman! I very much doubt a pretty young girl even of modern times from our part of the world being able to do what Reta sets his daughter to do around the 1st millennium; and still more of a concerned parent even thinking of such a thing!

Sanskrit names
And if I am allowed two last complaints, the description of the valley to be inundated could have been in greater length in terms of its forest inhabitants and natural beauty. After all, only those of us from the Indian sub-continent and our own Lanka itself, can be expected to realise the significance of it being compared to the Nandana Uyana (the Garden of the Heavenly Ones). There's not enough poetry there, I feel. And why use Sanskrit names to describe the trees there? Giving the corresponding botanical names as footnotes is not enough. It would have been better to use the relevant English or even Sinhala names.

Finally, those who want to read this novelette should go to the website, and download the Acrobat Reader .pdf file. Or perhaps email the author at for a copy as an e-attachment. If you would much rather read it on paper, you might have long to wait. Though at least his Saadhu Testament (said to be the first e-novel out of Asia) is available as a paperback, the author seems to have now developed a missionary-like zeal against the felling of precious trees for the fell purpose of making paper pulp.

Personally, I have my misgivings as to whether felling forests for paper is environmentally more damaging than making plastic and microprocessors and then dumping them when tired of them or because they had got obsolete. But then life is about choices, isn't it?

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