Heralding a new chapter of a country stepping into the future

Bookfacts: Kaleidoscope 2: An Anthology of Sri Lankan
English Literature . Edited by D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke. Vijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo.
Reviewed by Dr. Gamini Fonseka. Price: Rs. 550.

Introducing quite a few new writers, whose work deserves prominence before a local and international academic and literary readership, and enhancing the corpus of Sri Lankan writing in English in an academically recognized form, Emeritus Professor D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke’s Kaleidoscope 2 expands the Anthology of English Literature in Sri Lanka he started in 2008 with its predecessor Kaleidoscope 1.

This is indeed a welcome contribution by an authority in Commonwealth literature to the growing scholarship in postcolonialism. As he had done in Kaleidoscope 1 here too he has presented his selections under fiction, poetry, non-fiction and drama. The 17 pieces of prose fiction, the 24 poems, the essay on Sri Lanka’s future, and the two plays altogether help Goonetilleke’s mission as an advocate of the stylistic complexity, the thematic variety, the conceptual exclusivity, and the cultural peculiarity of the postcolonial literature he deals with.

Like in its predecessor, the turn of each entry in the anthology has a kaleidoscopic effect. In the prose fiction section Punchibandara Dolapihilla chronicles the dark period in Sri Lanka before colonisation while Tissa Abeysekera captures the same situation where personal revenge is used to mislead jurisdiction but in a more aesthetic framework. The history of the island nation is captured in a light of resilience by Uthpala Gunethilake’s narration of sculpting the Avukana Buddha statue during Dutugemunu’s campaign against Elara’s rule in Anuradhapura.

The charm of classicism achieved in this way continues with Ruana Rajapakse’s retelling of the ‘Kanavera Jatakaya’ (about 430 AD) fashioned as a modern short story, to suggest elements of complexity and sophistication in the imagination of the ancient Buddhist community of India and Sri Lanka.

The solemnity thus achieved through myth, symbolism, legend and historicity, vanishes amidst riotous humour with Carl Muller relating how an inter-racial romantic relationship undergoes solemnisation through parental involvement. But this postcolonial hilarity vanishes with the fiery portrait of a Tamil motorcyclist’s struggle to escape from a Sri Lankan army helicopter attack, made by A. Santhan, its sequel by A.A. Latiff where the motorcyclist joins his LTTE Major in a macabre slaughter, and Jayantha Ratnayake’s analysis of his hero Jayapalan’s tragic destiny as a victim of LTTE terrorism. Yet hopes of coexistence emerge through Isankya Kodithuwakku’s half-Tamil refugee falling in love with a soldier of the Sri Lankan army, Sivanandani Duraisamy’s Sinhala and Tamil doctor couple who transgress racial boundaries in their happy marriage, and Neil Fernandopulle’s wealthy couple who exemplify under the guidance of a Catholic nun the social responsibility to adopt orphans from border villages attacked by the LTTE.

In view of the post-LTTE scenario, the kaleidoscope receives a new shape from various social characters such as Ashok Ferrey’s vibrant publicity shark Maleesha who controls society, Ahila Thillanathan’s innocent schoolgirl who commits suicide due to illicit pregnancy, Ransiri Menike Silva’s introvert heroine who forgives the perpetrators of her unhappiness and Lilian Somalatha Ratnayake’s poor village woman who politely rejects a wealthy urban woman’s charitable gestures even at a time of crisis.

These portraits of adult behaviour balance well with that of Samantha Sirimanne Hyde’s poor schoolboy deprived of his simple happiness by his wealthy classmate who takes away his kite at a tricky time. The trend of variety developed in this way changes positively with Punyakante Wijenaike’s ghost story similar to those full of gothic wit and mysticism by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991) and Karen Blixen (1885-1962). It perplexingly unveils a Sinhala woman’s commitment to the maintenance of her marriage even 11 years after her husband’s death. The 17 pieces of prose fiction in this way unveil several dimensions of the character of the modern Sri Lankan society existing in a unique set of circumstances precipitated by changes taking place in geography, demography, culture, economy, politics, etc.

Goonetilleke aptly uses M.D.R. Perera’s ‘Peace and Amity’ to open the poetry section, conveying the power of silence as an intellectual device in an effort to achieve racial harmony. Tilak Ratnakara’s ‘Whispers of the Bodhi Leaves’ adds to this, suggesting application of the Buddhist teaching of equanimity while contemplating the LTTE massacre of devotees at Anuradhapura on May 14 1985.

Lakshmi de Silva relates the feelings of desolation harboured by a victim of the Tristar Explosion in ‘General Hospital May 3rd 1986’. Frances Bulathsinghala discloses the hypocrisy of the truce signed by Ranil Wickremasinghe and the LTTE, which further paralysed the law and order of the island and connived at the blatant escalation of terrorism. Renton de Alwis voices the agony of the internally displaced people in ‘IDP’, which is an ironical query about deprivation under terrorism. U. Karunatilaka conveys in ‘Nineteen Thirty-Nine’ the feelings of an adolescent girl coming of age amidst the dread and despair of war. Asgar Hussein covers in ‘Modern Warfare’ the subtlety and insensitivity of the remote-controlled war tactics in perpetrating horror. These portrayals of horror reminiscent of the 30-year long suffering from LTTE terrorism provide contrasts for the current situation of Sri Lanka as a peaceful nation.

Further, a culturally mature departure from the tragic experiences of terrorism is marked by Renton de Alwis cynically rejecting the mystification of Mona Lisa, Lakdasa Wickremasinghe recognising the ballistic element of the poet, Rukshan Perera’s assessing the repercussion of neutrality in times of moral crisis, Jean Arasanayagam reminiscing the Dutch heritage in Galle, Alfreda de Silva pitying the poor children playing at Independence Square, Anne Ranasinghe interpreting the (Tamil) Diaspora in the 1980s, Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe reflecting on the fair and the foul of Europe, Daya Dissanayake ridiculing ‘feminism’ as a myth created by women to personal advantages, Patrick Fernando examining the destiny of personal relationships surrendered to naiveté, Vivimarie VanderPoorten analysing the vicissitudes that romantic love undergoes due to jealousy and Hasitha Wickremasinghe paying tribute to Sir Arthur C. Clarke as a revered author scientist. Destry Muller’s declaration that the presence or absence of truth is only a matter of human behaviour and Chandra Wickremasinghe’s realisation of the tragic failure of human beings to perceive the connection between life and death as a result of materialism shed light on the philosophical veins of Sri Lankan poetry.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘My Vision for Sri Lanka in 2048’, which is the only entry in the non-fiction section, is worthy of being in the anthology as it intelligently introduces Sri Lanka as a technological and philosophic civilisation to live in and highlights the country’s resilience in overcoming challenges such as the attacks of terrorism. While expressing his love of Sri Lanka, he points out the requirement of developing energy production and communication so that life will be comfortable once again. Clarke’s prophesy about overcoming terrorism has already materialised and there are other forecasts awaiting fulfilment.

The drama section carries two items. The extract from HCN de Lanerolle’s farcical exercise The Senator 1948 covers the uncertain political atmosphere of Sri Lanka during the transition from the Donoughmore model to the Soulbury when Sri Lanka became independent. The senator betrays the lack of vision the local politicians used to suffer from and their deep-rooted ambition to access the prestige their white predecessors used to enjoy. He also exposes the hypocrisy and opportunism of the parliamentarians of the time through their tactics such as overnight conversion from Christianity to Buddhism. Ernest Thalayasingham Macintyre’s A Somewhat Mad and Grotesque Comedy is an essay in Absurdist theatre. It clearly projects the tragic dissolution of personal relationships in the violent emergence of greed and the blind submergence of basic human values.

As Goonetilleke claims in his introduction, it is obvious that “chronology, content and technique have been taken into consideration in arranging the items”. The anthology as a whole is a valuable guide to English literature produced in Sri Lanka that would benefit readers of literature in all walks of life. It showcases altogether a generous fraction of literature in English, doing justice to it in the best way possible and powerfully mirrors Sri Lanka as a nation entering into a new era free from terrorism, adding a profound political significance to its literary value.

(The writer is Head, English Language Teaching Unit, University of Ruhuna)

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