Two intimate worlds in her own candid voice

Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe talks to Manel Ratnatunga about her new book

“I had written that the Syrians were peaceful and cultured people,” says Manel Ratnatunga. “But this was soon after the six-day war when Israel had taken over the Golan Heights from Syria. So the West didn’t want anyone promoting the impression that Arabs were nice people.

” She is explaining to me why her book, ‘Syria - what is She?’, was rejected by every Western publisher she approached in the late’60s, but was immediately accepted for publication by Singapore Times International, the first Asian publisher she turned to. “Before we went to Syria, my husband got a call from a Western diplomatic mission here, telling him that he shouldn’t go to Syria because it was too dangerous. But we went and found something quite different. The man on the street in Syria was definitely more cultured than us!” ‘Syria –What is She’ was Manel Ratnatunga’s first book. It was 40 years ahead of its time.

At the book launch: Goolbai Gunasekera (at the podium), Dr. Manique Gunasekera, Prof. Janek Ratnatunga and the author. Pic by Indika Handuwala

Mrs. Ratnatunga shrugs off ‘Syria - What is She?’ Many other books have succeeded it. There are two books on folk tales, a whodunnit, and one of the best introductions to Sri Lankan cookery, a book that I pick up regularly for those trying their hand at Sri Lankan cooking.

“The book that must to be taken account of,” she tells me, is her magnum opus, Saga Indonesia. On reading its manuscript, the Oxford University Press’s Jakarta manager had told her, “It is not good. It is very good. I shall send it to the head office in Kuala Lumpur.” Saga Indonesia documents the politics, culture and history of Indonesia from 1808 to 1993, discussing the rise of nationalism and the role the memory of Sukarno plays in the national consciousness even decades after his death. Sukarno, who has gone down in history as a political posturer, a playboy, reviled for his autocratic and anti-Western rule, has a distinct hold on the public memory and Mrs Ratnatunga explores this in her book. “I couldn’t ask an Indonesian even a question about Sukarno when I was writing the book.

They were terrified of the Suharto government,” she says describing the extensive research she did in the country about its past.

Stolen Sunset is Mrs Ratnatunga’s most recent book. It is an intimate book: a book that allows the reader generously into her home at a time of deep personal crisis -- when she is caring for her paralyzed husband, Tissa Ratnatunga, after 50 years of marriage. We read, heartbroken, her descriptions of looking after her husband who had, “strewn [her] life with roses at [her] feet as young girls dream of”, but who is now trapped inside his body, unable to move, unable to talk and unable to remember. We read fascinated, doubly fascinated by her fascination, about the universe that opens up to her when she spends almost three years of her life surrounded by her husband’s attendants and other domestic staff. The “Maginot line” that existed before, separating her existence from that of those who used to be her staff, is blurred. Through Piyaratne, Hemantha, Anura and Ranga, she finds out about their families in their villages, their search for love, hopes for a better life, the endless blows they receive from fate and their ceaseless toil, and asks herself, “who coined the myth that all are born equal?”

The politics of the time form the backdrop to this domesticity. This is the time of CBK’s rule. Mrs Ratnatunga laps up with delight the comments and opinions of her group of avid newspaper-reading, constantly transistor-radio-listening, extremely politically savvy staff who always manage to describe the political feeling of the time perfectly with a “kiyala wedak ne” about CBKs promises or “boru weday”, about her elections.

The long section on her husband’s illness against the political backdrop is followed by a shorter one on her childhood and upbringing. She reveals her background and a particular world-view, and then surprises us with her ability to see its weaknesses and criticize its misuse: “I do not agree to passes,” she says, on hearing of friends who have used VIP passes to view the Sacred Tooth Relic. She adds: “The Government must help the poor people who really come to worship, not the others. It should be first come first served.” Or she says of those who advise Sinhala people to produce large families: “A man who gives a woman sixteen children should be shot.”

Bridging the two sections of the book are selections from her personal albums. There are snapshots of herself, her family and friends ranging from Anagarika Dharmapala, her grand uncle; Mallika Hewavitarne, her great grandmother who founded the Mallika Home; her meeting with the Vice President of Indonesia and her sons; to Piyaratne, her chief of staff and the other attendants who cared for her husband.

Mrs Ratnatunga’s genuine grasp of the essence of Buddhism, the law of impermanence and dissatisfaction that underlies human existence -- she confirms that she practises the real teachings when she refuses to run to astrologers or do bodhi poojas -- and her use of this understanding to look at the dramas taking place around her, her ability to see the comedy of it, her openness to the people who are thrust upon her deeply private life, and the candid revelation of her innermost doubts, make the book a fascinating read.

Yet, Stolen Sunset could easily be just another memoire despite revealing two intimate worlds: that of the writer’s life during a personal crisis and of her childhood. However, one essential element in this book (and in all of Manel Ratnatunga’s work) pitches it beyond its worth as writing of a particular genre such as diary, memoire or autobiography alone. That is the writer’s voice.

Manel Ratnatunga’s voice is so unapologetically herself, so unflinching in its honesty and so unmistakably Sri Lankan, that it takes you aback. Whether Mrs Ratnatunga is saying, “Everyday something is boiling in this country,” or “Ranil is loud about toppling a corrupt government, but walking from Colombo to Kandy to do it? I fail to see how”, phrases, tone and ideas combine to create a book that could not have been written anywhere else in South Asia but in Sri Lanka, by anyone else but her.
“Ah, but my son cut off some of the really hot stuff,” she says laughing.

Then adds: “He didn’t want another lawsuit. I told him that I didn’t mind going to jail, but he said the publisher would.” She smiles to herself and continues, “you see, I realized that things happened that should never have happened, because I didn’t speak up. My husband spoke straight, but he was quiet. I turned into this yakka that would stand up and say what had to be said.” She is indignant that the rest of the country keeps quiet and asks me, “when you look at the Bhikkhus in the temples, can you worship them?” Manel Ratnatunga will not hesitate to speak the truth and her honesty gives her voice its authenticity.

There is nothing more essential for good writing than that, and her impressive body of work speaks for itself. The young girl at the publisher’s head office in Kuala Lumpur who had read her manuscript on Indonesia had commented, “But this is not what we learnt in school.” Mrs Ratnatunga’s reply to this girl captures her career as a writer. She had said, “That’s why I wrote it.”

Manel Ratnatunga’s most recent book, Stolen Sunset, is published by Vijitha Yapa Publications (2012).

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