Paul M.M. Cooper, who got to know the country while teaching English in remote schools here has written a debut novel, River of Ink, set in medieval Sri Lanka and primarily based on the Sanskrit epic Shishupal Vadha. Smriti Daniel finds out more about the book in this email interview In the darkest period of [...]


Finding himself and a riveting tale in translation


Paul M.M. Cooper, who got to know the country while teaching English in remote schools here has written a debut novel, River of Ink, set in medieval Sri Lanka and primarily based on the Sanskrit epic Shishupal Vadha. Smriti Daniel finds out more about the book in this email interview

Paul exploring the sites of Sri Lanka

In the darkest period of his life, the poet Asanka turns to an old habit for comfort. He begins, obsessively, to make lists: ‘lists of round things, sorrowful things, lists of things that can only happen in dreams.’ Paul M. M. Cooper’s surprising, beautiful debut River of Ink is speckled with such lists: There are lists of detestable things (‘Being caught in the rain so that your sarong and travelling coat stick together and steam’) and unsightly things (‘The inside of a cat’s ear’); then there are the lists that exist outside the poet’s mind: the lists made by soldiers that determine who is to live and who to die, the list of apprentices in which Asanka must hide the name of the woman he loves, the list a tyrant makes of his favourite lines of poetry.

The last, in particular, is a clever choice of trait for an author to bequeath on his darkest character, because it immediately muddies our notions of pure evil. But Cooper has ensured that a love of poetry is something that both his villains and his heroes have in common. The aforementioned tyrant is one Sri Lankan readers should know; Kalinga Magha, the 13th century Indian prince, is believed to have been the founder of the Kingdom of Jaffna. “I very much fell in love with Sri Lanka from afar,” Cooper tells the Sunday Times in an email, explaining that while studying in England he was also reading a lot of Sri Lankan history such as the Mahavamsa and Culavamsa. He became, he says, obsessed with the idea of writing a story set in Sri Lanka during the middle ages, at the time of Kalinga Magha.

For this work of historical fiction, he turned to some of the island’s most ancient texts. “I think the Mahavamsa is one of the most amazing documents in the history of the world: a painstaking effort to record the history of the country in as much detail as possible at a time when the concept of history was still quite loose around the world,” Cooper says. The author found he could glean an incredible amount of detail about how people lived at the time purely from this one document. For more discrete details of how people felt, and the colour and sensations of their life, he turned to poetry.

In the case of River of Ink, this is where the beauty lies. Poetry– etched on to the walls of a prison, read aloud in the village square, recited in luxuriously appointed palace rooms – is the engine that drives the plot. We meet Asanka the court poet, just as his liege King Parakrama is about to throw open the gates of the city to a brutal invader. The king expects no mercy – “Tomorrow you’ll write your poetry in heaven”, he tells his frightened bard. But in this he is mistaken, because Kalinga Magha has other plans for Asanka. Already intimately acquainted with Asanka’s work, he demands the poet translate the ShishupalVadha from Sanskrit into Tamil. Each chapter is to then be circulated widely, a way for the new ruler to school his reluctant subjects in the values he holds dear.

Asanka, who often reiterates that ‘poetry makes nothing happen,’ is surprised by his own compulsion to subvert the work that has won him a reprieve from execution. In a city tense with rebellion and dissatisfaction, his words are spark to tinder. But for all this, Asanka is no insurgent. “The book is very much about bravery and cowardice, and how we understand the two. I didn’t want Asanka to be a typical hero like Rama and Krishna, the heroes of the epic poems – who grab their weapons and run out to save their wives or their friends. I wanted him to be a more complex character, a normal man who finds himself committing brave acts reluctantly and against his better nature,” Cooper says.

The Sanskrit epic ShishupalVadha is at the heart of the novel – its translation, its subversion, its bastardization, are all critical to the story. Cooper knew his decision to anchor the novel in the ancient epic was the right choice when he realised that the story of a man who is killed for insulting Krishna was one of the most intricate and complex poems ever written. Since no English translations were available, he read the poem in German and then made his own rough translation. “I think it’s strange how sometimes your life can start to mirror whatever you’re writing: I wrote about a man translating a poem and ended up doing exactly the same thing myself!” he says now.  He admits his task was both joyous and frustratingly difficult.

But if Cooper has an obvious trait, it’s his willingness to do the hard work, to commit himself fully. If he writes with deep appreciation and confidence about Sri Lanka, it is because he is someone on clearly intimate terms with the island. He came here to work as an English teacher, first at a school in Gurutalawa and then at another in Polonnaruwa. He learned to speak Sinhala – “a very logical language” – and has a particular fondness for the prasthawapirulu which he feels gives the language so much colour. He quotes one that says ‘when you are in the house of a bat, hang from the ceiling’ – “it’s something I aspire to when I travel.”

I do not know whether Cooper writes verse, but River of Ink is poetry in prose, filled with sentences you want to linger over. Where there are parallels between Sri Lanka’s past and present, he doesn’t belabour the point. He says: “I have not tried to write a book about Sri Lanka, or about how Sri Lankan people should see their own history. At its heart, this is a story of a man struggling between loyalty to his art and fear for his life, and I wouldn’t want people to think I have tried to make some grand statement about Sri Lanka itself.” Explaining that he would like to have people from everywhere in the world to relate with characters from another time and place, he adds, “If I do my job right, the world should feel a little smaller once these people finish the book.”






Paul, the English teacher having fun with his students

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