Take a literary stroll with Adilah Ismail as she talks to two Lankan writers whose books will be released next month; the 2015 Gratiaen winner Thiagaraja Arasanayagam and young Anuk Arudpragasam whose debut novel,  “The Story of a Brief Marriage”, is  published by Macmillan New York To find a seat in the Arasanayagam house, you [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

In the beginning is a picture


Take a literary stroll with Adilah Ismail as she talks to two Lankan writers whose books will be released next month; the 2015 Gratiaen winner Thiagaraja Arasanayagam and young Anuk Arudpragasam whose debut novel,  “The Story of a Brief Marriage”, is  published by Macmillan New York

To find a seat in the Arasanayagam house, you have to gently set aside piles of books which occupy every surface – it’s a household where the written word takes precedence over everything else. Interspersed with mini-mountains of books are sketches, paintings and photographs. There’s a sketch of the front garden by Jean Arasanayagam casually resting on top of a pile. Hold it up to the doorway and face the garden and you can almost see the monochrome drawing spill over from its ink lines and into the coloured reality of the thick green foliage which hugs the house.

There’s a yellow iron gate which separates the house and the clamorous activity of the Kandy town. Boards announcing English literature classes loom over the low wall– both Thiagaraja Arasanayagam and his daughter, Parvathi, are writers and also teach English to students. A ginger cat eyes us warily, sceptical of the visitors who have descended on the house. A smaller kitten – rescued recently and a new addition to the household –is more skittish and scuttles inside when it sees us.

At home in Kandy: Thiagaraja Arasanayagam. Pic by Anuradha Bandara

Thiagaraja Arasanayagam’s Gratiaen win earlier this year for his unpublished manuscript of poetry ‘White Lanterns: Vesak 2011’ surprised many around him. “People did not know that I write. They were surprised,” chuckles Arasanayagam genially, “they thought I was just a humdrum dull fellow.” A writer, painter and teacher Thiagaraja Arasanayagam – ‘Arasa’ as he is fondly known by most – is anything but humdrum and is also no newcomer to the local literary scene. He won the State Literary award for his play ‘The Intruder’ in 1986 and was shortlisted previously for the Gratiaen award in 2009 for ‘Singing of the Angels’, a collection of short stories.

Our conversation is laden with personal anecdotes, the worlds of writing, art and teaching and of course, his wife – writer and poet, Jean Arasanayagam. “I’m used to talking about my wife more than myself,” he explains apologetically, adding later that it is she who encourages him to write and flesh out the ideas he has dotted on numerous scraps of paper.

Born in a family of six, Arasanayagam spent his formative years in a lonely village in Jaffna and later grew up in Colombo. Studying art for a while under Sri Lankan artist, Richard Gabriel, who was at that time an art teacher at St. Joseph’s College, painting was and still is one of Arasanayagam’s passions. Arasanayagam’s affinity to art has links to his writing and teaching. He confesses that he writes on anything and everything he can lay his hands on – scraps of discarded paper, the back of exercise books, old diaries –but is especially fond of the vast pages torn off monthly calendars. “Normally when I write something, I must have a drawing running by the side,” he avers, explaining that a picture is always the first impetus before the words, whether in writing or teaching poetry.

Initially an artist, Arasanayagam first met his soon-to-be wife Jean at the Young Artists Group formed in the 1950s by students of art teacher, Cora Abraham. Marrying against his parents’ wishes, the young couple moved to Kandy to begin their life together. Before his marriage, Arasanayagam used to jot down details about his life in Jaffna – little notes about temple festivals and daily life. After his marriage, he dipped into these details to paint a picture of his background, family, life in Jaffna and the intricacies of Hindu culture to his wife, a Burgher and Christian. These exercises in memory, identity and nostalgia would take place in the form of fragments of stories. “I wanted her to understand me,” he reminisces. Small anecdotes would be unfailingly bartered between husband and wife during their early years. Later, some of these stories also found their way onto paper and are woven into Jean’s book ‘Peacock and Dreams’ as well as his own writing.

Life after the Gratiaen has had a positive impact on Arasanayagam’s self-confessed indifference to writing and publishing. While his wife, Jean, gave him the initial impetus and seeing the discipline of his wife and daughter sitting at the table, at work on their writing has always been an inspiration, the Gratiaen Prize has been a much needed stimulus. Writing languishing on scraps of paper is now being rescued from literary lassitude and more work (another volume of poems, a novel, a collection of short stories) is in the pipeline. “After I received the Gratiaen Prize, I have been shaken into a realization that there must be something good in my work,” he explains.

When we met last month, Black July was just around the corner and our conversation veered into the personal experiences which tinge his work. In poems such as ‘Do Men Weep’ and ‘Mudiyanse’ which are included in Arasanayagam’s latest collection, we are given a glimpse of his sobering memories from the 1983 riots. Perhaps what’s most poignant in ‘Do Men Weep’, is the personal narratives of manhood, fear and notions of bravery in the face of horrific violence. It is this particular vein of reflection which also marks his poetry – a quiet sensitivity which tempers the exploration of topics such as violence, war and other manmade horrors.
“As a result of your experience with the outside world, the inside world starts reacting – and that is poetry. The spirit comes out because you are reacting to the good, the bad, the ugly, the monstrous – everything around you – as well as the spiritual, the beauty of nature, the beauty of the world and beauty that God has given us,” he remarks.

While busy getting the manuscript which won him the Gratiaen Prize 2015 ready for printing, his proofs marked with edits, he was also in the midst of wrestling with multiple sketches trying to see which one would best fit the cover of ‘White Lanterns: Vesak 2011’ which will be published in early September. Now having chosen the cover a few weeks later, he explains via email that this fortuitous return to art has also prompted him to resume his other life as an artist.

Both writing and painting are a part of his expression and Arasanayagam would like his work to be a part of a long enduring legacy.“For me a work of art should have an appeal over time – I don’t want to belong to a time/period, my work has to have a universal relevance. And of course, I want to be remembered for my ability to ‘stir’ the world around me, which has for long gone into slumber, completely unaware or not wanting to be aware of the misery that man has created himself,” he notes.

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