With his new Guide to Poetry, Emeritus Professor D.C.R. A. Goonetilleke grants to Sri Lankan students of literature a request they have long made of him. It was in the mid ’70s that the scholar first wrote three booklets on literary studies which made him a pocket guru; much valued, treasured and then photocopied and [...]


Striding the English academia without losing his Sri Lankanness

With a new book on poetry and literary criticism just released, Prof. D.C.R. A. Goonetilleke talks to Yomal Senerath-Yapa

With his new Guide to Poetry, Emeritus Professor D.C.R. A. Goonetilleke grants to Sri Lankan students of literature a request they have long made of him. It was in the mid ’70s that the scholar first wrote three booklets on literary studies which made him a pocket guru; much valued, treasured and then photocopied and cherished long after the works ran out of print. Between those earlier booklets and the new offering, Professor DCRA enjoyed an academic career distinguished for a Sri Lankan. It is as a globally celebrated scholar of twentieth century and post colonial literature, as well as the foremost authority in Sri Lankan English literature, that he has now penned the new guide, and its companion Guide to Literary Criticism (2015).

The professor is uniquely placed to write the guide for Sri Lankan students and teachers. He is that rare thing: an English academic with no anglophilic nostalgia making his vision dim. His pronouncement “my eastern outlook has made me see the literature of the west differently from the westerners”, makes him rarer still. He believes in borrowing the best from both the east and the west, and has been adamant about one thing: being true to himself and his conscience. His simplicity strikes one after having read his brilliantly incisive critiques, for he believes in being ‘normal’; not for him those eccentricities or even badges of scholarship: the obstinate goatee, the long hair, flowing beard.

As a student, too, Devapriya Chitra Ranjan Alwis Goonetilleke, was quite ordinary, far from being a Dumbledore-like figure wrapped in dreams of glory. He had a hearty passion for thrillers, though there was also a dark, melancholy tint to that youth: the central factor of his boyhood was finding a cure for his father who had cancer. Yet alongside all this, he found time to faithfully write the synopses of each book he read.

A natural scholar, he won the Governor General’s Prize for Western Classics, the most prestigious award Royal College offered in that still colonial setting where Classical scholarship carried lofty prestige. He was also an ardent student of Latin. In boyish zeal he used to copy his favourite motto Per Ardua Ad Astra, borrowed from the Royal Air Force, onto his books.

As an undergraduate, Prof. Goonetilleke was fortunate to bask in the ‘golden summer’ of the University of Peradeniya, as Ajith Samaranayake was to call it later. He was in the thick of rich artistic and literary ferment, with Sarachchandra staging Maname and Sinhabahu, and Siri Gunasinghe and Gunadasa Amarasekere transforming Sinhala literature with free verse and more openness in fiction. Peradeniya was to be a firm foundation for his career.

At the Peradeniya English Department he came under the tutelage of Dr. David Craig, currently Professor Emeritus at Lancaster University. He was a student of the great F. R. Leavis, at the time the leading British critic. Dr. Craig was not bothered with the subject as such, Prof Goonetilleke recalls; “instead he gave his own point on whatever was on the syllabus.” This living approach to literature and his independence of mind captured the undergraduate completely, firing his imagination and opening up new vistas and wonders. Dr. Craig was destined to be the great luminary in Professor Goonetilleke’s life, later supervising his PhD at Lancaster.

After a short stint as an assistant lecturer, the professor had to leave the sylvan glades and avenues of Peradeniya for Vidyodaya. The new job at the fledgling university did not carry status, but this little bothered Prof. Goonetilleke, who was content with the academic work in which he was soon immersed. This disregard for mere titles and recognition, ironical though it may sound, made him the eminent academic he is. The late Doric de Souza’s prediction “Ranjan, you’re humble; you’ll be a success” pithily sums things up.

Prof. Goonetilleke touched the lives of many students during his long career at the Kelaniya University. And his natural ability for research, noted by David Craig, also helped him to be the critic he is today. His book Developing Countries in British Fiction was the first time when a critic from a developing country studied extensively the British reactions to such countries in the context of the historical, political and personal circumstances from which these reactions emerged – a study acknowledged by international academia as a pioneering step in post-colonial studies. Images of the Raj: South Asia in the Literature of Empire, was the first study of Raj literature from its origins in Elizabethan times to the present.

He was then invited to edit Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, probably his favourite work of fiction. Adapted as a textbook in USA and Canadian universities, Prof. Goonetilleke’s edition to-date has sold 40,000 copies. He also wrote Joseph Conrad: Beyond Culture and Background, so far the only full-length study of all Joseph Conrad’s fiction by a Third-World scholar. Much later Routledge would invite him to write an entire work on Heart of Darkness, confirming him as a ‘Conrad scholar’.

John G. Peter in his book “Joseph Conrad’s Critical Reception” discusses two of Professor Goonetilleke’s books “Developing Countries in British Fiction” and “Joseph Conrad: Beyond Culture and Background”, and the professor has the pleasure of having gone down in literary history, in his own time.

Salman Rushdie was another writer with a special appeal to Prof. Goonetilleke, who enjoys working on those ‘difficult’ writers. The challenge proves to be a great stimulus, while it also got him prestigious fellowships and a guest professorship in Germany (Tübingen) and fellowships at Cambridge and London. In 1992 he was elected the world chairman of the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies; a very rare distinction.

The other aspect of his academic life had been Sri Lankan English literature. Apart from writing the only one-volume complete history of the island’s English literature, he had been dutifully publishing carefully curated anthologies; the first of which appeared in 1987 and the last published 2010. He has been careful to select the best Sri Lankan poetry, drama and fiction as samples but, also, importantly, those works that would give the world the best image of Sri Lanka.

In this Prof. Goonetilleke differs greatly from the fashionable kultur who tend to smirk at such sentiments. But the professor has always believed in steering clear of pseudo-westernization, and maintaining touch with mainstream culture- all the while imbibing what is good from the west. Getting alienated from the masses, being cut out from our own traditions; these he views as serious predicaments. “If you become pseudo-western, you can’t compete with genuine westerners. The only way to compete with genuine westerners is by being genuinely eastern,” he asserts.

Prof. Goonetilleke’s wife and ‘stalwart companion’ for 56 happy years, Chitranganie, was the mainstay of the whole family. It was a match made in those golden years of Peradeniya, but they had to move to England to marry as caste differences threatened their union. Remarkably, there had been some very uncanny coincidences between the happy lives of DCRA and Chitranganie Goonetilleke, and Joseph and Jessie Conrad. Jessie would type for her husband just as Chitranganie did for DCRA. And also, on a rather sad note, at the end of “Heart of Darkness”, Marlow utters a lie to Kurtz’s Intended, that the last word a dying Kurtz (in Africa) expressed was her name. In actual fact, the last word Chitranganie was to express before lapsing into a completely unconscious state was Prof. Goonetilleke’s name.

The couple have two sons, Suren and Dillhan, both of whom also have two sons each: Tehan and Lehan, and Dhanura and Yenura. They are a source of joy to their grandfather, whenever they pop in at his house, just as he is a source of pride and inspiration for them. The professor also finds time to go to the theatre, a passion he has maintained from his student days, and to listen to pop music both English and Sinhala. “Pop music has a go which appeals maybe to my later years.” His laughing voice echoes contentment; the rich contentment of one who had stridden unusually long the silent, austere and monastic corridors of academia, and found it all deeply rewarding.


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