31 May 2012

Remebrance means learning the lessons

[To mark the 112th birth anniversary of Martin Wickramasinghe]

Martin Wickramasinghe was born on May 29, 1890, one hundred and twelve years ago. On July 23, it will be thirty-six years since the nation lost Martin Wickramasinghe, arguably Sri Lanka’s greatest literary figure of the 20th Century. At the time of his death, I had read only ‘Madol Duwa’ and ‘Rohini’. Both these books created lasting impressions in my mind. In particular, they gave me a sense of our cultural ethos and the history entwined with it, two things that persuaded me to read him attentively later on.

The bibliographer and literary critic will probably do better justice to a listing of the greatest works and a general review of the same, respectively. A journalist can but offer his poverty stricken reflections on a life productively lived and a vision that just might help us through these difficult times, if only we delve deep within ourselves to discover who we are.

I remember Prof. Ashley Halpe lamenting that there were very few students reading English for their degree who had read Wickramasinghe’s ‘Viragaya’. I have come to understand over the years that any serious study of a particular literature necessitates a solid foundation in the literature of one’s own culture. If not, the appreciation suffers from a terrible un-mooring from referential terms. And here I am not speaking of the parochial idea of cultural fidelity. It goes deeper than that, for self-discovery is the cornerstone of exploration in general and appreciation of the specific foreign.

Martin Wickramasinghe’s life reads like a chapter out of Gorky’s ‘My Universities’. He hardly had any formal education. Whether his keen eye for detail, ability to process what he saw and then present his analysis in cogent and aesthetically pleasing forms was something he carried over from some previous encounter with social life or something that he consciously cultivated, we will never know for certain. But his example is enough to inspire the most underprivileged child in our country to stop complaining about the darkness and instead go look for something to start a fire with. For Martin Wickramasinghe, if he did anything, lit a fire and shone his torch far into the future. We can only lament that our leaders have been gullible enough to believe that they can crawl up the feeble beams that mindless profit-seekers have offered as pathways to heaven.

Who was this simple man from Koggala, who in a literary life of about 60 years, produced over 80 books and over 2,500 articles, some of which have been translated into other languages? The short answer is, “a disciplined man so solidly rooted in his cultural history that he was able to spread his intellectual arms into the universe and absorb that which was nourishing, while having the circumspection to reject (and even this very gently) that which was patently poisonous”. The long answer is probably already a doctoral dissertation, or, if not, ought to be one.

This much can be said: Martin Wickramasinghe was not just a journalist and a novelist. He was also a historian, a sociologist, a literary critic, a philosopher and a decent human being who took his responsibility to his people very seriously. Karl Marx once said something to the effect that only those who do not fear the fatiguing climb can someday reach the dizzying heights of the intellect. Wickramasinghe remained an ardent student of society until his death, devouring all the literature he could lay his hands on, constantly searching for answers to the problems of the world. His genius, perhaps, is that he seldom came up with anything close to a The Answer, but chose instead to touch on the fundamentals that all of us need to recognize if we are to walk along beneficial paths.

His literature, without exception, shows a remarkable fidelity to the ways of ordinary people. He is sensitive to the particular economy of words employed by rural folk and he renders these expressions into literary form without hurting the tone and content in translation. I have maintained occasionally, much to the exasperation of my teachers, that I have learnt more about social process from literature than from social theory. Wickramasinghe, in my limited understanding, stands out in this sense as one of the greatest sociologists of our time.

Ralph Pieris argued for a sociology that was home-grown. Sociologists ought to spend more time with Wickramasinghe than with Ralph himself, I believe. Wickramasinghe would probably add two observations to this “thesis”. They should read the Buddhist texts for everything that has been “produced” by way of social theory in the last one and a half centuries, are at one level “reproductions” of Buddhist philosophy. A careful reading of the Satipattana Sutta ought to convince anyone who doubts this.

He would also say that based on such foundational knowledge, it is equally important that the work of other schools be read and understood. He insists that “only unprogressive nations, to hide the sterility of their souls, seek indigenous or supernatural origins for their institutions and culture; progressive nations borrow cultural elements from everywhere and assert their virile genius in remolding and re-creating them.”

He was not a vulgar traditionalist. He believed that tradition is essential for the preservation of stability and advancement of a nation, society or even a family, but qualified this stand by insisting that any tradition, when unchanging, becomes a canker which will slowly destroy a nation. He maintains, after Clive Bell, that “in a highly civilized age, the artist is neither hostile to nor mistrustful of tradition, but helps himself freely to whatever it can give.” Such a flexible engagement with tradition is probably something that is sadly lacking in both art and other forms of social expression, be it politics, economics or philosophy. We miss the rich colors that a realistic, broad-minded and disciplined relationship with the past and with the outer world can generate because we too often take the easy “black or white” way out, i.e. “The west if good or bad” or “our culture is pure or outmoded”.

Wickramasinghe in many ways epitomizes the practice that he theorizes about in his work. He engages fearlessly the whole gamut of Western literature as well as its sociological and philosophical traditions. He is able to take what is best in these traditions for a very simple reason. He is comfortable with who he is and does not feel he has to apologize for what is grotesque in his cultural past. This is why he implores our younger generation to endeavor to acquire knowledge from every source and that building a new and better social order requires hard work, knowledge, discipline and the ability to suffer. He insists that this is not the work for “lotus eaters”.

That “younger generation” he addressed is no longer young. In fact, it has well and truly messed things up further. At the same time, it must be understood that there will always be a younger generation and that there are some things whose worth transcends historical epoch. Civilizations sometimes go under for centuries. If sufficient effort is expended to make sure that the foundations are not destroyed, there will someday arrive a “younger generation” which has the strength, the will and the creativity to recreate the world, often much better than it originally was.

Sometimes, all it takes is to re-read the books our fathers grew up reading. In Martin Wickramasinghe we have an invaluable source. He has done most of the work there needs to be done. It is up to us to build upon it. Takes discipline, commitment, integrity and patience. There are Siddharthas among us who have seen all the “pera nimithi” and who are neither fettered by tradition nor overawed by the glitter of transient things. Perhaps it is time for a mass “abhinishkramana,” not into Sinharaja, but into the wilderness that is society. And among the teachers we will inevitably meet, let us not forget Martin Wickramasinghe, grandfather, teacher and friend.

[Published in 'The Nation' of May 27, 2012]


Walter Rajaratne said...

Well written criique of a man who traversed this land with a purpose. We have plenty in the the calibre of great Martin W only to be shunned by the dawn of dirty era post independence. His daughter Usha I can still remember my teacher at year 5, in far away Trincomalee.

dahasak said...

Thanks for bringing back memories.