20 December 2013


An invitation to revisit roots*

Pilima Lovai, Piyevi Lovai (The world of images and the real world), Gunadasa Amarasekera, published by Visidunu Prakashakayo, 471, Lake Road, Boralesgamuwa, reviewed by Malinda Seneviratne.

book.jpg (22652 bytes)Ravindra Devenigoda, poet, political activist and perennial undergrad from Peradeniya whose mirth breaks up the most sombre setting into helpless laughter, once wrote a book of poems titled "Kamatahan rupiyalai:" (One rupee a koan). Hailing from Sabaragamuwa, he wrote this inevitable blurb for the back cover of the book.

"I walk across the flood plains of the Kalu Ganga. The ancient Balangoda Man watches, waiting to bare his teeth and welcome me with his prehistoric smile. Far away, the naked primate. Right here, surrounded by ideological virgins, I. This is but the classic dialectic battle. So I dispatch all my ideological virgins promptly to do battle. Wonder of wonders! Instead of pursuing their designated objective, my ideological virgins are locked in battle with each other, tearing each others’ hair. So I laugh.
Concepts which proposed only the materiality of life are killing each other on the death plains of spirituality. This is a struggle to erase everything from creative ideological diversity to bio diversity. It is a struggle that aims at nothing less than the triumph of self. It demands one voice, one colour and a single qualitative yardstick.
I laugh, once again. Therefore I can tell my family and friends something like this: ‘Something has happened to our humanity’."

Devenigoda’s trite observation on the pitfalls of materialism is in many ways a scratching of the surface when it comes to the general ills that beset our individual and collective lives, politically, ideologically and culturally. Deveni’s mirth is actually an invitation, not just to read his poetry, but to examine more carefully that which the Renaissance argued was indisputable and which capitalism and Marxism (those failed godless gods of the Renaissance) brainwashed us to believe was god-given, so to speak.

Amarasekera’s book, no doubt inspired from reflections that had nothing to do with Deveni, is itself an invitation, but with a difference. Amarasekera painstakingly puts the broomstick of clarity to the cobwebs of ideological balderdash that have gathered in our minds over the years.
Amarasekera has a project, and he is quite upfront about it. He believes (and has expressed this in his introduction) that works of literature are necessarily inspired by a clear socio-political vision and that without such an understanding the novelist makes a universe of his/her inner world. Someone once said that the universe is contained in a grain of sand. Buddhist philosophy would have the reverse to be true too. As such, I would disagree with Amarasekera.

Writers who take it upon themselves to explain the world face the danger of their work taking a sloganeering slant. The humanity they seek to unravel, celebrate or sympathise with, then seems contrived. Ostrovsky’s "How the steel was tempered" is probably one of the greater tragedies of project-based approaches to writing. It appeals to young, romantic, would-be revolutionaries but sounds little more than a hodge podge of slogans expressing the party line when one grows older.
Maxim Gorky, in contrast, has demonstrated that it is possible to allow the political to unravel the story without injuring nuance and the human subject. This is why Mikhail Sholokov’s "Quietly flows the Don" is a classic, while his "Virgin soil upturned" will always be a lesser work. Amarasekera’s own autobiographical works of fiction, which are in a sense reflections on the personal, are themselves indicative of the political extrapolations that can be made to flow from the personal with powerful effect.

Amarasekera is no longer just a literary figure. He is also one of the foremost thinkers of our time and one whose extensive writings have helped salvage an entire generation from that less talked of colonial baggage, more pernicious because it comes wrapped as liberation theology, namely, Marxism. If his novels are read as one man’s autobiographical search for self and through it an attempted tracing of political and cultural transformation of society, his political writings are certainly a more active and deliberate exercise in presenting his "findings". Naturally these two strains are intertwined and perhaps this is why the political is more clearly evident in all his fictional work since he came out with "Ganadura mediyama dakinemi arunalu" (I see the first rays of dawn breaking through the intense darkness).

This dual approach to the social ferment that obviously disturbs him, invariably weighs upon the reader of his novels. "Pilima lovai, piyevi lovai" is the sequel to "Gal pilimaya saha bol pilimaya" (The solid image and the hollow image), a short novel (or a long short story) which appeared in a collection of stories under that title in 1988. "Pilima lovai, piyevi lovai" contains both. I had not read the first part until very recently, and I found to my surprise, as I read it, that the resultant reflections almost anticipated the sequel. Perhaps this is because I have been an avid reader of Amarasekera’s political writings over the years. I suspect, however, that this is actually because the extrapolations he lays out in the first novel have already been played out before our very eyes.

The first part begins innocently enough as the clash between the "real" and the "fake", the reclining statue of the Buddha and its plaster look-alike operating as the easy metaphors for the unfolding of a well thought out political statement about values, culture and a changing society. The guardian/watcher of the gal viharaya, Upalis, initially rebels against the "new" statue. As a result he runs into trouble with the local politicians as well as a community that is "blinded" by the gold paint of the fake version. Coloured with the usual lies and general brain washing that is the bread and butter of political practice in this country, the story incorporates the impact of the Indo-Lanka Accord as well as elements of the incipient JVP insurrection of 88-89.

Amarasekera’s language usage and his sensitivity to the general concerns and world view of ordinary people is, as always, unblemished. In particular, his portrayal of the villager as someone who is only half-convinced of the lies he is constantly bombarded with, rings very true. Those who lament the demise of the Sinhala nation would do well to take a walk into the heart of Sinhalaness, the village and the villager. In these places and among these people one finds a sense of humour and an acute understanding of the eternal verities that allows for the transcending of all the inevitable contradictions therein. Amarasekera packs his story with a generous splattering of the kinds of trite observations that come easily to our people, simple on the surface but pregnant with deep political insight.

The story ends with Upalis resolving to take care of the "aluth pilimaya", convinced that the truth does not rest on people’s faith, only to find that it has been blown to bits by a young JVP activist, Wijesundera, a friend of Upalis’ son Wimalasena.

This itself is interesting, since the JVP’s vulgar Marxism with its fascination with materialism and a skewed reading of Marx’s famous comment about religion being the opiate of the masses, would call for a destroying of all statues, not just the "fake" ones. That kind of Taliban-style contempt for culture cannot distinguish between fake and real, especially since all icons are said to foster "false ideology", a point which Sarachchandra makes in his "Heta echchara kaluwara ne" (literally, 'tomorrow will be less dark', but translated into English as 'Curfew and a Full Moon') referring to the first JVP mis-adventure in 1971. And yet Wijesundera, chooses only to blow up the "new" statue. Maybe he is one of those panas haye daruwo or 'Children of 1956' that Prof. Nalin de Silva talks about.

As the title suggests, the sequel, is a deeper philosophical examination. My Tamil teacher, Mr. Illyas, recently discussed the issue of religious icons and the Hindu and Islamic views on the subject. I argued for the Islamic position because I felt that images detract from comprehension. "But it can be argued this way too," he said, "If you see the image, you do not see God, but if you see God, you do not see the image". The Buddhist elaboration on impermanence and illusion would then resolve the issue. Still the fact that images are consciously employed to deceive is something that one needs to be vigilant about. 

The sequel is woven around a certain breakdown suffered by Wimalasena after his friend’s death. Wimalasena’s "resurrection" occurs in a surreal encounter with his friend whose resurrection has taken the form of a return to heritage and a clear denouncement of western philosophical and political frames. 

"There are no worlds sans images," argues Wimalasena’s teacher. "What we have are images that represent adharmaya, we have hollow statues, false ones, those that teach us that adharmaya is in fact dharmaya".

Amarasekera’s argument then is for a more reflective understanding of "image" which may or may not include statues but definitely calls for a reconsideration of given wisdom and a return to the dharma kaya that defines who we are. It is only then that we can think about who or what we want to become. In other words, a better locating of the gal pilima appropriate to us. For an "image" or "icon" is also a state of the mind. It becomes pernicious only to the extent that it replaces in import that which it seeks to represent. The lesson is to consume the message without forming upadanas and certainly not allowing it to consume us.

I found the final pages to be extremely stimulating. The anticipation of what was obviously going to be an engaging resolution, I believe took something away from the preparatory story line which, looking back, seemed more like a necessary filler to give the piece its chosen literary form rather than an integrated lead up to a climatic point. I distinctly feel that Amarasekera would have done a better job of addressing the issues had he chosen to lay it out as a philosophical essay. This might have however taken away the charm that helps the point made percolate to where it matters, the heart of our sensibilities.

In any event, it deserves the attention of our society as it struggles to make sense of unprecedented changes, the upheavals which can be suffered and overcome simply because we have with us the tools to deal with them, if only we are not afraid to rediscover and use them.

Finally, the story can also be taken as a soft missive to the new generation of the JVP, which is now Marxist only in name, but unfortunately too embarrassed to shed its violently red rhetoric, more willing to embrace the capitalist market and less inclined to appreciate the cultural heritage which refuses to be dismissed and without which the party can do nothing for our society. It has a message to both the alienated English speaking elite as well as to the largely misguided but well intentioned rural youth, whose Sinhala heart palpitates in anticipation of a stronger acknowledgement of history and a learning of its inevitable lessons.

Yes, something has happened to our "humanity". That "something" is what Gunadasa Amarasekera seeks to unravel. Excessive faith in the materialist proposition to the total neglect of the adhyathmika universe probably has something to do with it. Our imported ideological virgins are fighting. They are not fighting on our behalf. No wonder Devenigoda sees a laughing Balangoda Man. In fact, I am sure Balangoda Man is bending in two, unable to control his guffaws. 

There are flood plains we need to walk along. There are things to find, to rediscover. This I believe is what Amarasekera is telling us.

*This was first published in early 2002 in the Sunday Island.