22 September 2015

The continuing relevance of Martin Wickramasinghe

This was first published in the Daily News on September 23, 2009, almost 6 years to the day.  Posting here since this is the 'reading month'.  

And I write today after attending a book launch at the International Book Fair. The books: ‘Maha Gathkaru Vatha’, a biography of Martin Wickramasinghe, authored by W.A. Abeysinghe; ‘Uprooted’ (English translation of Wickramasinghe’s ‘Gamperaliya’ by Lakshmi De Silva and Ranga Wickramasinghe), ‘Selected Short Stories of Martin Wickramasinghe’ (translated by Ranga Wickramasinghe) and Tamil translation of the last two books. 

W.A. Abeysinghe, commented on the necessarily ‘unfinishing’ nature of the task he had undertaken: ‘Martin Wickramasinghe avasan karanna behe’ (One cannot ‘complete’ him). True. The man was a colossus, as literary genius, sociologist and philosopher and other things besides. 

It occurred to me that there are other things that are of an ‘unfinishing’ nature in terms of description, particularly the answer to the question, ‘Who are we?’ or, in common Sinhala parlance, ‘ape kama’ (‘ourness’ if you will). Martin Wickramasinghe’s life can be described (in part) as an investigation of this question. 

He did not give us a definite answer but the description of that journey is all over his extensive writing; and so too the necessarily indescribable understanding that he obtained in the course of his travels. 

He has been described as the pioneer in our search for who we are, for our roots, what made us what we are. True. 

For decades we have tried to understand ourselves in opposition to perceived enemies. First it was the then Velupillai Prabhakaran. Today, with Prabhakaran dead and gone, the spectre resumed its haunting role. Martin Wickramasinghe was an exception in that his search was independent of that kind of intellectual, ideological and psychological baggage. 

This is why he neither feared the ‘other’ nor responded in anger. This is the only way that one can meaningfully and effectively engage the other. 

When we know where we came from, we realize where we are and where we are going and most importantly where we should be going. Take any ‘lost’ nation or community and I am convinced that the cause of ‘lostness’ can be traced to a refusal to explore self (in its broader, societal, sense).

The importance of translating Martin Wickramasinghe also derives from this same exercise; not only should we know who we are, we have to state the fact to the world. If not, we open ourselves (as has been the case) to be defined by others in accordance to their particular objectives. We must never forget the telling definition of power proposed by the author of ‘We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed along with our families’, Peter Gourevich: ‘Power lies in the ability to make someone inhabit your version of their reality’. 

For too long, we’ve let the Sudda define who we are. And this is why we have our kalu-suddas turned into veritable echos of Suddha-wish: ‘Sri Lanka is a failed state’ (for example). But let’s forget the Sudda. Have we had that conversation with our nearest relative yet? Have we stated who we are to our closest neighbour? I am thinking of the Tamil Community and I am writing as a Sinhalese. 

Sure we have, in political terms, which, I am convinced is several times removed from the living, eating, breathing, love-making reality of our social all. Language can be a bridge, yes, but a language heavy with politics and ideology is but a chasm disguised as a bridge. Literature and art are the true bridges, the true instruments that make meaningful conversation possible. 

If all modern Sinhala literature derived to a greater or lesser degree from the pages of ‘Gamperaliya’ and if literature is a truer reflection of social reality including history, heritage, culture, sensibility and world-view; then translating the novel into Tamil is a crucial first step. 

The problem is there are a million more steps to take along a million different pathways. 
And in this we have to understand that the reverse is also true. We must read the Tamil equivalent of all the Gamperaliyas of that community. 

I applaud this effort of the Martin Wickramasinghe Trust, therefore. It teaches all of us in post-LTTE Sri Lanka an important lesson by way of ‘methodologizing’ our political and social practice. 

It is a necessary extension of the lifetime efforts of that inimitable father of modern Sinhala literature, Martin Wickramasinghe.
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