12 June 2018

W.A. Abeysinghe, the villager wielding an insomniac pen



When Sinhala lyricists are talked about there are certain names that tend to be left out of the conversation. Given that sometimes even the great Mahagama Sekera is absented one should not be surprised that names such as Sunil Sarath Perera, Mahinda Algama and W.A. Abeysinghe are dropped. 

Wijesinghe Arachchilage Abeysinghe doesn’t seem to mind. The twinkle in his eye is a permanent feature so he always seems amused, but when asked about what some might consider an insult, he just chuckles and says ‘that’s how it is, isn’t it?’ 

Accolades doesn’t seem to matter him. He is of course aware of things encountered over the years and has a decent enough idea of what’s to come, but for the most part W.A. Abeysinghe is a ‘present man’.   Unassuming and self-contained, he’s done what he believed should be done to the best of his ability. All his life.

Sarasavi Publishers are coming out with three books, two authored by Abeysinghe and one about him, on Tuesday the 12th of July at the Sri Lanka Foundation.  The first is a selection of what he calls ‘all kinds of writing’. Anandayen Pragnaavata (From bliss to wisdom) is edited by Sumudu Chathurani Jayawardena and Abeysinghe’s daughter Deppachandi Abeysinghe.

Mage Lokaya Saha Ovunge Lokaya (My world and theirs) is the second volume of introductions, forewords, endnotes and blurbs he’s written for various publications. 

The third is perhaps the most important. It is a felicitation volume edited by Chandrasiri Seneviratne and Udeni Sarachchandra. Abhaya Mudraava. The play on his name is obvious. The meaning however is not inappropriate.  Technically the term means ‘gesture of fearlessness’. It could also mean reassurance and safety, dispelling fear and providing protection.

Abeysinghe is all of this although none of it could come under a column called ‘objectives of life’ in his case. 

The eldest in a family six, Abeysinghe was born on the 13th of September 1938.  His father was a farmer from Kuliyapitiya. His mother was from a village called Etiyawala, also in the Puttalam District but bordering the Kurunegala District. His early education was at the Etiyawala Boys’ School. Later he moved to Kuliyapitiya Central. 

‘There was just one book in the village school, a translation of Robinson Crusoe by Edwin Ranawaka.  Kuliyapitiya Central was in comparison massive. There was a really good library which was complemented by a culture that placed a lot of value of literature. It was a school that was grazed by the breezes of literature. The principal and teachers were well read and encouraged students to follow suit.  The library carried the A.L. Bright Story Reader Series.  Almost all the classics of English literature were there in abridged form.  I read them all.  I also read the Sinhala literature available in the library. In fact we were exposed to other literatures too. I read Tagore, for instance. So the winds of world literature also touched me.’

‘We were also encouraged to write, not just to magazines published by the school but to newspapers. Those days we loved seeing out submissions published in newspapers.’ 

Literature clearly had been an important part of his education and that of his fellow-students according to Abeysinghe. The time he spent in Kuliyapitiya Central also helped form his philosophy of life for there had been progressive teachers and even Marxists.

After leaving school, he joined the Maharagama Training College and became an English teacher.  His first appointed had been at his alma mater where he taught for four years. Writing however was his passion and he joined Lake House towards the end of 1963 as a Sub-Editor for the Dinamina.  That lasted only six months. Abeysinghe jokingly says that it was due to an erashtakaya or a malefic which saw him spend 10 years ‘aimlessly’.

It was not that he was idling, though. He completed an external degree at Vidyalankara where he was in the first batch of students, reading Sinhala, History and Economics. He took on teaching jobs at the Vidyalankara Pirivena, Dematagoda, the Sunethradevi Pirivena and at Buddhist Ladies’ College.  While doing all this Abeysinghe also studied Law. It had taken him 7-8 years but he took his oaths in 1974.

During the erashtaka period, he worked for a while at a newspaper called Sirilaka which was started in 1968 by Hector Kobbekaduwa with Karunasena Jayalath as the Chief Editor. He also worked at the Aththa, the party organ of the Communist Party. He also worked with Irvin Weerackody, who would become an advertising guru of sorts, and this is where he got to collaborate with a lot of singers for various radio programs.

Some might say that he dabbled in politics. He says he was in and out of the Communist Party. He had even contested the Kuliyapitiya seat under the United Left Front in 1977, the year that the entire Left was wiped out electorally. In the late eighties he joined and was a member of the Politburo of the newly formed Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya, led by Vijaya Kumaratunga.  When Chandrika Kumaratunga became President he was invited to be the Director (Editorial) at Lake House and after a few years he was made a Consultant.  In 2004 he was made Chairman, Library Services, a post he would be re-appointed to by the present government more than a decade later. He retired recently. 


Through all this he practiced law off and on, and more importantly, he never stopped writing. Since he published his first collection of poems, neth dekak (two eyes) in 1965, Abeysinghe has published over 250 books which include collections of poetry and lyrics, novels, short stories (in English and Sinhala), translated many books into Sinhala and English, essays on literary criticism, educational publications and compilations, academic treatises, literature for young people and children and other miscellaneous works.   

He’s written a300-400 songs, one of the earliest being the perennial favorite by Amaradeva, adavan vu denethin, a classic composition inspired by the Samadhi Buddha Statue in Anuradhapura. 

Clearly, Marxism and Buddhism have been important streams of inspiration.  Abeysinghe doesn’t see any contradiction here.  

‘I don’t think it’s strange. I have embraced things to the extent of my ability to comprehend. I don’t live within boxes. I find the notion “dictatorship of the proletariat” absurd. It’s a crazy notion. However I have always found a lot of explanatory worth in Marx’s Theory of Surplus Value.’

Abeysinghe attributes most of his thinking and ways of being to the social, cultural and philosophical environment he grew up in.

‘Living is easy. It is easy for me to be a communist. It is easy to be a Buddhist. I can be a nationalist and an internationalist. The reason is that I grew up in a Buddhist culture. It taught me patience. It taught me to look for and obtain the core of things.  It’s in my genes, this collective consciousness that makes me be who I am. I am someone who belongs to a culture, unlike Marxists. It’s a life culture and therefore I don’t feel I’m a misfit anywhere. Labels never mattered to me. Self-reflection is what I always did.  I didn’t have to learn it and neither did I ever feel it necessary to talk of it like a political theory.’

Abeysinghe is self-effacing. Publicity was never important.  He says this may be because of the influence that communism had on him: ‘the collective and the objective mattered; self never did.’ And so, this man of many words lived, lives and will continue to live in the present, the moment.

‘I’ve lived with my convictions, which were honed by the simplicity of being that I learned from my surroundings, my village, my family. These things I recognize and acknowledge. It’s not like someone from Colombo waxing lyrical about the village. I am from the village. I am a villager. 

He married, had three children and now is the grandfather of five. His wife spends a lot of time with the daughters, he says, so he is mostly alone in Kuliyapitiya. 

We talked about a lot of other things. W.A. Abeysinghe wanted me to come for the launch of the three books next Tuesday. I asked him where he was going. 

‘I have to go to my daughter’s place in Narahenpita,’ he said and since I was going that way offered to give him a ride. 

We talked as we drove along.  He chuckled all the way to Narahenpita. I asked him what his plans were for the rest of the day.

‘I will spent some time with my daughter and then I’ll go to Kuliyapitiya.’

‘How do you travel?’

‘By bus,’ he said.

As always, a simple man with simple ways, but endowed with a profound intellect and a prolific pen. That’s W.A. Abeysinghe. May he be blessed with good heath, contentment and simple joys, always.

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