21 September 2020

Reflection on literary sociology and sociological literature


Peradeniya is for poets and poetry, many among those who’ve passed through that university would claim. The sheer beauty of the place constitutes a muse, of this there cannot be any argument. Dawn descends in silver from Hantane and from certain high points evening can be seen to set fire to Alagalla. There are colors to cut the heart. Carpets made of flowers. Greens rolling from hue to hue. Roads bending to disappear into trees. Moonlight and the softest rain. And a river running through it all.  

But places are also people and communities are differently peopled through faculties, halls of residence, activities, eras and generations. The wider world arrives as whisper or shout, but either way will leave a trace, surreptitiously or boldly dissolving or doing away with frames and replacing these with other structures. And things are no longer the same.

Process. Inevitable.

It is loved. It is hated. And love and hate exchange places in the same heart that loved and hated. Time offers distance and change makes for assessment of things that are and how and why they became what they are. True for Peradeniya. True for any other university anywhere in the world. True of many places. Many things. Many people and processes.  

And whether or not you are a poet or a sociologist (or a student of any other discipline for that matter), you can, if you so wish, reflect. Casually or deeply. You can keep it to yourself, you can share.  

Karunatissa Athukorala is given to sharing, one way or another. This retired professor, from whom generations of sociologists have learned, loves to relate anecdotes. He doesn’t say ‘alright, this is a sociological insight,’ but pickings there are.

Stories. That’s the word.  Stories related in a particular way. We could ask, ‘is it “a way” made particular by training?’ We could flip it too. Does he write or speak his sociology, so to say, in the way he does because he is essentially a good narrator, we could ask.  Chicken or egg, in other words.

Professor Ariyaratne Athugala spoke to this issue. It was at the launch of a book of short stories written by Athukorala titled ‘Mojuwa,’ aptly too, considering the eclectic nature of the material it contained. 

The stories, if not the names of the characters, are absolutely believable, to the point that the effort almost seems like a matter of Athukorala selecting pieces from a journal maintained over many decades unknown to anyone else. If that’s the case, then we have to consider the proposition that all lives are but stories, some bleeding from one to the other, and some distinct. We have neat plots, a mix of pathos and humor, a laying bare of some salient element of the human condition and an unwrapping of inter-personal relationships that shed light on larger social processes including the play of structure and agency.   

Athugala pointed out that it is typical for ‘prabandha’ (fiction) to be seen as something distinctly different from ‘nibandhanaya’ (treatise) and suggested that perhaps the veracity of this ‘thesis’ should be reexamined.

Athukorala’s work certainly cries out for it. It is not a collection of ‘essays’ and no review for any sociological journal would even bother to consider any of them. Then there could also be a literary critic who might say ‘this is not fiction, it’s biography and way too sociological to be considered “literature.”’

Where does sociology end and literature begin? At what point does sociology from literature flow? Is the Bible a theological text or a work of literature, this too one could ask.  

At some level sociology is literature and literature sociology. Well, we need to interject the word ‘good’ somewhere for this to hold true.

So what if it is biographical? Isn’t all sociology an outcome of personal engagement, reflection on things observed? Isn’t it true that one cannot even paint a complete picture of a social, cultural, political and ecological landscape where every detail is not only captured but depicted in sizes true to significance and where the complexities are not diluted at all?

When did Karunatissa Athukorala become a fiction writer and having produced a collection of short stories does he cease to be a sociologist? Is the sociologist embedded in the writer or vice versa? How and where are lines drawn and indeed are there lines to draw?  

Right now, on a dismal Tuesday morning in the city of Colombo, writing this, I cannot picture ‘Right Now Peradeniya.’ It must be beautiful though. And, as I write, there are stories unfolding, amenable to capture but perhaps never to be written down. Trivial and personal perhaps but nevertheless containing the DNA of a complex social process which, if extracted, could be extrapolated to tell, yes, a story of what’s what and what’s not of Peradeniya that is as accurate or as full or error as any sociological treatise.  

Right now, a student in the Department of Sociology could be administering a questionnaire or trying to make sense of qualitative data gathered through interviews and observations or writing it all down in ‘sociological format.’

I hope it is ‘good,’ for that would inform and make for more sensible engagement. Like Karunatissa Athukorala’s work. Like Karunatissa Athukorala’s life. In and out of Peradeniya.


Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News']  
Eyes that watch the world and cannot be forgotten   Let's start with the credits, shall we? 
The 'We' that 'I' forgot 
'Duwapang Askey,' screamed a legend, almost 40 years ago
Dances with daughters
Reflections on shameless writing

Is the old house still standing?
 Magic doesn't make its way into the classifieds

Small is beautiful and is a consolation  
Distance is a product of the will
Akalanka Athukorala, at 13+ alre
ady a hurricane hunter
Did the mountain move, and if so why?
Ever been out of Colombo?
Anya Raux educated me about Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)
Wicky's Story You can always go to GOAT Mountain
Let's learn the art of embracing damage
Kandy Lake is lined with poetry
There's never a 'right moment' for love
A love note to an unknown address in Los Ange
A dusk song for Rasika
How about creating some history?
How far away are the faraway places?
There ARE good people!
Re-placing people in the story of schooldays  
When we stop, we can begin to learn
Routine and pattern can checkmate poetry

Janani Amanda Umandi threw a b'day party for her father 
Sriyani and her serendipity shop
Forget constellations and the names of oceans
Where's your 'One, Galle Face'?

Maps as wrapping paper, roads as ribbons
Yasaratne, the gentle giant of Divulgane  
Katharagama and Athara Maga
Victories are made by assists
Lost and found between weaver and weave
The Dhammapada and word-intricacies
S.A. Dissanayake taught children to walk in the clouds
White is a color we forget too often  
The most beautiful road is yet to meet a cartographer