04 June 2023

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri!

Sulang Kurullo (Windbirds)’ is possibly the most popular song by Harun Lanthra and Angeline Goonetileka. The melody has always appealed to me, but not being quite the connoisseur of music of any kind, I had never listened to the song with any degree of attention. A few years ago I did. And I told my wife it is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard.

‘The lyrics are exquisite,’ I said.

‘Really? I like the melody.’ That was her response.

Some people are attracted to the music, some to the words. This however is common to both types: you know the name of the singer, but not necessarily that of the lyricist or the compose. In this case Dharmasiri Gamage and Premasiri Khemadasa respectively.

And this is why I came to know of Ratna Sri Wijesinghe so much longer after I had heard the songs he had written.  That, and the fact that I had barely been a student of literature. It was in the early nineties that I encountered his collection of poems titled ‘Vassane.’ And it was around the same time that I found a copy of ‘Sudu Neluma.’ Indeed it was the blurb on the back cover of the latter that gave me insights into the mind and heart of this exceptionally gifted poet/lyricist, according to some, the most accomplished in his generation. 

On the back cover was a backstory of sorts about the song ‘Sudu Neluma.’ It was about a little girl who had drowned in the Sorabora Wewa. Apparently she would go there to pick sudu nelum which she would later sell to devotees who visited the Mahiyangana Chaityaya. I can’t remember who wrote that blurb but the following observation is etched in my heart:

‘Having suffered all manner of sorrows throughout their lives, her parents did not have tears to shed at her funeral, and yet when Pundit Amaradeva sang the song for the first time at the Elphinstone Theatre there wasn’t even one eye in that audience that was not washed in tears.’

So we know songs and singers. We know less about lyricists and even less about how they see the world.

A few days ago, I attended an event at the Sri Lanka Foundation, organised to celebrate the poet on the occasion of his 70th birthday, marked among other things by Kalpana Ambrose’s translations of some of Ratna Sri’s poems, ‘May the thorns bloom.’ Actually, I was detained by other matters and by the time I arrived, it was over. It was chit-chat time with friends over a cup fo plain tea. Consolation enough for me.  Kalpana promised to gift me a copy, so I bought two other books, Ratna Sri’s first collection of poems, ‘Biya novan ayyandi (Fear not, older brother)’ and ‘Ath Pasura,' a collection of essays Ratna Sri had written for the Silumina in 2005/2006 and first published in 2008.
The title essay itself is a revelation. Ratna Sri takes a simple word or rather term and in a few pages sheds light on vast swathes of literary history. He takes us to Sarachchandra’s Maname, Mahagama Sekera’s Kundala Keshi, and long before them Wettewe Thero’s Guttila Kavya, Kalidasa’s Raghuwamas and the Panchatantra. ‘Ath Pasura,’ in short, made me regret that I had not studied literature.

This Ratna Sri, i.e., the student of literature, is often seen at the launch of poetry collections. Few in this country can review poetry the way he does. It is like watching a documentary on a literary tradition. 


He dissects and puts together in ways that are tender and pleasing, even when he is critical of the work he’s assessing. Sunanda Karunaratne and Liyanage Amarakeerthi are two other poets/critics who share this ability.

What ‘Ath Pasura’ once again confirmed to me is the fact that Ratna Sri is one of the keenest living observers of the human condition. He could write Sudu Neluma because he has the eyes to see, the mind to reflect, the discipline to be patient and let the nuances of context speak to him and of course the mastery over the language. I didn’t read that column in the ‘Silumina,’ but the collection is eminently re-readable for he lends us his eyes and invites us to see and see again, now from this angle and now from that, not just on what he’s discussing but in general on all things around us over which our eyes carelessly pass.  

Coincidentally, I came across an Ernest Hemingway quote that seems to describe what Ratna Sri has done and does.

‘When people talk, listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling.’

He listens. He sees. He shares. That which birthed feelings in him he records truthfully and offers comments with the full weight of his long engagement with literature and the as lengthy consideration of life.

Sulang Kurullo has the following lines:

සිහින පොතේ පිටුවක් පෙරළී අද
මොනවද එහි ලියැවී ඇත්තේ
ආදරේ ආදරේ හ්ම් ආදරේ
ආදරේ ආදරේ ආදරේ

A page has turned in the book of dreams
what is it that has been written?
Love, love, love
Love, love, love.’

Ratna Sri offers us reality, the space for dreams and the inhibiting structures as well. All love. All love. Love, love, love and love.

Long life, sir!   

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

All those we've loved before

Reflections on waves and markings

A chorus of National Anthems

Saying what and how

'Say when'

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra

The loves of our lives

The right time, the right person

The silent equivalent of a thousand words

Crazy cousins are besties for life

Unities, free and endearing

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!"

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis

The revolution is the song

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins

The day I won a Pulitzer


Ella Deloria's silences

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart