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The Teardrop of the Subcontinent: A Tour of the Literature of Sri Lanka

ISSUE:  Winter 2012

I am with Ayathurai Santhan in Jaffna, just off the southeastern tip of India, a spot of land in the Indian ocean that is sometimes described as the “teardrop” of the subcontinent: Sri Lanka. At the side of a modest grass field not far from a Hindu temple that sits above a pond choked with lilies, at evening time, the light in smears of pink and orange across a low sky with bats flying in from the east in leathery squadrons—and I mean large fruit bats the size of flying foxes—next to a group of boys playing a game of cricket with sticks and a homemade ball behind the community center that also serves as an impromptu fish market, surrounded by goats—scaling the sides of the palm-leaf fences to chew at whatever their mouths may find— and watched by three stray cows whose mooing erupts with startling urgency, as bicycles, three-wheelers, rumbling trucks, UN vehicles with darkened windows, and the occasional ox-cart creaks past on the narrow, poorly paved street, we are speaking about writing.

But before you can begin to understand Sri Lanka’s literature, you first must know a bit of its history. Sri Lanka is not the largest of islands nor is it the most important, though it does occupy a strategic-enough swath of earth and Southern Indian Ocean that it was colonized by Europeans three times. For roughly two thousand years before the Europeans arrived, Sri Lanka enjoyed a series of basically feudal kingdoms that ruled from different parts of the country, sporadic incursions from Southern India notwithstanding.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to find Sri Lanka, making their mark early on in the sixteenth century but sticking mainly to the coasts. The Dutch came next, giving the Portuguese the boot in 1656 and trying to convert everyone to a rather severe form of Protestantism that suddenly made the forced Catholicization of the Portuguese look congenial. Finally, with tiresome colonial efficiency, came the British, who settled in around 1796 and did the hard labor of ridding the Sri Lankans of whatever was left of their native kings, kingdoms, ways of life, and most other things not sufficiently British.

When the British finally gave up their colony just after WWII, they left a power vacuum. This happened in many of the countries that gained their post-colonial independence after the war. In India, the country was ripped apart with incredible violence as long-simmering internal tensions burst forth even as the British authorities withdrew. The creation of Pakistan was one of the results. The locals and Brits alike chose to call it the “Great Partition.” No one knows what to call the partition of Sri Lanka yet. Sri Lankan history since the end of WWII has so many highs and lows it’s like tracking the tides.

Suffice it to say, Sri Lanka was left with all the usual post-colonial problems: including ethnic tensions equally stoked and manipulated by the departing British. There are two major ethnic identities in Sri Lanka: Sinhalese and Tamil. The Sinhalese are the majority, and they mainly speak Sinhala. The Tamils are a minority and they mainly speak Tamil. There is a sizable minority of Muslims of mixed ethnicity. They speak whatever they like. Smaller groups of the Tamils are Hindus, but some are Christians, as well. Most of the Sinhalese are Buddhists, but, then, some of them are Christians too.

There are also Burghers: Eurasians who are descended from the Portuguese and Dutch who mixed with local populations. The Burghers tend to speak English. Most of the time, all these different groups know how to get along, as they have—mostly—for two thousand years. But not always.

Tensions erupted and boiled over in Sri Lanka throughout the twentieth century. In the most virulent manifestation, they metastasized into a de facto civil war in the early 1980s. A man named Velupillai Prabakharan started assassinating politicians and soldiers around Jaffna—historic capital of the Tamil North—and gathering Tamils into a rebel force called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), commonly known in the West as the Tamil Tigers. They developed and perfected modern techniques of suicide bombing. The war raged on and off at various levels of intensity for almost three decades. The LTTE was finally wiped out as a fighting force in 2009, though Sri Lankans are still arguing about the politics and particulars and ethics of those final battles.

And we haven’t even begun to cover events like the two major JVP (People’s Liberation Front) uprisings in the early 70s and the late 80s. The JVP was a radical Marxist party made up mostly of Sinhalese. They opted for armed revolution. Failing to smash the state by force of arms in 1971, they regrouped and gave revolution another shot in 1987, just as the government was dealing with the LTTE insurrection in the north by employing an Indian Peace Keeping Force.

That force landed in Sri Lanka and immediately got itself involved in some nasty business. For example, on October 22, 1987, the Indian army, looking for LTTE members, ended up killing close to a hundred civilians inside a hospital. The LTTE later took revenge, assassinating the Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991 by means of suicide bomber. (Allegedly, after the explosion, all that was left of Prime Minister Gandhi were his head and feet.) Meanwhile, the JVP was assassinating politicians in and around Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, as if it was a sporting competition. One of the daily papers in Sri Lanka recently ran a headline claiming that the country in recent decade holds the world record for political assassinations. Between the LTTE and the JVP, an entire generation of political leaders, plus many of their friends, were simply erased.

And this is just a taste of the political and social difficulties Sri Lanka has faced. Its citizens have endured centuries of brutish ugliness, but I should mention, also, that Jaffna is beautiful in the evening light. All of Sri Lanka is beautiful. The sea, the jungles, the villages, the towns, the temples (of every faith), and the ruins of ancient civilizations. It is an extremely beautiful place in which extremely terrible things keep on happening.

This tension between the violent and the placid, it should almost go without saying, leads to a rich literature.

So, as we return to our grass field in Jaffna and to our friend Ayathurai Santhan, you can begin, perhaps, to understand something of the complexity that this man faced when he decided to write about his homeland, Sri Lanka. There is too much to write about. There is too much history, too much religious and internal strife, too much external pressure—too much human content.

Even a bate description of Sri Lanka and its people and land and history has too many implications. Which makes it more understandable, then, that a writer might want to simply tell a story there, to write about a boy and a girl, to delve into something personal that has nothing to do with the pain of history and colonial and religious politics.

Just try to tell a simple story in Sri Lanka, however—choosing simplicity in itself—and the critics will howl. The writer is pulled back in again. Nothing here is easy except finding a patch of the tropical sun. Nothing is certain except that season after season the monsoons will come, darkening the skies and unloading buckets of wet howls upon the dank and fecund jungle.

Which is why it struck me, standing in the field with Ayathurai Santhan on this lovely evening, speaking with this Tamil man from Jaffna, that Sri Lanka is a place where writing actually matters. It is an intriguing thought from an American perspective. For an American writer, the problem is how to generate meaning, more or less. The problem is how to fight off the culture of entertainment and distraction—the basic complacency of daily life—to get to the stories that are really important. Being a writer in Sri Lanka presents the exact opposite problem: a strange and contradictory gift. And yet, as soon as the pen hits the paper, the problems begin.

Santhan is a decent man. He believes that Sri Lankans can live together. And he believes that the story of Jaffna needs to be told—and that he may be the man who can tell it.

“I am a Jaffna man,” he will tell you. You can drive around in his 1954 Ford Prefect with his mechanic and a friend of his mechanic whose name you never quite caught, and you see that these are Jaffna men. “I can’t leave Jaffna for more than a month,” Santhan will say.

The man loves Jaffna, every corner, every broken-down house, every shitty little shop selling things long ago discarded as trash in more developed places. How could Santhan leave Jaffna when everything that matters to him is here?

So, Santhan stays in Jaffna and he writes the kind of minimalist, realist fiction—short stories mostly and a novel, The Whirlwind, last year—that chops and cuts away at language. What remains are hard little things that speak with immediacy. He tells basic stories of average people struggling to get through the day. There is safety in this. The less you say, the less chance that you will get in trouble with any one faction or another of society. Terseness becomes a defense.

But the minimalism is also true to Santhan’s god-given way of being. Santhan has a minimalist nature in a maximalist country. Initially trained as an engineer, he has an intuitive grasp of the elegant and simple line, the straight path from here to there.

Anyway, it is one way to deal with the problem of Sri Lanka, the obstacles embedded inside a chaos of religious, historic, and human significance.

No one is sure exactly how the national capital of Colombo got its name—or when or why.

The ancient Sri Lankans built their capital cities up in the island’s cooler and central Hill Country, or inland on the plains along rivers. Maybe they were afraid of the sea? And why wouldn’t they be? An island just off the coast of India teaches one sure lesson: the sea brings people, people of all kinds from everywhere. These visitors are, often as not, disinterested in the local wellbeing.

The British eventually established Colombo as the capital of Sri Lanka, for the simple reason that the British were masters of the sea and thus felt confident enough to build a coastal capital. But Colombo has been a mess ever since British left in 1948. No one can decide even how to label the streets, the names of which can switch mid-block from what they were in colonial times to whatever the latest regime has decided.

In Colombo, the writer faces a twenty-first century city in its Third World manifestation. Perhaps more than anywhere else in Sri Lanka, thoughts about the nations characteristics bump against the rest of the world. It is through Colombo that Sri Lanka meets the globe. The elite live in Colombo, the ones who have traveled and seen the world. Here, the English language rules no matter how many politicians or commentators try to tear it down in the name of post-colonial re-transformation. Writers from Colombo often have more connection to London or Sydney (or Toronto or New York) than to anywhere else within the interior of Sri Lanka.

But, then again, Colombo is in Sri Lanka. And Sri Lanka is Sri Lanka. It can’t be anything else.

Witness, if you will, Ashok Ferrey. A more urbane gentleman you may not meet. His prose, such as what may be his masterpiece Colpetty People, written in English, is witty and clever. And sly.

His sentences snap off the page. The novel begins: “I had always wanted to build the perfect house. For years I had looked at other people’s, surreptitiously, because as you know, houses don’t like to be stared at, whatever their owners might think.”

The book goes on to describe, in good humor, the utter failure of that building project. Ferrey’s home on Flower Road in the fashionable part of town has the fantastical aura of a place created for another era, one that could comfortably contain Scarlett O’Hara, Graham Greene, and Marguerite Duras all at one time for a dinner party. It has huge decorative earthenware and spots of sun under the grand piano in which the kittens play.

Ashok Ferrey, one would think, could not be in a world further away from Ayathurai Santhan’s Jaffna if he were in outer space. In fact, though, this is not true. He lived in London for a time, but he couldn’t escape. And in the end, he didn’t really want to.

Ferrey wrote a book recently that wasn’t so well received by the English language sophisticates of Sri Lanka. You could call it a book of self-criticism. Ashok Ferrey, you see, had a disturbing encounter with a thumb that made it impossible for him to remain complacent about life in Colombo. He writes about the thumb in the book, Serendipity.

On the very first page of this book, a bomb goes off. A fashionable society lady is asked by her husband what the noise was during his nap. “Nothing dear,” she says, “just a bomb.” And then a few minutes later she finds a thumb in her garden, ejected from the blast. She discards it without a second thought.

Ashok Ferrey did, in fact, find a thumb. It was during the 1990s, when the LTTE was sending suicide bombers onto buses. Usually women: they would blow themselves up in a crowd. One such bus blew up near Ferrey’s house, and he found an actual thumb on the top of his wall. There it was, a human thumb. He, too, tried to go on. You get rid of the thumb, and you move ahead with the rest of your day. But the thumb stuck with him. It caused him to write a novel that is every bit the attempt to come to terms with reality that can be found in the short stories of Ayathurai Santhan.

As the writer Yasmine Gooneratne explained to me, the bombs going off in Colombo were the sound of long-coming reality finally arriving in the city: history and politics, religion, and post-colonial and ethnic strife.

Yasmine wasn’t in Colombo then. She was in Australia. She and her husband come from families that may as well be described as Sri Lankan royalty. Now, back in their home country, you can eat dahl curry in her dining room just like you can everywhere in Sri Lanka, in any village. But there are touches from other nations everywhere: an original Dutch map of Sri Lanka (or “Lanka” as the natives call it) from the sixteenth century that hangs on the dining room wall, not to mention six thousand volumes of rare and international books sitting in the rooms upstairs. Somehow, they live in Sri Lanka and beyond it at the same time.

The books that Yasmine has written about Sri Lanka (A Change of Skies, The Pleasures of Conquest) are flush with memories from olden times. They are artful pastiches from forgotten documents spliced together with memories and experiences of recent events. These books approach Sri Lanka through the lens of scholarship, through older books and ancient maps. In The Pleasures of Conquest, for example, American romance writer Stella Mallinson starts a project to memorialize the literature of a tiny island-nation she has fallen in love with—but the novel’s thinly veiled version of Sri Lanka is renamed Amnesia. This is Yasmine’s way of explaining the chaos of the nation’s significance.

Also, like Ayathurai Santhan and Ashok Ferrey, she has found that she needs to be in Sri Lanka in order to write about it. Asked once about her move to Australia, she said, “To my great surprise—for I had not expected that any change would occur—I simply stopped writing. I had grown up in a very different landscape, and my imagination seemed to have ceased to function as a result of our move to Sydney.” Eventually, she came back to Sri Lanka. Now, she can’t help but write about the Sri Lankan experience. She is not crazy. She knows where the stories are.

Ameena Hussein and her husband Sam moved back to Sri Lanka after having lived in various places in the West. They started a publishing house in Colombo: Perera Hussein Publishing. Recently, they published a book of erotic stories here in Sri Lanka. This started a political debate in the papers about whether one should, in fact, publish books of erotic stories. “Can’t we ever have a little fun?” Ameena asks me during a visit to her office at the publishing house.

It’s a rhetorical question, because the answer is no. Her own book (The Moon in the Water) opens with the sentences:

My father is dead. He didn’t die in his sleep. He didn’t die of a heart attack. He didn’t die of a long illness or a short one.

He died brutally.


Ripped apart by a bomb.

She knows of the conflict and pain and spiking violence that is, amid the placid tropical landscape, also part of the soul of Sri Lanka.

Perhaps the most telling of all Colombo-centered ex-pats who keep coming back is Shyam Selvadurai. He wrote a book called Funny Boy that is one of the more recognized Sri Lankan novels to have emerged in the last few decades.

Funny Boy is a novel that wanted to be about a boy being gay in Sri Lanka but ended up being about a whole family that is unavoidably Sri Lankan and happens to have a gay son. Selvadurai is Tamil and he grew up during a period of frequent riots between Tamils and Sinhalese. In the novel, a Burgher friend of the family goes north and is killed, probably for political reasons. An aunt falls in love, but she is Tamil and he is Sinhalese and an incident destroys any possibility for love to blossom. The bigness, the turmoil, the overwhelming significance of all circumstances in Sri Lanka constantly threaten to submerge the fact that a young boy is growing up and starting to know he is gay.

And yet, as Selvadurai told me—just as Santhan did, as well as Ashok and Yasmine and Ameena—it is the atmosphere of Sri Lanka that makes the writing happen. When Shyam is away from Sri Lanka he discovers he has nothing to say. When he is in Sri Lanka, he finds that he has a million things to say and barely any space in which to say it. The stories threaten to collapse upon one another. That is the ongoing literary gift of this place: an embarrassment of ambiguous riches.

The train ride from Colombo to Kandy is one of the great journeys on this planet. This is because of the tunnels, cut rough-hewn from the rock, and the spectacular terrain as you wind up into the island’s central hill country: where the Kandyan kings built the last refuge of the indigenous civilization, which the British finally conquered in 1815.

Seen from this angle, the train to Kandy is a brutal statement of colonial power. We will get there, the British were saying; you cannot hide from us in the hills or anywhere else. To you, the Sri Lankans, we can do anything we wish. And they could, too, those irrepressible British bureaucrats and engineers.

Until the arrival of the British engineers, the remoteness of Kandy had been its greatest defense. This part of Sri Lanka rises up from the plains, creating a plateau in the bottom middle of the island nation. But the British were undaunted. They took their engineering right up the side of the damn mountain and made the whole area theirs. Soon enough, the countryside was then covered in British-underwritten tea plantations. The last king of Kandy, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, was deposed and forced into exile where he lived off a small allowance and finally died in 1832.

To this day, riding that train to Kandy is like a trip into the heart of the Sri Lankan fairy tale. Outside, there is mist hanging on the sides of the mountain, foliage climbing over itself in the mad desire to grow. For a few hundred extra rupees, you can sit in the observation car at the end of the train and watch it all unfold backwards. This is appropriate, as centuries seem to fade away during the ride. The giant window at the back of the train tells you nothing about where you are going. It is a window into what has already happened.

Up here, in the hill country, Sri Lanka is different from its plains, its coastal areas, downtown Colombo, or the dryish jungle of the Tamil majority regions to the far north and east. There is a sense of refuge here. The problems of ethnic strife, for instance, are not as immediately apparent. The real fighting was in the North and the East. Most of the suicide bombings happened in Colombo. A different kind of struggle becomes apparent in the hill country—between old ways and new ones, between country and city. Here, the ghost of Martin Wickramasinghe looms large.

Wickramasinghe was born in 1890 and he died in 1976. His novel, Gamperaliya (1944) is the great twentieth-century novel of Sri Lanka. It tells the story of the breakup of a southern Sri Lankan village under the pressure of colonial modernity. The book is both a chronicle and a lament. More than three hundred years of colonialism and the imposition of an external civilization had, in Wickaramsinghe’s eyes, only brought grief. Enough, he said, let’s go back to the village.

In Sri Lanka, as you ride the train toward Kandy, this drama has not yet finished playing itself out. Maybe there is no such thing as writing Sinhalese literature today without addressing the conflict laid out by Martin Wickramasinghe. Which might be a way to describe what Dr. Amare Liyanage is doing. Dr. Liyanage lives in Kandy and teaches at Peradeniya University here in the hill country. He got his PhD in Wisconsin, taught for a few years at Cornell, and was a step away from his green card—when he, too, realized that he needed to be in Sri Lanka. “I needed to hear people speaking in my native language. I needed to hear the Sinhala being used by people everyday in the streets. I stopped being able to write without hearing that,” he says.

So he came back. As soon as he returned, he immediately became aware again of all the complications of Sri Lanka. He now writes stories about everyday people who want to be both Sri Lankan and cosmopolitan. As he works, he struggles to write stories that will not immediately be interpreted along what have become Sri Lanka’s predictable religious, historical, or ideological lines.

He is constantly looking for narrative devices, he tells me. One of them, he says, was about a young student who sneaks into his professors’ offices to rearrange the furniture in subtle ways. The student is trying to find ways to disrupt the comfortable and routine lives of his professors. But the story is told not from the student’s perspective, but from that of a professor—who is then being told this story by a student. It is a story of disruption in order to disrupt the narration itself. At the end of the story, the professor trips over his own chair—and feels a sudden sense of gratitude.

Even in the relative calm of Kandy, the chaos of intersecting lines of human significance that makes up Sri Lanka cannot be avoided.

I drive to Anuradhapura with Sunethra Rajakarunanayake. Anuradhapura is an ancient city, a city of ruins. The civilization that once lived there was destroyed by King Chola Rajaraja I, of the Chola Empire of southern India, and the city was abandoned in the year 993.

What remains gives you a sense of the grandeur of ancient Sri Lanka. There are huge Dagabas that have been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries. Dagabas are Buddhist shrines that look like giant domes. Inside are relics and other holy items. Cuttings from the original and sacred fig tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment were brought to the city in the third century BC. The tree that sprang from them (Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi) is still growing in Anuradhapura today.

Sunethra and I are heading to Anuradhapura for the State Literary Awards Ceremony. Her most recent novel was nominated for best novel in Sinhalese. A few hours later she wins the award. When she returns from the stage she hands the award statuette to me to hold while she sits down. There it is in my lap while the photographers gather around and snap pictures. The Prime Minister of Sri Lanka is sitting a few seats away. For a brief moment we are at the very heart, the living center, of today’s Sri Lankan Sinhalese literature. But being close to it physically doesn’t mean knowing it. The subject remains elusive.

It is possibly the case that Sunethra Rajakarunanayake knows what Sri Lankan literature is. She writes with notable frequency, in Sinhala and in English. More than any Sri Lankan writer I know, she projects a level of comfort, as if the shifting complexity of Sri Lankan life has found somewhere to rest in her. She has written for the stage and the screen and the page. She has written stories about being a Sri Lankan and living in San Francisco, China, and India. But always she comes back to Sri Lanka. She comes back to the stories that she heard growing up in the villages of the plains.

In her novel The House of Pirith, which was also made into a TV series, a grandmother delivers a long monologue on what life was like in her days. Every other paragraph begins with the words “in those days.” The old woman hasn’t forgotten an episode of village gossip in eighty years. She knows how to do everything in the old and better ways—or at least she says she does. Later in the book she starts spouting lines from Lenin and Marx: things she’s heard others talking about. Her mind is a font of ancient wisdom and a jumble of the disparate external influences.

Perhaps because she sits so comfortably in her spot, Sunethra is loathe to say too much about her writing process. She is more interested in talking about meditation. She took it up years ago. Now she teaches others how to meditate. It has served to calm a woman who was once the angry young radical of Sri Lankan letters. Now she dresses in white like a Buddhist monk. The stories just come to her, she says. She has no specific agenda. She can’t be defined by Martin Wickramasinghe or by the war or by this or that ethnicity. And yet, every one of these subjects finds its expression in her prose. With her mix of self-assuredness and calm center, she another example of Sri Lanka’s chaos of significance.

In 1948, the same year that Sri Lanka gained its independence, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a book-length pamphlet entitled What Is Literature?

People don’t read it very much anymore. The book is a product of its place and moment, the immediate postwar situation in France. Many of the concerns Sartre was addressing have faded with time. But not all of them. In the foreword, for instance, Sartre asks himself, and the rest of us, a few simple questions: “What is writing? Why does one write? For whom? The fact is, it seems that nobody has ever asked himself these questions.” After much musing and internal debate, Sartre comes to one firm conclusion. “We must,” he writes, “take up a position in our literature, because literature is in essence a taking of position.”

In Sri Lanka, as it has always been, there are plenty of reminders that the world can do without man and literature. Every day and every night the sea sucks at the shores of this small island, shifting the contours of the land according to secret, cosmic pulls that long predate human history. The tides along its coasts are in constant conversation with the moon. At dusk, just outside the borders of any of the cities, the jungle comes alive with the screaming of animals and insects. Eyes peep out everywhere from beneath the giant jungle leaves. The natural world could reclaim the human one in an instant, given half the chance.

Being in this environment the Sartrean choices seem somehow quite obvious. Being in Sri Lanka, we ought to write as if the world depended on what we say. As if life in Sri Lanka itself depended on it. Because of the history and religion and politics and beauty and violence of this place, we simply need to keep telling its stories. Then we ought to laugh, reminded that the world can very well do without literature—and us.


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