By L.N.D. Anuruddha KUMARA
Rajiva Wijesinha is recognized as one of the best post- colonial Sri Lankan writers in English, distinguished for his political analysis as well as creative and critical work.
He has been an academic by profession for much of his working career; he was a Senior Professor of Languages at the University of Sabaragamuwa of Sri Lanka when I started university there to read my undergraduate in English literature in 1997 and it is there that I met him for the first time. Since then he has stood out as one of the major influential writers today with an elegant style of writing, producing a unique selection of literary genres within a short period of time.
Given his success, I felt it worthwhile to research how his education has influenced him to achieve such literary milestones during his life. First, I will study his educational ladder and see how he ended up at University College Oxford, one of the most prestigious universities in England.
I will then discuss his work as well as his experiences as a writer and finally we will see how his content of education has contributed to distinguishing him as a talented writer both locally and internationally.
Achieving milestones in education
Rajiva was born to a Sri Lankan aristocratic family on May 16, 1954 and schooled at S.t Thomas’ College, Mt.Lavinia,Colombo. It is necessary to understand two important questions here, firstly; how did he gained admission to the best private English Christian school at the time? Even though school started during the British period, admission was highly restricted to the Christian upper English speaking elite class even in 1960s.
So Rajiva got into this school because his family members of the upper English speaking social class, where not only his father but also most of his other relations were old boys of this college and had brought fame to the school in different ways. His father was a senior administrative officer, while his mother was also an educated Christian, therefore he easily got into this school and his affluent parents were able to look after him. The second important question is how did this school help him to get into Oxford? For this, his systematic education at school, his habit of reading, as he says, ‘I read extensively from my childhood on’ and his family background have immensely contributed to his academic intelligence and winning an Open Exhibition in Classics to University College, Oxford when he was just 16.
This was an extremely rare opportunity for any student, particularly at such a young age. After his first degree, which also led to an MA in 1977, he moved to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, as E K Chambers Student (Edmund Kerchever Chambers), a scholarship for people who read Classics to study English (he suspects not many applicants), and obtained a BPhil degree in English, followed by a PhD in 1979 on the subject of Women and Marriage in the early Victorian novel. His PhD thesis work was subsequently published by the University Press of America under the title The Androgynous Trollope: Attitudes to women amongst early Victorian novelists (1982).
This non-fictional, academic work carries with it his spirit of knowledge and shows the close relationship between his education and publication. Even though this was his first publication, it became quite popular among the educated elite class of the time and today it is under great demand in the international book market with a rarity value of £ 752.50. He achieved such great demand for his research work because it was non-fictional on the one hand and on the other hand no other similar research had been carried out by anybody in the history of education. So with this successful original work, he was able to lay a solid foundation in the academic innovative publication sector.
Now I will consider what other subjects he studied in his degrees and how he used the content of knowledge of those subjects for his later publications. He says that he has covered four major disciplines throughout his university education, namely English, Politics, Philosophy and Ancient History. So considering those university disciplines I was able to find a mutual relationship between his content of academic knowledge and his publications such as fictions, non- fictions, education (English language, Literature), Travel and Social History, and Politics. This demonstrates that he has not published any book beyond the limit of his academic knowledge.
Education philosophers such as Paulo Freire and David Orr claim that to determine one’s level of education one needs to consider formal education which is received through schools or universities and all sorts of gathering experience. Therefore, to get a clear picture of Rajiva’s education his experience needs to be counted. Basically, his experience can be recognised under three major headings namely; travelling, teaching and politics. But I cannot analyse them individually because most of his books have been written while he was working in the relevant field.So it can be clearly seen his content of knowledge, experience and writing are inseparable and have a strong link with each other.
Rajiva’s moral conduct as an academician
I found teaching is very central to his experience because he joined the university system just after he returned home after studies. .Having realised the setbacks of the traditional teaching pedagogy, he ‘initiated’ an English degree program for students like me from backgrounds that had limited English in school. That reflects Rajiva’s intelligent thinking, leadership and application of new knowledge in a productive way.
Because without just continuing what had been in the past he started a new programme in which lots of students got opportunities to choose English as a minimum pre-requisite. His English language programs brought a high level of English literacy to adult students after Sri Lanka got its independence in 1948.
This gave him an opportunity to realise the immediate requirement of lack of proper learning materials for university level English courses. Therefore, with his theoretical knowledge in English as well as his practical knowledge in teaching at university level, he published A Handbook of English Grammar in 2004. The book eliminated the poor performance of students at public examinations due to ignorance of basic grammar. A Handbook of English Grammar was a huge success because of his unusual techniques, introducing English lessons and activities in a more interesting way than other highly acclaimed writers of the time.
So it can be clearly seen that the content of Rajiva’s knowledge enables him to think and write differently because of his good education. Rajiva’s notion behind the book was that grammar is not to be taught (based on teaching systems that were popular some years back) but to be “picked up.” He said that his handbook would fill that void and give teachers an opportunity to adopt a flexible approach in language pedagogy. He was the person who pioneered and filled the gap between English language illiteracy to language literacy of the nation. His deep knowledge in English and effective teaching methodologies made thousands of students successful language learners.
In addition, he published A Guide to Studying and Thinking (1998), The Arnold Anthology of Post-Colonial Literature in English (1996), Anthology of Contemporary Sri Lankan Poetry, Aspect of Teaching and Learning English as a Second Language (edited with James Drury in1991), An English Education (1996) and Breaking Bounds: Essays on Sri Lankan Writing in English (1998), these books largely became popular among moderate English teachers and students because of the content of specific knowledge they carried and since no other such academic books had ever been written. So what should be appreciated of Rajiva is his fruitful application of knowledge to mitigate discrepancies in the education sector.
Application of knowledge in literary genres
He also edited A Selection of English Poetry (1991) with introduction and notes, reflecting his sound knowledge of world literature that he had studied previously in his BPhil degree in English at Corpus Christi College. What I came to notice between his education and work is that both are inter-dependent and inter-related. In other words, he was able to become a senior lecturer in English and have published the books which are related to English language and teaching because he had learnt English as a part of his education.
Therefore, it seems to me not only his education and publications but also his career has a parallel link with his western education. Because of Rajiva’s creativity and new knowledge his books became more attractive, unique and popular not only among thousands of students but also among academics and the general public in search of knowledge. A Selection of English Poetry includes a large number of 19th century poems and particularly his notes for each of them gives a precise understanding about literary work done by great poets like William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Lord Tennyson, Lord Byron, John Keats, John Donne, W.B.Yeats and so on .
Rajiva’s notes reflect how his western English education has empowered him to do such fabulous work. For instance, he begins his note to a poem called; The Wild Swans at Coole by W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) “In the late 19th and early 20th centuries a number of Irishmen made a very significant contribution to English literature. Some of them, such as James Joyce, Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde left Ireland and spent their later life abroad.
Yeats however lived on in Ireland and survived for about twenty years after it got its independence from Britain.” This anecdote highlights Rajiva’s analytical capacity for presenting facts of English literature with cross cultural references and his deeper understanding of the western background that has contributed to him producing rationalised criticisms.
Traveling fulfilled his education further rather than just giving him pleasure. Rajiva says that he has traveled widely across different cultures, including his experience as a Visiting Professor on the Semester at Sea Programme of the University of Pittsburgh, and has published Beyond the First Circle: Travels in the Second and Third Worlds, Across Cultures: Issues of Identity in Contemporary British and Sri Lankan writing (2001) and Fact and Fable: Aspect of East West Interaction.
Again I see, how he has looked at the different cultural dimensions with his content of knowledge to merge those experiences of traveling with his academic comprehension effectively and skillfully to broaden his writing, thereby giving his readers a unique opportunity for a new way of life, enabling them to think through intelligent reading.
Rajiva’s comprehension about ancient history and philosophy has impacted on his writing, focusing on homogeneous audiences, a precise example is Fundamentals of Modern Society (2004), it is obviously a product of the combination of the two subjects he has learnt as a part of his tertiary education. The content of the book represents the content of the above subjects. The simple logic behind it is that the book represents nothing but Rajiva’s content of knowledge.
He is concerned about certain facts about the way the world was chronologically developed which every ‘educated person’ should know. He says, “Unfortunately, for reasons ranging from nationalism to incoherence, there have not been systematically presented.” The book is a masterpiece of his writing since it carries specific knowledge to the present generation and no other similar work has ever been written, presenting facts ‘systematically’.
The content of the book is about universal concepts of aspects of development; Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Confucianism and Taoism. The book also has a separate section about the classical period, the renaissance, the age of reasons, imperialism, the cold war and new fundamentalism. This book became internationally famous among people looking for knowledge.
The practical application of Rajiva’s political knowledge can be seen when he came to politics in 1996. He became the Leader of the Sri Lankan Liberal party and was its Presidential candidate in 1999, and came 6th out of 15 candidates, defeating several former parliamentarians. He was able to gain huge success in a short time because he already had political knowledge studying politics as a separate subject in his tertiary education and also his content of education, communication skills and his clear liberal perspectives were highly admired by people whose equal opportunities as well as human rights were being largely deprived in the capitalistic society by the government sponsored ethnic riots.
His western education, good disciplines and political ideologies opened his avenues to conduct workshops on Liberalism in India, Parkistan, Nepal, Afghanistan and Indonesia, on behalf of the Friedrich Naumann Stifung (FNS), the German Liberal Foundation, for which he edited Liberal Values for South Asia (revised recently as Liberal Perspectives on South Asia and published in 2009 by Cambridge University Press, Delhi).
Here I can see how his content of political knowledge is powerful in making a strong impact nationally and internationally within a very short period of time. On the other hand he published his first book on politics after four years of his political career. The book discusses the essentials of the liberal philosophy, while indicating how appropriate it is in the South Asian context. Hence it seems to me that he is intelligent enough to identify his content of political knowledge for a realistic need of the region.
He says, “Many political parties have implemented liberal policies on an ad hoc basis without a proper framework to guide them, this volume will provide food for thought and ideas for adoption and incorporation within the party programme. Ranging from erudite expositions of classic liberal thinkers to lively discussions of liberal economic principles put into practice by imaginative entrepreneurs, this volume is essential reading for a region making a swift transition into a contemporary, globalised world.”
When democracy was badly eroded due to government sponsored ethnic violence in the 1980s and 1990s he tried to safeguard the deprivation of basic human rights through his writing, especially he became very sensitive after hearing about the abduction and killing of his friend, Richard de Zoysa, a young English language poet, by the paramilitary forces a month before his thirty second birthday in 1992, because of his poetry as social criticism and political commentaries produced between 1981,1983 and later 1988.
Rajiva says,“ Richard lived a very full life in great many dimensions: he was actor and drama teacher, journalist and broadcaster, human rights activist and political thinker…..he had for long been established as the most promising of Sri Lanka’s young English language poets. Therein of course lies a seeming paradox: a long period or promise implies that it was not fulfilled.”
Based on the killing of Richard de Zoysa, Rajiva published a novel The Limits of Love (2005), this is the third novel of a trilogy; Acts of Faith (2006) and Days of Despair (1989).
Reviewed by the Swedish critic, Anders Sjobohm claims, ‘Rajiva’s trilogy shows political history in ‘concentrated style’, as a cross between a novel and a political write-up. The Limits of Love (2005), he shows leading layers of politicians and military, and in many cases it is possible to find the characters in real life. It shows up the macabre intrigues and winds up as extravagant ‘hangman’s humour’, facts and fiction are mixed’.
In Limits of Love, in his foreward Rajiva openly explains, “old sly Dicky is supposed to represent Sri Lanka’s president during the 80s and shows how he is turning himself into a dictator when nationalistic Sinhalese Front stars to engage in bloody terror against the government and comes up against an even bloodier counter- terror from secret parliamentary groups.”
It seems instead of fighting back with the government or any other political parties, Rajiva reflected the true picture of the country through his writing to the world and continuously searched for reconciliation among different ethnic groups. This shows even though he practically involved in politics, his conduct of behaviour was different than other contemporary politicians because he used his knowledge in writing to address people.
According to this context I find Rajiva as a person who admired a non violence approach such as Mahatma Gandhi in India. Of his political novel, Limits of Love other characters are free from their real life equivalents even if similarities are there. But several characters have been given names by the author that are confusing, probably internationally, like Rajiv, Ravi, Ranil, Anil and Ranjan which make characters seem anonymous and interchangeable across the whole flock. Thus it seems, in order to show the contemporary ‘claustrophobic’ narrow layer of power that surges power, the strife of life and death, using the unusual techniques in literary genres, Rajiva’s intellectual faculty has immensely contributed to putting them into writing, bringing recognition for his work nationally and internationally.
Because of the international recognition he achieved for his outstanding work, he was able to become the first Sri Lankan writer resident in the country whose works were translated into a European language, namely Italian. Sevi, the Italian translation of Servants which won the Gratiaen Award in 1995, was published by Giovanni Tranchida Editore in Milan in 2002, and this was followed in 2006 by Atti di fede.
The last was a translation of Acts of Faith, based on the 1983 government sponsored riots in Sri Lanka against Tamils known as Black July-where the hatred, despair, powerlessness, racialism and persecutions of the Tamil minority were intense, without hope of reconciliation because of the violation of the human rights and the manipulation of the power game by the leading politicians for their own advantage. To paint a true picture of the government role in addressing the ethnic issue of the time, no other writer except Rajiva, has ever achieved such a great work. Again it shows his capacity for knowledge and its application in writing to reflect the contemporary realities for everybody to share and enjoy.
Commenting on Rajiva’s black political comedy set up based on Sri Lanka, Acts of Faith, Prof. Ashley Halpe says, ‘moral passion is given force and focus as the comedy sets up a fruitful tension between distantiation and involvement’, for instance by the use of such names as Tom, Dick and Harry for the president’s family and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for the principal members of the cabinet. He further mentioned that Rajiva gives us innumerable shafts of incident satire, while he has true novelistic gifts for inventive narrative and for getting inside his characters.
Rajiva as a Member of Parliament
Looking at different dimensions of Rajiva’s life as an academic, author and a political analyist, I interviewed him and asked how his education had contributed to him achieving those milestones in his life and to his publishing of a variety of genres on different themes. “My first degree at Oxford covered philosophy as well as Ancient History, and the English BPhil covered a lot of political and social writing, which contributed, but in addition I read extensively from childhood on. I had therefore a lot of content as well as analytical capacity from the university degrees.” He said.
Rajiva strongly believes that his creative and analytical skills were developed within him because of experience; which is part of the education he received after a great deal of reading, traveling and teaching. He says “Obtaining a great deal of experience which was then digested and put together with the help of the skills and knowledge obtained from degrees.”
In 2010 he became a Member of Parliament and I personally believe this was the turning point of his life, where he gained international recognition for his work. For the first time in his life he appeared on BBC world service interviews representing the Government. This is a further example which demonstrates how his knowledge, analytical capacity and experience sets him apart from other writers. Looking at his panoramic view of life, it is clearly seen that his systematic education up to Oxford has made him a genius in the relevant fields.
By looking at Rajiva’s education and work what is clear is that I cannot mention his work without mentioning his education. Because all of his literary works published so far have a direct link with what he studied in the past, every individual work of his is unique because of his broad content of knowledge and techniques such as language, tone, voice, images, and themes. His writing is innovative and reflective in such a way as to give a philosophical level of reading for his readers. In conclusion, he was able to establish his name as an influential author in the world within a short time. When we look at his range of work anybody can understand how he has manipulated his knowledge into power through writing.
N.B: A selection of the book titles mentioned above will be available to purchase on-line shortly.