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booksLanguage exists to bridge human connections, not to entertain the isolated elite. So believes Oxford-educated Rajiva Wijesinha with his career experience as a senior professor of languages. Recently published by the National Book Trust of India, an anthology under his editorship, ‘Mirrored Images: An Anthology of Sri Lankan Poetry’, the compilation aims to bridge cultural links of different ethnicities.

Rajiva Wijesinha, now Emeritus Professor cum Member of Parliament, shares his ideals about poetry and language in general as the Encounter of the Week.

Q: What is the objective of your latest compilation, ‘Mirrored Images: An Anthology of Sri Lankan Poetry’?

A: Our major objective is to bring different ethnicities together. We have translated Sinhala and Tamil poetry into English, and reproduced English poetry written by Sri Lankans writing in English. Here we can see a common Sri Lankan identity. In compiling this collection, I have noted many similarities in poetry. They share a filial affection which is usually lacking in English poetry written by the English.

This similarity offers a glimpse of our cultural values. That transcends ethnic differences.

 Tamils, especially in north, have suffered immensely because of war. Tamil poetry portrays their anguish. But remarkably, we cannot come across any ethnic recrimination in these poems. I also believe these poetry highlight trends of local literature. Not because I have selected them. It is my colleagues, who mostly did the selection.

I hope this anthology would contribute to a common Sri Lankan identity. That will help us appreciate and celebrate differences. That’s the path to enhance mutual understanding.

Q: What was your criterion in the selection?

A: The anthology contains the poetry written following Independence. I have included only a few poems to represent each language to highlight trends. One salient point is the flowery language of Sinhala and Tamil languages. This was lacking in English poetry written around the Independence period.

Q: How do you think that poetry will work its way to bridging connections?

A: We have to meet up. Jaffna poets have to come to Colombo. Colombo poets have to visit Jaffna. That is how we could share our cultural similarities. We have very good poets such as Gunadasa Amarasekara and Liyanage Amarakeerthi. Poets like Ariyawansa Ranaweera are treated like heroes in Jaffna, thanks to the fact that his poetry was translated into Tamil.

Q: Publishers complain poetry do not sell well. Do you think it is justifiable?

A: No. I do not think that is a correct opinion. People have not stopped writing poetry. For instance, there is a poetry magazine published every month in Jaffna. Each issue sells 500 copies.

Our problem lies elsewhere. And it affects everything, not only poetry.

We have no proper mechanism to sell books. We do not have a National Book Trust like they have in India. With a Book Trust, we can arrange to make the books available in translations at the same time they are published in the original language. We have our own National Library Services Board which does nothing productive other than book launches. So we require some machination to promote and cultivate literature.

Look at Singapore. They have an arts festival. There is nothing of the sort happening right now in the country.


Q: What is your idea of ‘proper mechanism to sell books’?

A: We must set up a library that is a bookshop in every division of the country. Then books reach a common audience, and literature will have a common platform.

If you come to Colombo Book Fair, it is packed! We can sell the books at a subsidized rate. Government must focus more on encouraging books and writers.

Now Godage brothers are a leading publisher in Sri Lanka. They render quite a service to the book industry, by publishing many quality works. But they are not a good marketer. They need to adopt proper marketing methods. Then we can go to a proper machination.


Q: You are a parliamentarian yourself! Which means you are a member of the national representative body having supreme legislative powers within the state.

A: Yes, correct. But I have no executive powers. What I can do is giving ideas. I am giving ideas to most of my minister friends. The problem is most government officials cannot think outside the box.

Q: You are a university don specialized in English. How do you view the Sri Lankan position of English?

A: We have not improved since Independence. We were not allowed to improve, because English has been a subject confined to the elite. It still is! Children from the rural areas hardly get an opportunity to master this subject.

Many high ups at the Education ministry openly state English is not a grand subject. But their children study English. This has been happening for the past fifty years. Tragic, sad and unethical that rural children are treated this way.

We tried to change this phenomenon.

We introduced several courses at the Sabaragamuwa and Jayawardenepura Universities. I have students all across the country who use English as a communication tool.


Q: You are talking about the Sri Lankan identity of English. How did you work on this concept during your tenure at the British Council?

A: At the British Council, their foremost aim was to promote British English.

Anything that is British. But that had to change. We published Sri Lankan writing to encourage Sri Lankan writers. We conducted Sri Lankan English drama. We conducted theatre workshops.

This paved the way to excellent productions.

We are always talking about British English. Some students are a bit reluctant to talk in English, because they have no access. Now who cares about a British accent? English is a common language in this world. Everyone communicates in that language.


Q: What is your solution to get rid of the ‘English is for the elite’ attitude?

A: We need language training in all three languages. The teachers must know all three languages. When I proposed this, the government officials raised the requirement of the private sector. But, at the same time they said, it will downgrade standards.

We must get private sector involved. But they have to meet the standards and satisfy government. Government’s business is to monitor private sector activities. I once proposed to the President that we must get private sector to work on training students with Sinhala, Tamil, English, Science and Maths. Only those subjects. We must also encourage universities to launch a training component. I have started it at the Sri Jayawardenepura University. It is the biggest external degree program. It contains English language, literature, and language teaching. Such programs must be available for internal students too.

As a result, we will get teachers who are capable of teaching Sinhala through Tamil and vice versa.

Q: What is your opinion about international schools, which are private education institutes?

A: International schools are doing a good job, because money is involved. You pay and they have to supply quality service. I mean their teaching methods are so much better. One thing is because they have competitors and assessment is there. Government must monitor these institutes.