Expanded version of the presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
At the session on ‘Buried Alive: Stories that never saw the Light of Day’
At the Brahmaputra Literary Festival, January 30th 2017
I thought I would talk at this session about my own work, having dealt with general principles, as well as discussing Sri Lankan writing in general, during the two previous sessions at which I participated, on the Word and its Public Space, and on Conflict Literature.
This topic is particularly timely, for I have just had republished in Sri Lanka my first novel, which has appeared previously only in India and in Italy. The printer way back in 1985 panicked, and returned the proofs of the first few chapters, but fortunately then the distinguished bibliophile Ian Goonetilleke arranged for Navrang, an innovative Indian publisher, to bring out the book. But sales in Sri Lanka were limited, the book being kept under the counter it seemed, given the stranglehold the then government had over information. So it is only now, courtesy of Godage & Bros, that the novel is freely available in the country in which it is set.
For the book dealt with the riots of 1983, putting the blame foursquare on the then government. This was not a story that the extremists on either side wanted told. Sinhalese nationalists had tales of excessive Tamil demands and did not want highlighting of the numerous abuses Sinhalese governments had engaged in. Conversely, their mirror images, the Tamil extremists, wanted a narrative in which all Sinhalese were tarnished, and my exposition of the actions of just some in government did not fit well with their claim that living with the Sinhalese was impossible.
My story was set in the decision making drawing rooms of Colombo, and highlighted the factions in the then UNP government as well as the domination of family connections. I now realize that the book may explain the animosity Ranil Wickremesinghe has displayed towards me, as when he tried to stop English medium in 2002, preventing Karunasena Kodituwakku from continuing me as an Adviser to the Ministry. At the time I thought that his opposition to that initiative was based, as Tara de Mel put it, on jealousy that she and Chandrika had started it, but I now feel that my own role was also a red rag to him.
But I had not really intended to draw attention to Ranil through the character of Matthew, the most extreme of the four Cabinet ministers who were an amalgam of various important members of the Cabinet (I still recall his former sister-in-law telling me that Lalith Athulathmudali had read the book avidly but was annoyed that he did not feature in it). My ministers were called Matthew and Mark and Luke and John and, though loosely based on individuals, in no case was Ranil a major source.
The three major characters were Tom and Dick and Harry, the first of them being obviously a portrait of J R Jayawardene, and the third Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe. The second could have been likened to Lakshman’s brother Esmond, Ranil’s father, but that identification was not absolute, and I was sorry that Esmond had been upset and told someone that he had thought before that that I was one of his admirers. I was indeed fond of him, though I was horrified at what he told me he had done during the riots, claiming that he had had to get the magistrate inquiring into the Welikada Jail massacres to adjourn since he was getting too close to the truth. I do not however think that Sidney Knight is altogether correct in suggesting that Esmond was privy to all the schemes that his friend Cyril Matthew was up to.
But that Cyril Matthew was a monster I had no doubt, and he was the principal inspiration for the character of Matthew. But because this was a novel, and because I did not want clear matchings (except in the cases of Tom and Harry), I made Matthew a young Minister (as opposed to the old Mark, whose toothless condition was intended to draw a connection with the now long forgotten Ananda Tissa de Alwis). There was one element in the character of Matthew however which was based on Ranil’s behavior, namely his association with Gonawala Sunil, which I found appalling. So Matthew had a Shadow, called the Black Shadow (to distinguish him from the Red Shadow, a Soviet spy who ended up in the arm of the Vatican).
But what emerged as the most prominent task of the Black Shadow, the procurement of virgins for his master, was not something that I would have associated with Ranil in a million years. That sort of shenanigan was based on the antics of other young bloods associated with the then government, some of whom indeed in those days would mock Ranil for his abstinence from that sort of practice which, regrettably, they reveled in. But it is possible that Ranil finds the whole episode embarrassing, being the only survivor now of that Cabinet, which not only did nothing while Tamils were attacked throughout Colombo and the rest of the country, but then claimed that this was the understandable reaction of the Sinhalese to attempts to divide the country.
Ranil certainly shares this trait with J R, that he can say contradictory matters without batting an eyelid – as he showed so graphically with regard to the Central Bank Bond scam, claiming that Arjuna Mahendran had done nothing wrong and that the Auditor General did not know his job and they might have to get rid of him. That sort of doublespeak was typical of the J R whose pronouncements were more absurd than even those of Tom in my novel.
I hope then that Acts of Faith will have a wider readership than it was able to get way back in 1985 when Navrang first published it. The current government seems to be taking the country headlong towards destruction, and the account of the threat to Sumanthiran’s life makes clear that playing with fire, as it has done along with its Western allies, can only lead to disaster. I think understanding the mentality of our leading politicians may help to avert disaster, so let me conclude with the comments of Klaus Stuckert, in the review he published over 30 years ago – ‘Wijesinha’s novel is a satire on the political and social system of his country. To create an awareness of its weaknesses and imperfections fantasy alone would not be sufficient. The reader must constantly be made aware that the fantastic has a factual basis. To achieve this the author gives his protagonists familiar characteristics of many well-known Sri Lankan politicians, both past and present….
For me Wijesinha’s novel was one of the most exciting ones that I have read this year. It moves at a very fast pace, it is witty and clever and its satire has a surprising variety. This assessment may not quite hold true for the whole novel. Every satirist has a moral commitment and Wijesinha aims at nothing less than national regeneration. One gets the impression that with the situation in his country deteriorating he lost his hope and with it the book loses some of its wit and bite towards the end.’