Capt Elmo Jayawardena
Sri Lankan-created literature in the English language is limited. Of course the medium is not our mother tongue and the post-colonial years have steadily reduced the usage and decreased the numbers who read which has directly resulted in the downturn of the books published in English.
That is a clearly visible fact. It is also an accepted actuality that among the limited works that came through the publishers’ purgatory, there certainly were ‘good’ to ‘excellent’ books. Some could have easily stood on the same pedestal of fame of the internationally renowned, had they too been lucky in the winners’ lottery among the world’s literati.
But, it did not happen, sad and so true.
The undeniable ‘but’ has always been there, the story of ‘born to blush un-seen in the desert air’ in Gray’s words of mute inglorious local Miltons. Books by Sri Lankan authors published with the greatest difficulty with very limited access to international publishers and literary agents have died of natural deaths and have been embalmed in some forgotten shelf at Odel’s or Vijitha Yapa’s. Net result: ‘U’ turning from Pygmy prominence to permanent obscurity in a very short period of time. That in a nutshell is a tragically factual history of Sri Lanka’s English literature and its writers.
Sarvan has kindled a fire to bring back books that mattered. From Ediriwira Sarathchandra to Jean Arasanayagam, Shyam Selvadurai to Ernest Macintyre, Romesh Gunesekara to Carl Muller plus a host of others, sons and daughters of the land who wrote brilliantly and are now reviewed by Charles Sarvan.
Then there are the essays and the sketches. I loved the one referring to the Indian plantation worker, a subject not so widely written about in Sri Lanka. Of course the 19th century Indian labour migrant went everywhere, to almost all the Asian Colonies of the Empire that shamelessly laid claims to own the world (sorry, my anger against colonialism gets the better of me.) The same migrant went to the darkest dungeons of the Dark Continent and even crossed the Atlantic to cut sugarcane in the vicinity of Port of Spain. The chapter on this semi-slave subject is well presented. Charles Sarvan’s take on this is valid and expressive in the best of written English where he details the insensitive human degradation of the so derogatorily named estate ‘coolie’; callous exploitation, commercial at root, inhumane in its means and tragic in its consequences.’ Some alarming statistics on the subject are mentioned where Sarvan quotes Carl Muller (page 72). These are facts that are hardly known to many of us who have scant knowledge of the squalid conditions these estate ‘coolies’ live in. Sarvan also adds in the same page a haunting verse from Velupillai lamenting the lot of the estate worker, his perpetual inheritance of misery from father to son to grandson which is constantly and continuously repeated, unfortunately unchanged.
The “Other Eden” by Richard de Zoysa is a worthy chapter. Those of you who are familiar with the tragic death of Richard would find Sarvan’s analysis of his poetry a transport to a time that we have almost forgotten. Reading Prof Sarvan’s take on the Zoysa poetry would make you want to read if not already read, or re-read if you had read. There is meaning and controversy and a whole lot more which makes the dividing lines too thin for me to separate. A posthumous publication has a sadness attached to it, especially when the death was under such sad circumstances. The chapter is more an appreciation than a review and I think the poet certainly deserves Sarvan’s articulated analysis and the additional words written on the man himself and how he died for what he believed.
Woolf’s characters parade the pages, Silindu and his twin daughters Punchi Menika and Hinnihamy come to sing their song of the ‘Village in the Jungle’ along with Babun, and Sarvan makes attempts to ask why the book did not reach the heights that it should have. He parallels Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ and Arundhati Roy’s ‘God of Small Things’ and compares it with the local ‘Baddegama’ and reaches a logical inference which makes it interesting reading for anyone familiar with contemporary literature. He then crabs into Shyam Selvadurai’s ‘Funny Boy’ to bring in the racial twist and it certainly is impartial literary commenting sans prejudice. Due credit is given to Minoli Salgado’s work and I too truly believe in the ‘sane and humanistic transcending that is needed to move beyond and come to terms with the ethnic differences.’ Reef by Romesh Gunasekara most certainly merits the praise and prominence Sarvan gives and the book richly deserves such.
The article, ‘Buddhism, Hinduism and the Conradian Darkness’ clean-bowled me. I remember reading Joseph Conrad and his excellent novel of the Congo River where he himself was a ship’s Captain in the tail-end of the 19th century. To appreciate what Sarvan has written, one must have read Conrad in the near past so that one would remember and recall to compare and to understand what the good professor is trying to say. I do not think any book store in Sri Lanka carries ‘Heart of Darkness’ or for that matter anything referring to King Leopold’s unparalleled and inhuman exploitation of the Congo. What I need to express here is that Sarvan’s book is a must for people who study the language and read English-related degrees in universities and are more familiar with the vast number of names and quotes that Sarvan expresses throughout his writing.
email@example.com. The book is available at Vijitha Yapa’s