Rathnashri Wijesinge, one of the most prominent lyricists and poets writing in Sinhala today is also an excellent prose writer and a stylist. He is a master of the genre, ‘short essay’. I sat down to write a short review of his new collection of essays, Mal Ahura ( Sarasavi Publishers, Nugegoda) but decided that the review can wait. Instead, I translated the opening essay of the book because it deserves to have a wider readership specially in these times of rethinking. The essay is about the experience that led Wijesinghe to write one of his songs about inter-ethnic relationships during the war. During the time described in the essay, Mr. Wijesinghe was a high-ranking government officer. His views of on human difference might appear to be needing a bit of sophistication and complexity, but the sprit in which the essay is written needs some hearty applauds. Needless to say that much is lost in translation – specially in the lyrics. But much of honesty in human heart can be communicated across languages, and that is reason enough for us to remain hopeful even these times of parochialism, bigotry and hate.
An Essay by Rathnashri Wijesinghe
By the Nindavur lagoon.
On the road to Oluvil
looks at me through
Her weary eyes,
You are the poem
that I cannot write
It was the time of war in the North and East. The new millennium was barely a year away. We were on the way to Oluvil and Samanthurai in the Eastern province on an official tour. Certain areas along that road were under the unofficial rule of the LTTE, and our trip was risky.
We were reaching Samanthurai passing a little township called “Malwattha.” Even though the weather was dry the landscape was really scenic. Small hills and planes were covered with drying grass. In that backdrop, I saw a beautiful scene one almost never finds in Sri Lanka:
A little girl walking with a herd of some three hundred goats. And they were grazing. The girl had a small stick in her hand. She must have been about twelve or thirteen. Unable to take my eyes off from this scene, I got the car stopped, stepped out and watched for a long while.
She was playful. She stopped once in a while and sang a song waving her stick in the air. I decided to talk to her but was not sure whether she would understand.
“What is your name?” I asked in Sinhala getting a bit closer to her. She seemed to have understood.
“Subharathi Menike” she answered. Pleasantly surprised, I talked to her again.
“Are you Sinhala or Tamil?”
She shook her head sideways as if to indicate that she did not know.
In fact, “Subharathi “ could be a Tamil term while “Menike” could be a derivate of “Manavika”- young woman. What I could not really comprehend i.e. the question ‘are you Sinhala or Tamil?’ seemed to have puzzled her, too.
As she told me in crystal clear Sinhala that her mother was a Tamil woman from Batticaloa. Father was a Sinhala from Aththiligoda, Galle. So, how could she tell me what she really was? Though we only chatted for a little while she opened a vista for me to reflect on further.
In fact, people began to group themselves separately based on the language they spoke. They mingled with the people who spoke the language they could understand. It is quite normal for them to distance themselves from the people who spoke unknown tongues. It was by following one’s chosen language that human beings acquired diverse cultural elements such as customs, beliefs, folklore and so on. Sometimes, this process ended up in a cultural supremacy that made people believe that they were noblest of humans. The error lies right there.
Professor Moshirul Hasan, the former vice chancellor of Jamili Millia Islamia University once said the following words about this division of human beings:
When they came here
With the civilization and guns
No one here had
A certificate to prove his birth
It was colonizers who began registering birth and issuing birth certificates. From that point on, the birth certificate began asking so many questions. Hindu? Islam? Buddhist? Sikh? Parsee? So and so forth. Yet, we cannot and must not go back to feudal times in order to prevent these divisions. But can the civilization be civilized than this? That is the question needs to be asked.
I reorganized the story Subharathi Menike told me on that day in to a lyric. Gunadasa Kapuge composed the music, and Janaka Wikramasinghe vocalized it. And this is that song:
On the day your village was
on the brink of burning
With the arrival of war
On your face had wilted
like a Gansuriya flower
Tell me the truth sister
You had tears in your eyes. Didn’t you?
Your father brought love from the South
Your mother cooked him Batticola rice
Darling, who are you?
I, the Sinhala man, don’t comprehend.