Premanishansa– a Sarasavi publication by Chandrarathna Bandara was awarded the best novel both at ‘Vidoyodaya Literary Awards’ and ‘SwarnapusthakaAwards’ this year – 2022. ‘Vidyodaya Literary Awards’, organized by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, carries the zest and zeal of academia. ‘Swarnapusthaka’ is awarded by the Sri Lanka Book Publishers’ Association. While both these awards are considered prestigious and unbiased, any evaluation, analysis and interpretation of literary work is subjected to the worldview, knowledge, experience, intellectuality, ideological and conceptual orientations of the evaluators. Thus, any interpretation of a literary work should be considered subjective and limited because the ways in which such a work could be looked at is infinite as the post-modernists rightfully postulated.
For ‘Vidyodaya Literary Awards’, about 120 novels were received this year for evaluation and among them five were short listed by a team of evaluators consisted of the academics of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. The short list – Nakulamuni by Eric Illayapparachchi, Premanishansha by Chandrarathan Bandara, Sandyanandaya by Keerthi Welisarage, Mage Chicago Hadawatha by Shamel Jayakody and Hindosmale by SepaliMayadunne was announced theend of August and the awards ceremony was held on the 1st September 2022 at the Sri Sumangla Saba Sadmaya of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura.
‘Vidyodaya Literary Awards’ was introduced by the Emeritus Professor Sunil Ariyarathne in 1999 recognizing the need for an alternative awards ceremony for literary works published in Sinhala which would be free of the pressures and biases of the state or any other power structures. Therefore, it is customary for the ‘Vidyodaya Literary Awards’ to be held as the first awards ceremony of the literary month – September and also for the evaluators to be publicly accountable for their decisions. Awards are presented for short stories, poetry, publication of lyrics, publication of collections of newspaper columns and an academic publication. The following is a write-up of my thoughts on Premanishansaas the chief evaluator for novels at the ‘Vidyodaya Literary Awards 2022’ and I must admit at the forefront that I am no authority on the subject but an avid reader.
Any work of art, especially literature serves a purpose, and most often, it is a conscious, well thought-through decision of the author. The deliberation behind this decision matters, but even if it is not intentionally curated, art always entails purpose – as it often transcends the mere existence of the work both literally and metaphorically. Among the numerous philosophical and intellectual discourses contemplating the ‘purpose’ of art, specifically fiction, a leading notion is that its ultimate purpose is to contribute to the ‘greater good’ of human existence. Achieving this goal is by no means a simple task and it may die a natural death at infancy if the work fails to grasp and sustain the attention of the reader from beginning to end. Simply, if the work does not interest the reader, he/she would not persist to read it in its entirety, failing its purpose before it is even understood. Hence, it is vital that the work is able to tap into the emotional dimensions of heterogeneous readers to secure interest from the get-go. Premanishansa opens with this accomplishment – it is able to capture and then sustain the attention of the reader throughout, hence initiating an assured journey of success.
One would easily get submerged in its poetic yet simple language at the beginning and then deeply enmeshed in the love story of Sayuru and Niru– the protagonists of the novel. Superficially, at the most evident level, it is a story of deep love and affection – a love that transcends all social, religious, ethnic and cultural boundaries and finds its own course. Niru being a granddaughter of Ananda Coomaraswamy carries the legacy of her prestige, wealth, intellectuality, spirituality and liberal thinking and in contrast to her, Sayuru being a grandson of a wealthy businessman whose wealth had initially come from dealing alcohol carries the shame of that legacy with him while also enjoying the benefits of his financial situation. This shame, however, seems to have lurked into the inner psyche of Sayuru at a later stage in his life specifically after entering into a relationship with Niru. His father’s attempts to mold the legacy further by becoming the chief patriot of a temple that he runs with his money, thereby re-modelling the family values. This, however, makes Sayuru more compelled to purify and cleanse himself away from his family legacy which in his reading, is a fabricated lie. In withdrawing from his family and its values, he further clings on to Niru, where he constantly tries to be the cultural ideal that he sees in his idol Niru. Coming from such contrasting backgrounds, falling in love and consummating that union out of wedlock symbolizes how love defies all socio-cultural, superficially religious and ethnic boundaries.
On another level, one would see that this story is a representation of the tragic fall of values, humaneness, and cultured behavior of a post independent Sri Lankan society which is heavily entangled in individual material success and social recognition that it loses sight of the common greater good that needs to be extended towards the nation. Each individual is too consumed by his or her personal/individual ‘success’ that each of us seem to be blindsided to how we have conveniently disregarded our duties to the nation. From simplest personal decisions to the most important and significant choices such as:who we should vote for or what our contributions can be to improve the country (such as the value structure we choose for our country), all have been made based on selfish, petty reasons. Thus, as a country, in most areas, we seem to have failed – especially in terms of establishing a steady system of governance. Despite the sophisticated social, political, legal, and religious structures we have in place – mostly established by the colonizers, it is obvious that we as a nation have not chosen the right kind of value structure. Hence, Premanishansais the story that emphasizes the gap that has to be filled in order for us to succeed as a country.
Simultaneous to the love story and the socio-political commentary in the story in Premanishansa, one may also find the struggle for the search of identity especially in Sayuru who is caught up in a perplexed juncture in life where he is compelled to enjoy the socio-political and especially economic privileges of his legacy but is ashamed of his roots. With her intellectuality, beauty, compassion, spirituality and most importantly, love- Niru seems to invoke a sense of shame in Sayuru unintentionally. Following the age-old tale where the woman transforms the beast into a beauty – Premanishansa too entrusts the woman with the task of taming the wild. However, treading deeper into this concept of identity, the writer makes Sayuru’s mission more complex – not only does he admire Niru, he seems to aspire to become Niru altogether – a person who is culturally more dignified, accepted, inclusive yet liberal. She also seems spiritually purer and more compassionate yet not confined to the narrow margins of religious labels or its propagandist agenda. Sayuru gets entangled between his desired identity (the one that Niru proposes) and the identity that he is compelled to represent as an heir to his father’s ‘kingdom’ by becoming the carrier of the sacred ‘Dathu’ (relics) in the glamourous procession of the temple.The temple that enables his father to cement his social standing as the wealthy ‘Sinhala Buddhist protector’ of the religion of the state. Search of identity is not only related to Sayuru but also to Niru who is portrayed as almost the ideal or supreme woman. She seems to be quite sure who she is but at the same time it is visible that she is in search of filling a void in her life as well. Until the very end of the story the readers do not get to unveil this vacuum that she attempts to fill in. Nevertheless, at the face of utter despair, loss and frustration that Sayuru and Niru experience at the end of the story, they seem to have found what they have been looking for.
However, for me personally, the most important and the deepest level of this story is its foundational value structure that holds it solidly on the basis of all religions – which is love itself. Premanishansais the ultimate story of love and love is the basis of all value structures that most religions have created. The main purpose of any religion is to help people navigate the difficulties of life, to help them find answers to the most important questions in life such as searching for the true meaning of life, deathand love. Even though the story traverses mostly on the Asian religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, when it comes to the main premise on which Premanishansais developed and created, it is very clear that it is the Western Christian value structure that has solidified its grounding. The kind of deep love and compassion that we as a country need, to right the wrongs that we have continued for generations, is the kind of love that Premanishansaproposes. Even if we disregard the foundational metaphysical element of Abrahamic religions such as its faith on the existence of God, we could still agree that the basic structures of values which were created based on the conceptualization of God have had an unquestionably significant impact on bringing the civilization to what it is today. Especially the idea that all human beings are equal in terms of their intrinsic value, seems to have stemmed from the Christian belief that man was created in the image of God. This conceptualization has given birth to some of the most supreme social structures and legal systems and systems of governance ever created. What we witness in Premanishansa is a call back to this basic value structure. It invites us to look at human beings with love, dignity and compassion and pushes us to face the truth of our own lives in terms of our emotions. Life begins when we face the truth of our life and that is not always the most convenient choice to make. Being true to your emotions is to embark on a challenging endeavor and it is the adventure of life. When that does not happen, we merely live a lie – a life that is not yours – a life that is not your adventure but somebody else’s.
We as a society, especially as a country are going through a paradigm shift, and if we do not navigate this critical juncture with utmost care, we may fall into an eternal abyss. We have come to a position in history where we need to make conscious, deliberate choices as to what values we need to uphold and embrace because at the bottom of all social, cultural, political, legal, and economic structures lie values such as love, trust, compassion, equality, and dignity. Likewise, this juncture we are at right now is very crucial and decisive as it is the paradoxes in life that forces us to consider the alternatives which we may otherwise ignore under normal circumstances. For example, the deepest form of love would be sacrificial, the ability to let go and not to possess and the deepest form of trust would always dwell on doubt. Lord Buddha had to be born a prince and had to give up all worldly pleasures and comforts to attain enlightenment. In Christianity Jesus had to go through the worst possible way of death to teach his disciples the deepest form of love. This art of letting go and the ultimate test of choice faced by intellect and fool alike arefaced by Sayuru and Niru as well. As they go through a wide spectrum of deep human emotions both positive and negative, their journey pushes them to a wall – a stop where they are forced to contemplate and make decisions and judgements based on their values. Towards the end of the book the couple is compelled to face the truth of the consequences of their love (the word premanishansaliterally means this) and facing the truth, through a philosophical viewpoint is to encounter the meaning of life. To face truth is to belong to your own being as mentioned above. The physical, psychological, cultural, and spiritual agony and bliss Sayuru and Niru encounter is their adventure and their life. Thus, the decisions they make and values they embrace will design their destiny and we have to do so too as a country before we fall deeper,and it is too late.