By W.A Wijewardena –
Two messages from Sannasgala’s ‘Amma’
Upul Shantha Sannasgala, popular Sinhala teacher cum writer, in his latest semi-autobiographical fiction, ‘Amma’ or ‘Mother,’ has left two pieces of thought for intellectuals to ponder. One is that real village and its economy are far from what is being depicted in popular songs, creative art or national level numbers. The other is that village youth can no longer rely on education to rise in the social hierarchical ladder – called social mobility – as their previous generations had done.
The fearless critic
Sannasgala is known as a fearless critic of the prevailing social, economic and artistic order. He does not mince words and is not restrained by social and cultural taboos when he has to express his free opinion on any matter. For this extraordinary independence of thought and expression, he is hated by many and loved only by a few.
Just one example of his critical approach to issues: In a public seminar on Asoka Handagama’s movie ‘Iniavan’ held in 2013, Sannasgala had identified two parallels relating to post-war Sri Lanka, the theme of the movie. One was between present Sri Lanka and Lanka six centuries ago during the reign of Parakramabahu the Sixth in the Kotte Period. The other was between present Sri Lanka and post-war Germany as depicted by Bertolt Brecht in his play ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ adapted to Sinhala stage by Henry Jayasena as Hunuwataye Kathawa. According to Sannasgala, the two situations have been exactly identical with what had been portrayed in Handagama’s movie and portend an ominous future for the country.
It is a rebellious interpretation of the movie which allows intelligent readers to make so many predictions on Sri Lanka’s future. He had concluded his speech by quoting Brecht: “Judges are always thieves; this time a thief has become the judge” implying a contemporary relevance (A review of Iniavan from a social, economic and political point by this writer is available here )
Sannasgala’s speech at the seminar;
With Mother’s help, even the unfit can survive
Following his rebellious tradition, Sannasgala has produced another such rebellious work in his new fiction ‘Mother’. The reader is led to believe that it is his life-story that is described in ‘Mother’ but it is not so. He has liberally drawn on his unpleasant experiences as a child and a youngster in a post-independence village in Sri Lanka. Yet, it is not a one-for-one autobiography. At most, it is ‘facts converted into fiction’ displaying the features of a semi-autobiography.
The story is wound around a woman in Haputale area where life had been a real drudgery for poor women in remote mountainous villages. This woman, having been married to a ‘drunkard, wife-beating, petty-thief-type, good-for-nothing man,’ has given birth to nearly a dozen of children. She does not treat all her children equally: some are favoured, some are hated and some are just ignored. Thus, Sannasgala’s ‘Mother’ defies the role-model mother living in popular beliefs.
The story is told by her last-born son or ‘Bada Pissa’ who is feeble, disabled and sick. It is a miracle that this little boy had survived and not died at his infancy. He is not born with any of the desired configurations that guarantee the survival of a child. His life is full of hardships, unquenched hunger and replete with family support. Except for Mother’s care, he is like a tree by the side of the road exposed to all natural hazards.
It is well known that in Afghanistan, a child who lives his first five years will not die early because he has been immune to every type of human misery that would kill him in later life. Thus, a surviving child in Afghanistan proves ‘the survival of the fittest’ law coined by the 19th century naturalist Herbert Spencer as an extension of Charles Darwin’s principle of ‘natural selection’. The story-teller in Mother too has vindicated Herbert Spencer. That is not by being the fittest or even a fitful child. He has survived because his mother had converted him to a ‘fit boy’. She had done so not by making him physically fit but by making him mentally strong.
Building independence and self-confidence a must
How did Mother make this disabled child into a fit boy? That was by making him independent right from the beginning and inculcating self-confidence in him. He was made to grow as an achiever in life from a very early age.
Mother trained him in toilet habits when he was just three years old. She showed him which hand should be used for that purpose and which hand should be used for eating rice. Like toilet habits, he was trained in eating habits too. There was no necessity for Mother or anyone else to feed him. When he was given ‘what was called foods,’ he had to eat them by himself. Similarly, there was no necessity for an adult to escort him to school. He along with elder sisters and other boys in the neighbourhood trod to school through the winding roads around hills. He had to learn to overcome all the risks that may challenge him while travelling to school and return.
Mother also pacified him by reciting poems which were similar to lullabies. These poems always branded him as a hero. According to one poem, he had been given to her as a gift by Gods. She constantly puts into his head that he would learn well to become an educated man one day. Then, he would buy her all the jewelleries which she had missed in her life.
Learning by doing
One day, when Mother was cooking in darkness in the smoke-filled kitchenette, moonlight that had peeped through the holes in the tin-roof above had created a design of glowing stars on the cow-dung-smeared floor. The boy had been bored to the bone and yawning. Realising that he would fall asleep without eating his meagre meal, Mother had designed an extraordinary game for him. She had given him a piece of charcoal and asked him to draw circles around the glowing stars.
The boy who could not walk did so moving his body by sliding haunches. But, it taught him an important lesson. That lesson was that the moon was not stationary in one place because the glowing stars had moved away after he had drawn around them. In this way, the unfit rickety boy became a fit boy through self-learning. He not only survived but also succeeded in life surprising all those around him.
If mothers mother and not smother, societies can become achieving societies
This is exactly what Harvard University Psychologist David C. McClelland described as preconditions for someone to be an achiever in life in his 1961 book ‘The Achieving Society’. McClelland who had studied different societies in history had found that mothers and grandmothers had to play an important role in inculcating the need for achievement which he called n-Ach in young boys and girls.
One thing was that they had to be made independent and self-supporting from a very early age. To attain this, mothers should mother children and not smother them. Smothering means mothers do everything for children including their homework. Mothering means children are allowed to explore the world by themselves and learn to be self-reliant.
The other was that mothers and grandmothers narrate heroic stories to children so that they themselves seek to adopt those heroes as their role-models. According to McClelland, societies that train their children in this manner will become achieving societies. One example was the old Greek and Roman civilisations. Families which follow this rule will produce young members with a high n-Ach in them and become achievers in later life. Mother in Sannasgala’s ‘Mother,’ though illiterate, had exactly followed those mothers in ancient Greek and Roman civilisations.
For a mother, even the ugliest child is a gem
Fulfilling the Mother’s dream, the feeble and disabled little boy, a write-off according to Father and should have been dumped at an orphanage, does his studies well in the primary school and sits for the Grade 5 Scholarship Examination. Teachers conduct for them free extra classes after school.
‘The hungry little boy with a running nose’, like the little boy in Elvis Presley’s song In the Ghetto (available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Ox1Tore9nw) ‘attends the extra classes while his hunger burns’. He is abused, kicked and pinched by an elder brother who does not like him learning. Father calls him an idiot not capable of learning and ignores him. But Mother protects him from all these mishaps from the family and constantly pushes him forward. He passes the exam and goes to the school in the town for further studies.
Being poor among the rich and the powerful
This is where poverty hits him at its worst. He is a non-entity among other rich boys and girls. But the well-intentioned school principal, together with a few other teachers who were recent pass-outs from the University, pushes him forward. He is nominated for the post of school prefect on his academic excellence. But, teachers from his locality object on the ground that his father was a petty-thief and his elder brothers were drunkards.
However, Mother is confident that he would become the prefect. On the day of the selection, she prepares a special milk-rice for breakfast to convey her exhilarated feelings. Despite the objections by some teachers, the Principal somehow sees that he is selected as the prefect of the school. He rushes back to his home to break the good news to Mother.
Relating to this, Sannasgala has created a dramatic event which portrays the true nature of life in villages. He finds no one in the house but his father, with eyes as red as the crown of a cock due to a bout of illicit alcohol he had taken, digging a hole inside the house. He runs away in fear. One of his elder sisters who had been hiding behind a coffee bush beckons to him. He is told that Father was digging the hole inside the house to bury Mother who had been badly beaten and is lying unconscious nearby. Mother suddenly gains consciousness but does not show any concern about her pitiful state. The first thing that comes to her shivery lips is whether her rickety Bada Pissa was alright.
The long-wait for undelivered jewellery
Then starts a life for Mother and a few other children including the story-teller to roam from house to house and live on foods begged from neighbours. Yet, the little one continues his studies, moves to Colombo and becomes a successful tuition master. At this time, he leaves his Mother who continues to live in the village waiting until her educated son returns with a lot of jewellery for her to wear. That day never comes and son goes back to village only when Mother has died of old age.
The son repents for his failure to look after Mother when he was a well-to-do man with a luxurious house, high position in society and a loving family. So, a mother is born, a mother lives and a mother dies. Though Sannasgala has not said so in his fiction, perhaps in another family, a mother would have given birth to another feeble child whose future would be uncertain at that time. Perhaps, there could be thousands of mothers who may have given birth to such children with no future for them.
Interested in social mobility? Then, escape from village
The story-teller in Sannasgala’s ‘Mother’ has succeeded in life through education. He finally moves up the social ladder and becomes successful at social mobility. He has done so by moving away from the village, moving away from Mother, and moving away from the loved ones there. He leaves all of them behind in order to seek success in his life.
Why should he leave the village to attain success? That is because he does not have opportunities in the village. Had he remained there, he would have ended as yet another boy in the village who would have just followed his father’s career. Or someone who has fallen off a tree and become permanently disabled as has happened to the story-teller’s buddy who was to sit for the scholarship exam with him.
There is no social mobility for those who remain in the village even when they have belonged to the upper echelon in the village. Even the children of such families could do better than their parents only if they have moved out. So, when one looks at the village life through the eyes of a worm as has been done by Sannasgala, the life in the village is totally different from what is being portrayed.
Many believe village life to be serene, contributory to spiritual advancement and free from worries. They condemn city life mainly on those counts. Yet, throughout history, there has been internal migration of people from villages to cities in order to advance their career or living. It is only those who have left the village as the story-teller in Sannasgala’s ‘Mother’ would know the real life in villages.
The unfortunate future generations
The first generation of Sri Lankans who moved from the village to Colombo in the modern era had settled down in the heart of the city. They consisted of successful businessmen, professionals and senior public servants. Belonging to the upper class, they led the nation economically, socially and politically. However, the second generation that has left the village for the city, like the one belonging to the story-teller in ‘Mother,’ has not been that fortunate. They have settled down in sprawling satellite towns around Colombo located in the belt consisting of Moratuwa, Kesbewa, Maharagama, Kottawa, Homagama, Kaduwela, Kiribathgoda and Ja-Ela.
This generation, according to Sannasgala, is fiercely nationalistic, anti-Western and pro-religious to a fault. It is this belt which has become the hotspot of the country as has shown by the leadership they have taken in the recent spate of ethnic and political violence. The third generation that will move to the city will be least fortunate since they cannot afford to own even a plot of land in this belt. They have to move further to the interior or remain in villages.
They are handicapped on another count. That is, education does no longer serve them as a vehicle to escape village and attain social mobility. Since career positions are increasingly allocated according to political patronage and not according to educational attainments, they can escape the village life but will not be able to attain social mobility by doing better than their fathers. Thus, the only escape for them is to leave the country in order to build a new life in a greener pasture.
A worm’s eye view of society
Sannasgala’s ‘Mother’ is not the history of a mother. Nor is it the history of a person who has escaped the village in order to seek social mobility. It is the worm’s eye view of Sri Lanka’s current political, economic and social landscape. A person with a bird’s eye cannot see the detailed picture which it has painted. Since Sannasgala has lived that life in the same way as the story-teller in his ‘Mother’ has done, his ‘Chinthana’ is guided by this worm’s eye view of society. That is the bitter truth but many may not like this frank exposition of villages and life in them.
*W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, could be reached at email@example.com