By Elmo Jayawardena –
Sri Lanka: Literary Essays and Sketches- By Prof Charles Sarvan – A review
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 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 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 is now reviewed by Prof 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.) Then they 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. Professor Sarvan’s take on this is valid and expressive in the best of written English where he details the insensitive human degration 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 the many 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 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 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’ 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 who is familiar with contemporary literature. Shyam Selvadurai’s ‘Funny Boy’ brings in the racial twist to the reviews 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 of Romesh Gunasekara most certainly merits the praise and prominence Sarvan gives and the book richly deserves such. I am sure those who read Sarvan’s review of the Booker-shortlisted novel will undoubtedly go looking for ‘Reef’. They certainly should as it is such a wonderful read.
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. To appreciate what Sarvan has written one must have read Conrad and that too perhaps last week so that one could remember and recall to compare and understand what the good professor is trying to say. The book is out of circulation unless you are rich enough to reach for Amazon. We readers in Lanka barely make the ‘barefoot” and I do not think any book store in Sri Lanka carries ‘Heart of Darkness’ or for that matter anything to do with King Leopold’s unparalled and inhuman exploitation of the Congo. Mr Sarvan, thank you but no! That article was nice, but I read without knowing what you were trying to say as I simply do not have Conrad and Marlow at my finger tips.
Pradeep Jeganathan’s ‘The Front Row’ is the opposite. Krishna represents someone we know, the young caught in the web of racial disharmony. It is something we can relate to and understand and I certainly will find the book and read. Thanks Charles. Carl Muller’s ‘All God’s Children’ gets a review it richly deserves and the beautiful poetry on page 133 is Carl at his inimitable best. I read and re-read, just to digest and ponder.
Where do I go from here? Reading Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan’s Literary Essays and Sketches’ made me re-live some books I have read and incited a need to look for the ones I haven’t seen. His reviews certainly had that ability to ignite a curiosity. What I need to express here is that the book is more suitable for people who study the language and read English-related degrees in universities who are more familiar with the vast number of names and quotes that Sarvan expresses throughout his writing.
What is at his fingertips in the literary world, names, poems and books are mostly a Google for me, and my admittance is instant that the inadequacy is mine resulting from my callow exposure to the better halls of English. However, most of the readers who read for the pleasure of reading are my team-mates and they may find some parts of ‘Literary Essays and Sketches’ a peg higher to comprehend. Perhaps Prof Sarvan should consider a concession to us of the lower rung and shuffle a bit and deal us hands that are easy for us to comprehend. Yet, it is his choice and perhaps it may be hard for him to do so. Years of hobnobbing with the widely read and well informed scholars of English may not leave Prof Sarvan much room to manoeuvre in the narrow lanes of the ordinary. But manoeuvre he must if he needs to reach us and share his wealth and exposure of the literary world with people who are ardent appreciators of the English language and in no way educated experts of the subject.