By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Earlier this year Punyakante Wijenaike published what she suggests would be her last book. I was immensely sad as I read it, for I remembered reading her first book, half a century ago. That was ‘The Third Woman’, a collection of short stories that I devoured. That was in Kurunagala, I remember, at the old house in which my grandmother had been born. The place, where a cow was brought in to be milked each morning, with the old tennis court going to seed at the front under a massive mara tree, the paddy fields stretching out at the back to infinite distances, suited that extraordinary book with its brilliant evocations of rural life.
I was just 9 then, and perhaps I did not understand everything, given the subtle sexual motivations of many of her protagonists. But I could appreciate the power of the stories, and the emotions of her characters, the mother-in-law seeing power pass from her, the elderly spinster with a lodger visited by a mysterious man who turned out to be her dead husband, and the character of the title, a young woman who married someone who had two wives already, who had got on very well, but were in turn murdered by the new entrant into the fold.
A few years later she wrote ‘Giraya’, still perhaps the most impressive work by a Sri Lankan writer living in this country. It is a compelling story of a feudal household falling to pieces, with a brilliant narrative voice, the poor girl married to the son of the house, who turns out to be homosexual and not in fact the son of his putative father. The mother is the strongest character in the book, her power symbolized by the giraya, wielded for her usually by an old and devoted servant. She was played superbly by Trilicia Gunawardena in the teledrama, though sadly Rupavahini left out the hints of lesbianism in the relationship of the two old women.
I did not know Punyakante then, but we became good friends when I became involved in the English Association of Sri Lanka and then worked in the British Council. One of my projects was to popularize Sri Lankan writing in English, and I think this would not have happened, had I not had magnificient support from my bosses at the British Council who encouraged regular programmes featuring the writers in the at least monthly special programmes I conducted, in addition to the weekly film and the quarterly tours we got out from London.
Punyakante went from strength to strength in those years. She produced an autobiography which made me understand to some extent at least how this child of a privileged background had come to empathize so successfully with people from backgrounds so very different from her own. She was the child of Justin Kotelawala, and grew up in the mansion that is now the Ministry of Higher Education, in a corner of which, in the mid-nineties, I ran the pre-University General English Language Training programme. She had a younger brother, Lalith, who became a financial moghul, and later caused misery to so many, when his Ceylinco group collapsed.
Though I believe Punyakante always got on well with her brother, the book reveals the trauma caused to a quiet girl by the arrival when she was growing up of a male sibling who immediately became the centre of attention. I suspect her understanding of loneliness and the anguish of outsiders owes much to this early experience.
By the time I knew her, she was a widow, her husband having died in 1975, as she movingly describes in the title story of her last book. The marriage seems to have been an extraordinarily happy one, which seems odd given the tension rid marriages of her three great novels, ‘Giraya’, ‘The Waiting Earth’ and ‘Amulet’, the last winning the Gratiaen Award for 1994. That was embarrassing, for the previous year, the first in which the award was given, we had asked her to be one of the judges. The next year ‘Amulet’ had strong competition, for the best of our other writers, Jean Arasanayagam and Anne Ranasinghe, both entered, but on balance ‘Amulet’ was the most impressive entry that year, and the charge of an insider job was mean and unwarranted.
But Punyakante had suffered the viciousness of our critics before. In the seventies she had been attacked by two university academics who could not understand her subtle characterization. They romanticized the passive wife of ‘The Waiting Earth’, as part of what I termed the ‘Village Well’ syndrome of our then academics who wanted rural romanticism. They treated James Gunawardena with similar contumely, and completely failed to highlight the brilliance of his social analysis in ‘The Awakening of Dr Kirthi and other stories’, which highlighted the malaise in our public system when perhaps the rot could have been stemmed.
Unlike James who, understandably but sadly, was embittered by this experience, Punyakante continued her tranquil self. She would regularly contribute short stories to the ‘New Lankan Review’ that I started in 1983, and also later to ‘Channels’, when we set up the English Writers Cooperative with British Council assistance in 1989. Her range expanded, and she dealt eloquently with terrorism, an old man forced to carry explosives in a handcart, youngsters forced into terrorism, soldiers looking positively with Tamils without being blinded by terrorist activity.
Her approach is free of sectarianism, and her natural sympathy for youngsters crossing chasms to be together informs these writings too. Unusually, some of these stories end happily, though in cases dealing with social barriers she is more pessimistic. The latest book contains several examples of this, but also deals with couples growing old together. One of the stories is strange and depressing, but the other has an unexpected but appropriate happy ending.
That is the last story in the book, and I would like to think Punyakante ends her writing career on a note of optimism. But I would also like to note another story, in which, as twice before, she deals with monks in a temple, wondering how to cope with the pressures of the world outside. This one is slight, but raises illuminatingly of how religion needs to adjust to changing social needs. This needs to be done sympathetically however, with understanding of how old practices die hard.
That theme was explored beautifully in what I used to think was her best short story, ‘Retreat’. But that was run close, if not superseded, by a beautiful study of a young monk, tempted by the free and intimate life of monkeys. The manner in which the Chief Priest sought to understand and guide him is a model for all those dealing with attitudes different from their own.
In the end what stands out in Punyakante’s work is empathy, keen understanding of what makes people act the way they do, and sympathy for their failings and needs. There can be no greater legacy for a writer.