Martin Wickramasinghe: The critic and the man

Some of the most unexpected insights come at the most unexpected moments. Just the other day, foraging through piles of books at Tisara Prakashakayo, I, who was there with a friend of mine, came across an old edition of Martin Wickramasinghe’s English essays. It was actually a volume of seven collections, including Aspects of Sinhalese Culture, Sinhala Language and Culture, and The Mysticism of Lawrence.

My friend, Indunil, was confused. It didn’t take long to realise he was thinking it was a set of translations of Wickramasinghe’s Sinhala works.

“He didn’t limit himself to Sinhala,” I pointed out, “He wrote over 2,500 essays and many of them were in English.”

My friend wasn’t convinced. “How?” he mouthed, skeptically.

The answer was obvious, but not to someone his age. Martin Wickramasinghe was self-educated. One of the first sketches about the man I went through was an essay we had to read in class, in Grade Eight, before we got started on that year’s prescribed text, Madol Doowa. I remember the author of this sketch (our Sinhala teacher) laying down the trials the man had to undergo and the difficult choices he had to make in his teenage years. “I had to send money back home to my ailing mother. I also had to quench my thirst for books. So I spent on them. In later years, I came to regret that I did not send enough money to the woman who had raised me.”

It’s difficult for someone today to understand how such a person could become so bilingual. Regi Siriwardena, another self-educated polyglot, would confess again and again that he obtained much of his pre-university education at the Colombo Public Library. Regi, of course, was not as able in Sinhala as he was in English. But the point remains that both sought refuge in books. They mastered a language, if not an entire culture, through books. Not impossible to do now, but (paradoxically, despite the rise of social media and the DIY culture) harder than it used to be then.

The death of the bilingual author has been lamented, again and again, in every possible way. Professor Ashley Halpe once remarked that very few of his students had read Viragaya. Sometimes this “death” has been accompanied by the passing away of intellectual courage; it led Liyanage Amarakeerti, in an otherwise harsh critique of the man, to observe that the local English speaking NGO intelligentsia never produced a thinker of the stature of Gunadasa Amarasekara.

I’d like to think that such lamentations are really tributes to a generation that has either gone away or is going away, and fast. They are not. Today’s ideal of a bilingual writer would be someone like Shehan Karunatilaka, but Shehan does not write in Sinhala (Chinaman had to be translated by the nondescript Dileepa Abeysekara). On the other hand, the likes of Upul Shantha Sannasgala and Kathleen Jayawardena have to rely on those whose first language is English to get their works across. Sometimes it becomes difficult for translators to penetrate into the culture because that culture is outside his milieu. But that’s another story.

The ideal of the bilingual writer was, long ago, Martin Wickramasinghe. While most students are aware of and have read his novels (all10 of them), they still seem to be ignorant of his critical essays. Except for texts like Upan Da Sita and Sinhala Sahithye Nageema, very few seem to have bothered reading his pieces on the language, culture, Buddhism, even politics. In Sri Lanka such writers tend to get immortalised after their deaths, ironically by those who have read precious little of them.

The evolution of Martin Wickramasinghe’s thinking represents, for me, an inscrutable paradox: how do we approach such an enigmatic figure? I am not qualified enough as a critic to pretend that I know how, but as an avid reader of Wickramasinghe, I feel it is time we all tried to rescue him from simplifications and eulogies.

Martin Wickramasinghe remained, until his end, a firm believer in the malleability of our (Sinhala Buddhist) culture. That was his grund norm. When he went beyond most literary critics and dared to elevate Vidagama Maithri and Wattave hamuduruwo over Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula and Valmiki, he was consciously or otherwise following the impulses of a tradition that had met its apogee in the high culture/low culture distinctions made by F. R. Leavis.

Leavis had claimed for Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Joseph Conrad a high position that, Regi Siriwardena argued, was erroneous in its assumptions of what a literary tradition entailed. Wickramasinghe was different. In Sinhala Sahithye Nageema the man derided the secularisation of literature that began in the 13th century. So determined was he to prove that this stunted the flowering of a Sinhala culture that in the sixties he was criticising nationalist monks for “imbibing” Sanskrit culture, and scholars for mindlessly translating science terms into “chaste” Sanskrit. For him, the monks who held a protest fast at S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s residence demanding that he renege on his pact with Chelvanayakam “treat[ed] the common man’s spoken Sinhalese as a vulgar language.” He was critical of attempts made by misguided nationalists to stall Bandaranaike’s efforts at giving “the rightful place to the Tamil language.”

In this, Wickramasinghe was political, apolitical, or anti-political depending on how one views his actions. Like Rabindranath Tagore condemning Gandhi for what he saw as the latter’s retrogressive ideals (he supported the caste system, and affirmed the taboo against Dalits), Wickramasinghe was as opposed to “the pet dogs pampered by the English-educated upper class” as he was to revivalists “encouraging the uprooted scholars who were Sanskritising scientific and official English terms.” The only difference, of course, is that Wickramasinghe came from altogether different circumstances from Tagore’s.

He was not, to put it simply then, “against” Western culture; unlike Gandhi, he would not have ridiculed Western civilisation as “a very good idea”, since he was too aware of how it had pervaded Sinhala Buddhist culture to try, as Piyadasa Sirisena tried in the preceding century, to weed it out from the public cultural sphere altogether.

The image we have of the man is, very naturally and as expected, thus multifaceted and complex. But if his unwavering belief in the worth of cultural adaptation turned him into a relentless champion of home-grown nationalist movements, in later years it made him a radical who was not dismissive but really contemptuous of those same movements. Munidasa Cumaratunga and the Hela Havula faced the same problem, but they came up with a solution: they combated the then dominant Aryan reconstruction of Sinhala history by conjuring a mythical pre-Vijayan civilisation.

Wickramasinghe had neither the time nor the inclination to resort to such idealisations; he dismissed both Valmiki’s Rama-ist and the Hela Havula’s Ravana-ist interpretations of the Ramayana. For him, a culture should be obtained by contact with people; that was where the Sidat Sangarava and Wilhelm Geiger’s Grammar of the Sinhala Language had failed, given that both rationalised the Sinhala grammar in terms of Sanskrit poetics. In the same breath with which he criticised these, he also criticised romantics who idealised Hela Sinhala, though he wrote in support of Cumaratunga’s efforts at bringing the language closer to the people.

Where Wickramasinghe differed from Cumaratunga was his valorisation of the Buddhist tradition. As scholars have noted, there was nothing exclusively “Buddhist” about Cumaratunga’s efforts at reviving the Sinhala language: it was open to Sinhala people, and not Sinhala Buddhist people only (the Hela Havula had among its ranks, to give two examples, Sunil Shantha and Father Marcelline Jayakody).

Wickramasinghe’s vision for his culture, on the other hand, was conditioned by an emotional approach to Buddhism that had flourished prior to the 14th century; it was a Buddhism free of the intellectual obfuscations of the Abidhamma, a Buddhism critical of monks who sought to keep knowledge from people. In that sense, Bhavatharanaya, far from insulting the Buddha figure, reflected his distrust of those who had mystified his teachings — a point I shall return to later on, in a later essay.

The writer can be reached at

Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.

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