Carl Muller Man of Letters
by Afdhel Aziz
Carl Muller is a very busy man indeed. Sri Lanka s premier man of letters is under contract to Penguin India to produce two books every year upto the year 2000. A stiff undertaking by any standards but one that he takes on with relish. This year sees the publication of Children of the Lion in July, an epic novel which does nothing less than rewrite the history of Sri Lanka for instance, did you know that the famed Elara was actually a Yemeni and not a Dravidian as is popularly thought? These and other astonishing nuggets are what Muller has patiently researched and will now display in the book and its planned sequels. For those of you who thought Muller was little more than a dirty old man whose stories involved drinking, fornicating and fighting, the book may come as a bit of a surprise. But for those who loved the stories of the Von Bloss family that he spun in such books as The Jam Fruit Tree , Yakkada Yakka and Once Upon a Tender Time , not to worry Spit and Polish , a book about the Von Blosses in the Navy is due in October as well to keep some of us entertained and some of us suitably outraged.
His house, just outside Kandy is comfortable but not opulent. A large mural of an Amazon rain forest decorates one wall painted surprisingly enough by Muller himself. It features exactly one hundred animals and I got bored with some of them so I painted the faces of politicians he says with an impish grin, pointing out a lemur and a tree sloth who do bear a striking resemblance to certain former members of the legislature. Muller s den is lined with books, books on medieval Sinhalese art, history, politics, Greek and Roman culture, architecture and also a good collection of little known works in English by Sri Lankan writers dating back over the last forty years. In the corner is a Canon word processor which looks like it dates back to the time Bill Gates was a glint in his daddy s eye. I m trying to raise some money so that I can buy a newer model and become more efficient, he says. Not that he wastes his time by dawdling away. He s up at around 3 or 4 in the morning writing, after which he tends his garden and his poultry (a good source of income, he says). He continues writing during the day, stopping to tutor the children of Kandy whether it s the kids of the neighbourhood or the sons and daughters of the cream of society, he makes no distinction. If they want help with their studies he gives it. It is just after the Sinhalese New Year and the continuous stream of visitors arriving with kavum, kokis and assorted sweetmeats bears testament to the respect he is afforded in the town. And he seems to be enjoying life thoroughly.
I have a damn good time, I lead a very happy life, I make my money the way I feel like it, for instance I edit a business newspaper for the Chamber of Commerce in Kandy, it s called the Business Voice . I also edit a children s newspaper the only English children s paper that comes out of Kandy, it s called the Beacon . The Business Voice from July, 2000 copies of it are going on Air Lanka flights all over the world, is one of the best edited business newspapers of this country, and I do it all alone. And the children s newspaper I edit is unique because it doesn t talk down to children in that condescending way most papers and pages do. He is also working on the history of Kandy, which he has decided to call Proud Heart . It is the heart of the country, it also has its own sense of pride as the last kingdom of the country. In fact, in my mind I have already decided how to start the book with the huge Buddha statue up on Bahirava Kanda and with it comes the legend of Bavandakanda the girl sacrificed to the demon etc. Kandy is a must I ve got to do it. Which is why I ve already assembled the reading I want. Sketch of the constitution of the Kandyan kingdom, Geoffrey Powell s Kandyan Wars . I ve taken in all the books I want, all the background that I want so that I don t make mistakes I can t afford to make mistakes when I m dealing with my country.
It all seems like very strait-laced stuff from a man who is better known for bawdy tales of licentiousness and depravation. But Muller, while not in the least apologetic about the subject matter he is infamous for, also wants to correct the misapprehension that he is merely a scribbler of scandals. These Burgher books didn t come out on my own will. I wrote to Penguin about a little book of short stories of animals that I had written. And Penguin writes back and says, Look thank you very much but we don t want it. Why don t you give us something like Michael Ondaatje . So it was Penguin that started this ball rolling.
So how does he handle the controversy? Listen, the truth of the books was that I celebrated the Burghers. I celebrated their weddings, their funerals, their Christmas feasts, everything. I wanted to show the life that was not being publicly shown to anybody; the real way the Burghers lived. The way they fornicated, the way they died. I did everything possible to show them that they were a unique culture, and people who could live together with everybody, which is why I said in The Jam Fruit Tree that while the other buggers are throwing bombs at each other, we Burghers are getting on without any problems. My life has been very crowded. These are all memories. Now what I m doing is drawing from life, I m drawing from experiences of my friends and all the people who knew me and they all have stories to tell. Sue me. No one has... yet. But if you want to sue me you have to have grounds. There are skeletons in every cupboard. It s not fair for me to rattle these skeletons about, but if they make a damn good story then why not?
We pause to have something to drink and he shows me some cushion covers that he sewed. That s right, cushion covers one s with palm trees and sunsets on them. Carl Muller is a man with strange angles to him. He has a wife and four kids who he loves dearly and he says that he writes because it is his duty to make sure they are financially stable when he dies. That s another thing, everyone thinks I am rolling in money. They don t realize the Government of India cuts thirty percent of my royalties in taxes for instance. Furthermore, they don t realize that I have not been a very healthy person I ingested some sulphur in my lungs and that still causes problems. And I am too old to get a job I think I must be the only person that you know of that lives full time by writing. I am writing all the time, hoping to do something with these books. Hoping that when Children of the Lion comes out in July as a Viking hardback, it s going to be good. Penguin is raving about it, they say that they are submitting it for the Commonwealth Writers prize. I m hoping to crack that it s a cheque for one and a half million rupees. And then what, I ask him, will you stop writing? He looks amazed for a moment, as if the thought had never occurred to him. No, I'll simply write more, he smiles.
A story teller like no other
Some love him and some hate him. He's been called a dirty old man and an eccentric artiste, I think he's both - and an incredible story teller. Many people have their own take on Carl Muller and the life he's led; this is mine.
By Kshanika Argent - Sunday Leader Sep 23 2007
Meeting Carl Muller is not easy. He has no phone, fax machine, email or any speedy way of contact.
"People just don't write anymore and if anyone is that interested in keeping in touch with me, they'll write me," Muller says stubbornly.
Muller greeted me with a warm and friendly welcome, like a long lost pal.
We sit down in his small but comfy living room. Muller has drafts of upcoming books lying on his coffee table which he's been commissioned by various publishers to produce including The Elizabethians, Volume 2 and Read Me In Silence - a collection of short stories.
He starts with his childhood. It wasn't a happy one. He recalls, "My mother was nothing more than a child bearing machine. She married my father, who was an engine driver at the railways, when she was just 17. My father was a rough-and-tough kind of man who never had any time for the family and lived for the day. He drank like a fish and beat me like hell and I think he resented everything about the family and he hated me especially!"
Never belonged at home
The eldest of 13 children, Muller said he never felt he belonged at home and had to make his way outside the family, coming home late only for meals and sleep. But he didn't back down from the abuse stating that at 17 he told them to stuff it where the "sun don't shine" and left home. He paid for that little flare-up with a fractured rib.
Leaving home, Muller stayed with friends and when the call up came he signed up for the navy and was shipped off to the far-east and India. "Back then I think the navy had a policy that trouble makers should be kept as far away from land as possible, but I got to travel, it was a wonderful time," he recalled.
Sometime later his father retired and didn't have enough money to feed the rest of the family. "I earned Rs. 52 and I used to send home Rs. 50, leaving me with little which meant having to go around borrowing cigarettes!"
Woes of cigarettes aside, Muller had to return home. Apart from his father being a tyrant, there were the scandals. Muller learned that his mother was having affairs which led to more outbursts. The family soon realised the only way peace could be achieved was to keep Muller as far away as possible.
Subsequently, Muller's parents left to England with his brothers and sisters, leaving him behind to find his own way again.
Going back to that period Muller said he realised the only way he was going to get anywhere was to educate himself, and that he did, by reading anything and everything that came his way.
After the navy, Muller moved on to journalism. He worked for various newspapers as everything from a reporter to a sub editor and a cartoonist.
Soon after, he married Sortain, his wife of 37 years and left the country to work at newspapers in Bahrain, Dubai, Oman and Qatar. I asked Muller what inspired him to write The Jam Fruit Tree. He said it was Penguin that started it when they rejected a manuscript about animals he sent them and instead asked for "something like Michael Ondaatje."
Minorities in Sri Lanka
According to Muller there was a growing interest about the minorities in Sri Lanka after the release of Michael Ondaatje's Running In The Family but no one had portrayed the different classes of Burghers which Muller attempted with The Jam Fruit Tree, Once Upon A Tender Time and Spit And Polish.
"I thought to myself, I'll put 'em on record, all of 'em!" referring to his parents and siblings. It was, he said, a strike back at a family that abandoned him.
And so began the story of The Jam Fruit Tree, which portrays the way of life of the Burghers with his dysfunctional family as the cast. Reminiscing, he said that Sonna Boy was his father and Kala Boy was himself, the surnames were changed slightly but events pretty much the same. The parents, brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts were all mentioned and this didn't do anything to boost his popularity among them.
Celebrated the Burghers
When The Jam Fruit Tree was released it caused outrage among many, apart from his family, who believed Muller did little more than write stories that involved drinking, fornicating and fighting.
But Muller is not in the least apologetic about the subject matter he is famous for, and said the truth of these books was that he celebrated the Burghers and their way of life. He tried to show the real way the Burghers lived and did everything possible to show that they were a unique culture, and people who could live together with anybody.
He doesn't worry himself with illness (which is pretty grave) and says, "I spend my time writing. I can make people laugh or cry by using the smallest incident and spinning a story around it."
He's played many roles in his life. A husband and father, journalist, poet and author, and even a teacher, though he said it was a terrible grind, much like running a dental clinic. "Once I'd be done with one student I'd yell 'next' for the other, and it took so much out of me."
"May be I write rubbish"
We take a walk through his library of over 6,000 books. Everything from ancient Indian literature to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code can be found here. He said "I was kicked out of three schools, and never had any respect for anyone. But I read and it's the one thing I insisted on my children."
Does he sometimes wonder if things would've been different if he had gone to England? "Maybe my career would've been better and I would've had better opportunities, who knows? But I made it here, with what I had. If anyone asked me if I'm a good man or a bad man, I'd say I'm both. You have to say things the way you want, or say nothing at all. Someone once told me I write rubbish, and I said to that person, yes maybe I do write rubbish. The problem with people is their masks. I don't see why anyone needs to wear one, when they can be themselves," said Muller.
Muller has come a long way, and it looks like he's got a long way ahead of him, old and ill as he is. Even with the start he had, there doesn't seem to be a trace of regret in his twinkling eyes, but the promise of more stories to come.