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Today is the 112th Birth Anniversary of Martin Wickramasinghe ;

The shrine rock

by Tissa Abeysekera

In 1944, less than a year before the Second World War ended, a novel was published that was to change the course of Sinhala fiction forever. It opens with a passage evoking an unmistakable sense of time and place.

"The village of Koggala occupies a long stretch of land bounded on one side by the sea, and on the other by a wide river of enchanting beauty, the Koggala Oya. A smooth black ribbon of road linking the Southern towns of Galle and Matara separates the village from the sea. The verandahs of the houses bordering the road face the seafront, which is itself like a long verandah running the length of the village. The railroad extends as far as eye can reach, like an endless stepladder with no beginning and no end. The rail track is on an embankment, a few feet above ground level. The scooping of earth to raise the embankment many years ago has left long ditches on either side. Some of the ditches, fed with water from nearby culverts, have become little ponds, abounding in water lilies, lotuses and little fish."

The passage is from Martin Wickramasinghe's Gamperaliya, a novel that has become a seminal work and a point of reference in the evolution of contemporary Sinhala fiction. It is also a book, which sits firmly at the centre of the entire body of Martin Wickramasinghe's writings, both creative and critical.

Wickramasinghe's portrayal of the maritime village of the mid-South invites an easy comparison with the Malgudi of his Indian counterpart, R K Narayan.

But Malgudi is fictitious, woven into a compelling tapestry by the rich and varied elements culled from typical South Indian habitats. Wickramasinghe's Koggala on the other hand, is a real place, which though vastly transformed, still exists. In the realm of fiction it shares the map with Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha, Steinbeck's Salinas Valley and Hemingway's Big Two-Hearted River.

In a beautifully written autobiography completed in the evening of his life - an evening that fortunately endured for 15 fruitful years - Wickramasinghe recaptures the life and landscapes of his beloved Koggala. Koggala was Wickramasinghe's universe, the 'slice of life presented for the serene joy and emotion of the common people', the postscript with which he concludes Gamperaliya.

Beginning with one of the most unspoiled shorelines on which the Indian ocean pounds, Koggala sits on the edge of a vast plain which stretches almost like a billiard table up to the foot hills of the central massif of Sri Lanka. Here the eye travels long distances undisturbed. There are no deep shadows as in the hills to shroud the mind. The sky is clear and open and the sun falls free all day except when the monsoon rains blow from the sea towards the distant hills.

Here the mind is free to wonder across the open sea through the home gardens where tall palms and fruit trees stand clear of each other with plenty of space between, and over the glistening water of the river to the blue line of hills far away.

Life itself was functional and unembroidered. But there was grace in that simplicity, a dignity and a seamless elegance. This was both the womb and the cradle of Martin Wickramasinghe's genius. Its essence flows through his creativity and lies like a memory in the texture of all his work.

In the years since his birth in 1890, Koggala has gone through a metamorphosis. In the last 50 years, change has not come through evolution, or through gentle organic growth. It has come suddenly, like a flash flood, disruptive and traumatic.

In 1941 the Second World War entered a global arena with the bombing of the Pearl Harbour. As battle lines were being re-drawn, Koggala was selected as site for an airfield and sea plan base. The order for the villagers to evacuate came suddenly and the time given was just 24 hours.

The overnight uprooting of an entire community from its ancestral habitat may not have been as cathartic or as epic as the brutal resettlement of the 'Oakies' and their trek through the 'dust bowl' in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. In Koggala, there was at least hope of returning: fragile goods such as ceramicware were tied in sheets and lowered into wells to be recovered at a future date.

Nevertheless it still meant a cluster of eight villages collectively referred to as Koggala was wiped off the main stream socio-economic map of Sri Lanka. For more than five years Koggala was a forbidden territory. The village and the contours of its daily life had almost vanished.

A couple of years after Sri Lanka regained independence in 1948, the Royal Airforce Camp was evacuated and abandoned. A barbed wire fence enclosed the area. Wickramasinghe's description of how, at more than fifty years old, he returned to the village where, as a little boy, he had roamed so freely, is a moving piece of writing where nostalgia is always tempered with reason, and sentiment never allowed to become sentimentality.

All is observed with no sense of bitterness; instead, there is an undertone of wry humour reminiscent of the best of Narayan, at once subtly and immensely entertaining. "I removed my coat and crawled on all fours through an opening just big enough for a canine."

The house in which Wickramasinghe was born has inspired the Martin Wickramasinghe Trust to create a centre of folk culture and life. The house is surrounded by eight acres of a restored eco-system planted with hundreds of varieties of indigenous trees and shrubs in which bird life abounds.

Within the grounds is the Martin Wickramasinghe Museum of Folk Culture. The museum has a wonderful collection of artefacts and memorabilia which recreate - for those familiar with his works as well as the uninitiated - the world of peace and harmony which forms the key theme of his literature.

The artefacts speak to us of a world totally integrated and at peace with the environment.

The hand crafted kitchen utensils, the clay and earthenware vessels in which wholesome food was cooked over wood fires, the loft canopying the hearth to filter the wood smoke, the tools used for cultivating paddy fields, the mats, bullock carts and other conveyances; all the utensils of an unhurried way of life rooted in a simple agrarian economy.

Wickramasinghe's world lay between the paddy fields and the sea, between the river and the vegetable groves; rich, hybrid diversity, more dynamic and lively than what prevailed in the closed highlands of Sri Lanka.

Here agriculture was tinged with commerce, the ploughman lived side by side with the fisherman, and life did not begin and end within boundaries, but opened out towards distant horizons across the sea. It's a world now confined to memories and to the written page accessible to those who can read the language in which Sri Lanka's greatest writer in modern times wrote.

The Koggala Museum makes it a visual text, accessible across the boundaries of language. It's a fitting tribute to a man who through his writings, led a heroic struggle to restore the culture of the common people of this land to its rightful place.

The opening passage of Gamperaliya quoted at the beginning of this profile continues as follows:

"To discover the antiquity of the village of Koggala going back a thousand years one would have to dig for evidence buried deep beneath the surface of the land. But the evidence that the land itself had been here for tens of millions of years is there for all to see in the mountain of granite that towers above the village near the edge of the railroad.

It would have been there, a mute and unmoved witness to the violent explosive upheavals of nature that took place long before even the plants and trees that now abound around it and in its crevices had evolved. The villagers called it the Hirugal Devale or the Devalagala."

The upheavals of the last fifty years have been different. But the spirit of old Koggala survives in the Folk Museum, an epitaph and a manifesto of a way of life that offers us values, which are still relevant.

In my euphonious translation "Shrine Rock", I include not just the Devalagala and the Koggala Museum of Folk Culture, but also Martin Wickramasinghe.