Some critics hail fake writers- Ranjith Dharmakeerthi | Sunday Observer

Some critics hail fake writers- Ranjith Dharmakeerthi

6 December, 2020
Pic: Shirly Samarasinghe
Pic: Shirly Samarasinghe

Ranjith Dharmakeerthi, a veteran Sinhala fiction writer, playwright, critic and a literary translator launched his autobiography, Mage Lama Wiya, Tharuna Wiya and Wedihiti Wiya (My childhood days, youth and adult life) published by Sakhila Publications recently. He has written 83 books, including nine award winning books and four English books. He served as the Director General of the Tower Hall Theatre Foundation, a state institute for the promotion of Sri Lanka’s theatre and also as a staff officer at the Central Bank. He was conferred an honorary Doctorate last year by the University of Aesthetics Studies in Colombo. The Sunday Observer met him to discuss his book and his literary career.


Q. Why did you decide to write an autobiography?

A: Many of my friends and close associates asked me to write an autobiography, but I didn’t begin writing it until I went to Adelade, Australia in 2017. My 75th birthday fell on April 6, 2017. My son and daughter who live in Adelade, proposed to celebrate it. We went to a hotel along with my wife and me.

When we were returning from the birthday party I asked my children to take the responsibility of reprinting my books. I have my own publishing house. They refused it and asked me to come to Australia to live with them. I couldn’t agree with them, and instead of going to Australia, I started to write my autobiography. That’s how the book was written.

Q. There is a vast socio-political life behind you apart from your literary life. But your autobiography is a small book, not big enough to discuss your life?

A: Yes, the book is small. I chose to write limited aspects of my life. I could have written my whole life story, but it would have been useless for the reader as it is not important for them.

Q. You started your writing career as a short story writer, but then you shifted to novel?

A: To write short stories, you need to have specific experiences which are not the same as those experiences for a novel. I have to wait until I get that experience for a short story. It takes at least five years to finish a short story collection for me, but a novel can be finished within a year.

Q. Your young adult novels have a good readership. Four out of six of them won the state literary prize?

A: yes, I started to write those novels with the book, Abhaya Bhumiya (Sanctuary) in 1986. Late veteran writer Kulasena Fonseka urged me to write them. Some of them have been reprinted 15 times.

Q. While you are writing your own books, you are also engaged in translating books?

A: Yes, my first translation is Anton Chekov’s Cherry Orchard. I translated it into Sinhala titled Cherry Uyana. I produced it with the sponsorship of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. I also translated Maxim Gorky’s Lover Depths as Hiru Nethi Lowa. It was published in 1973 and won the state literary prize for the best translated drama script.

The foreword of the book was written by veteran writer Martin Wickramasinghe - I had a friendship with Martin Wickramasinghe. He had come to see my drama Mahagedara when I produced it and wrote a review for the Daily News. I have produced 12 stage dramas. Most of them were translated by me and three of the scripts won the state literary prize. Recently, I have translated Fyador Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment which is considered as the best novel in the world. It’s a testimony to my attachment to Russian literature. I have also translated my short stories into English.

Q. You were awarded an honorary Doctorate last December by the University of Aesthetics Studies Colombo?

A: Yes. Prof Gananatha Obesekara was also awarded the same honorary degree in that ceremony. I am happy about that because I was admired along with a much learned person.

Q. You are always worried about the fact that you couldn’t enter the university?

A: Yes. When I was about to sit for the H.S.C. examination, the Sinhala – Tamil clash began in 1965. As a result, most of our family property was destroyed. I couldn’t continue my higher education with such hardship.

Therefore, soon after my H.S.C. examination, I joined the Central Bank. However, I always have a heavy heart when I pass the University of Peradeniya because I couldn’t enter the university.

Q. You have travelled to Russia many times through a literary organization, the Janatha Lekaka Peramuna or People’s Writers’ Front. Why did you prefer Soviet literature to Russian literature?

A: No, I prefer Russian literature. Though there are a few good Soviet books, such as Dr. Shivago by Boris Pasternak, Cancer Ward by Alexander Zolsinetsin, First teacher, Jamila and other novels by Chingese Aitmatov, I prefer to read Russian literature.

Q. Then why were you attached to the Janatha Lekaka Peramuna which advocated Soviet literature and Stalinism?

A: I wanted to study that literature. Besides me, A.V. Suraweera, Miniwan P. Thilakarathne, K. Jayathilake and Ciryl C. Perera also worked with them.

Q. There are a lot of charges against the Janatha Lekaka Peramuna, some of which are that they appeared for fake literature and promoted fake writers, they travelled around the world at the expense of people’s money, they had their children entered Russian universities and got them free education. How do you respond to these charges?

A: They are correct. Those days there was a saying that when it was raining in Russia, our people used umbrellas here. When I realised their real objectives, I moved away from them.

The Janatha Lekaka Peramuna spoke about socialist realism in literature, but how do you boast about that when you have not even socialism?

Q. What are the memorable experiences you gained from these tours?

A: I could join the Stanislavsky Drama Institute and follow a three-week drama course under its director Rado Mislinsky.

I visited Chekov’s home at Yalta, Tolstoy’s mansion in Yasyana Polyana and streets and places of Petersberg where Dostoevsky had used.

I could see stage dramas there. It’s a different experience because we never have such a vast historical and cultural background.

For instance, our university started in the 1940s, but the Petersberg University started in 1775.

Its architecture, art and museums demonstrate its unimaginable greatness. My first visit to Russia was with late Professor A.V. Suraweera.

Q. Do you admire literature of K. Jayathilake, A.V. Suraweera and others who had an erroneous interpretation on literature?

A: There are admirable books by them. Especially, Charitha Thunak by K. Jayathilake and Suraweera’s edited classical works of Sinhala literature though they misunderstood literature.

Q. You describe about the friendly conversations you had with Professor Sarachchandra in your autobiography. Did you associate him so closely?

A: Yes, very much. Those days we had an art circle and met once a week. Mostly, we met at the Press Club close to the Indian High Commissioner’s office at Galle Face.

Sarachchandra, K. Jayathilake, Sunanda Mahendra, Thissa Kariyawasam, Amaradewa and I are regular members of it. Sometimes Sugathapala de Silva, Dayananda Gunawardhane, Henry Jayasena, R.R. Samarakoon, Tony Ranasinghe, Hemantha Warnakulasuriya and Jayasumana Dissanayake also participated.

We always sat outside the Press Club facing the breeze from the sea. I can recall that we talked about various subjects in these conversations, including singing by Amaradewa until late at night.

Q. How do you see Sarachchandra?

A: He was a calm, quiet person though witty. He never complained about anything and always a good listener. If someone criticises him, he never retorted. Once I criticised his Vilasiniyakage Premaya, a Champu Kawya book or lyrical prose.

He listened to it and said sarcastically, “Ranjith Champu Kawya gena dannene thuwa athine!” (“You don’t know about the lyrical prose!”)

Q. You joined the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) in 1971?

A: Yes, I resigned from the Central Bank and joined the SLBC as a freelance broadcaster. I presented and produced many art programs, such as Shanida Saadaya, Nirmana Windanaya, and even wrote radio dramas.

My colleagues were Sugathapala de Silva, Sunanda Mahendra, D.S. Dayarathne, Niwton Gunarathne, Palitha Perera, Premasara Apasinghe, Amarabandu Rupasinghe. Mahagama Sekara also worked there. He created the poster for my first drama Eka Wahala Yata.

Q. It is said that there was a classical era at the SLBC during that time?

A: Yes, I can recall that there were many classical art programs, including Shasthreeya Sangrahaya, Maduwanthi musical program and intellectual discussions. Dr E.W. Adikaram, Sarachchandra and many other scholars participated in them.

Q. One can criticise that you are still writing with outdated simple realistic style and that your realistic novels do not give insights to the reader?

A: If someone says so, he is wrong. Realistic novel is the only literary form that enlightens the life. Even the world’s best novels were written in realism. Surrealism, magical realism, fantasy and any of those literary forms are second to the realistic form. However, the form is determined by the experience or the content.

Q. How do you think of the new literature of Kafka, Garcia Marqueze, Issabel Allende, Nabakov, Milan Kundera?

A: I appreciated them, but I cannot adopt them, my fiction is realistic. I think we misunderstood literature because of a few Sinhala critics.

Those so called critics introduced some fake writers as great writers. They introduced Paulo Coelho as a great writer, but he is not a good writer, his masterpiece Alchemist cannot even be called a novel.

Q. What about your art of fiction?

A: I do a research for a book and generally, it takes one year to write a novel. I go in search of experiences when I am on a novel. Without experiences, I cannot write. I went to Embilipitiya for my last novel.

I cannot write during the day. I start at nine pm and sometimes it lasts until dawn. I don’t write in my home, on the contrary I go to Avissawella where I have a tea plantation, for my writing. My latest novel was about my Avissawella tea plantation

Q. Could you write with background noise?

A: No, I couldn’t. If there is any disturbance, I stop writing. But after it is over I start to write again.

Q. How long do you take to edit?

A: When I finish a manuscript, I keep it for three months. After three months, I start to edit it. After I edit the manuscript, I go for my type-setting girl’s place. I read her to type the manuscript and take clear print-outs of it. I once again start to edit the manuscript and take another print-out copy.

It was proof read by my proof reader to whom I pay 10,000 rupees, and then for the last time I edit the manuscript and sent for the press.

Q. Why don’t you keep editors for your books?

A: I got used to editing by myself which is not a good habit. K. Jayathilake was also like that. He never gave his manuscripts to others for editing. If he gave his manuscript to others, he said he would feel to burn it. However, when our art circle was in active, we shared a manuscript and discussed it collectively which is the right way to edit.

Q. What is your idea on the new generation?

A: They are not bilingual, so that they couldn’t read classical literature. On the other hand, the most of Sinhala translations are also not good, and some books, such as Shakespeare classics and Latin books cannot be translated. Because of this, new generation does not have a good knowledge of literature.

They are not well versed in the Sinhala language. They don’t even read the Sinhala classics. So, it’s not surprising that they have a hadu basa or base language. Even the professors of Sinhala cannot use the language correctly.