K. Jayathilake - Rishi of Kannimahara | Sunday Observer

K. Jayathilake - Rishi of Kannimahara

4 July, 2021

“Kaluachchigamage Jayatilake, better known to his readers as K. Jayatilaka, can be ranked among the topmost creative writers and intellectuals of today, only second in eminence, if at all, to Martin Wickramasinghe.”

That is how K. Jayatilaka was introduced to the general reader by Prof. Sarachchandra in his introduction to the English translation of Jayathilake’s novel Punchirala. This great writer’s 95th birth anniversary fell on June 27.

Emergence of K. Jayathilaka

As implied above, he was born on June 27, 1926 in his mother’s ancestral home at Medihena, Gampaha. He was the third among nine members of his family. They lived in Kannimahara, Radawana. His father, Kalu Achchigamage Arnolis Appuhami was a village peasant and mother, Maddumage Podi Nona was a house wife. As he mentions in his autobiography Punchi Pele Gasa Wena, he mainly grew up on his own, because most of the time his parents didn’t allow him to play with village brats who were not up to their social class.

However, Jayatilaka met many friends after he entered the Radawana boys’ school, now known as Mahagama Sekara Maha Vidyalaya in Radawana. Mahagama Sekara, a great poet in Sri Lanka was his classmate. Later they together published a poetry book titled Wyanga as their first book:

“Sekara was a relative of mine. My mother’s father and his father’s mother were siblings. Yet we became friends not because of our relationship, but because of our enthusiasm for art as against others. Sekara was one class below me in the school…” (Page 56)

That is how Jayatilaka relates his relationship with Mahagama Sekara in his autobiography Punchi Pele Gasa Wena.

Jayathilaka was attracted to Hela Havula language movement by Cumaratunga Munidasa when they were schooling. Once, Jayathilaka was able to listen to a lecture by Cumaratunga when he came to Radawana boys’ school for a visiting lecture. Jayathilaka was deeply impressed by this lecture. He started to read regularly Subasa magazine edited by Cumaratunga.

The more he reads his articles and books the more he attracted to Cumaratunga becoming his literary hero. He started to write articles to Subasa, though any of them wasn’t published. He attracted to Socialist political moment too. Dr. N.M Perera, Colvin R. de Silva and Philip Gunawardane impressed him very much:

“Kumaratunga and W.A. Silva were our literary heroes while our political heroes were leaders of Samasamaja Party until they were in the custody and for a little time after they were released.” (Page 97, Punchi Pele Gasa Wena)

However, he realised that there is no salvation for human life in socialist society and moved away from it. But he respected the leftist movement much. Because of this, he supported Sirimavo Bandaranayake during the 1970 election to establish a leftist government. He even encouraged others to support Sirimavo. He said in his autobiography that he was one of the three who got Sarachchandra to support Samagi Peramuna in the 1970 General Election.

Though Cumaratunga was his literary hero, his first literary taste was kindled by a school master named Jayasekara in his school. Yet, he was also a disciple of Cumaratunga which was why he brought Cumaratunga to the school for the lecture. During this time Jayathilaka’s most loving books were Piya Samara, a poetry book by Cumaratunga and Wavuluwa, a poetry book by Rapiel Tennakoon, also a member of the Hela Havula language moment.

Although Wyanga was Jayatilaka’s first published book, Wiyo Dasuna was his first written book, albeit unpublished until 1969. His first major published work was a volume of short stories entitled Punarutpattiya or Rebirth. It was published in 1955, the same year Gunadasa Amarasekara, another great writer published one of his major novels, Karumakkarayo. Since then his work has been voluminous, and he branched out into several fields both creative and scholarly.

Charita Tunak

His monumental work is Charita Tunak or Three Characters published in 1963. Professor Sarachchandra translated this book into English entitled The Grain and the Chaff. He introduces this book as follows in his preface to the book:

“The characters emanate out of similar origins but break out in different directions as far as the restricted environment in which they are born and bred enables them to. But there is always a pull-back, and it is the struggle to develop their varied personalities within the confines of a restricted set of values that constitutes the slow movement of the plot.”

Anyone reading Martin Wickramasinghe’s Gamperaliya or Changing Village will naturally conclude that the characters depicted in it, especially that or Nandawati, are typical products of the unspoiled Sinhala character. But the Gamperaliya was set in a place under the Western influence from the times that the Portuguese and Dutch invaded the country and held the coastal regions for four or five centuries.

In comparison with this, characters in Charita Tunak were never under Western influence, albeit the setting in the novel, Kokilana was situated in the Western Province. As Sarachchandra describes, he was immediately impressed by the book. When he read the book he was in Japan, and he was forced to come back home after reading it:

“I was enraptured by it which rekindled my desire to be back at home overwhelming my passion for Japan.”

Isa, the protagonist of the novel reminds the reader Wang Lung, the protagonist of the novel The Good Earth by Chinese novelist Pearl S. Buck. Isa and Wang Lung were hard working peasants tied to the land. The major difference of these characters is that Isa is portrayed as an introverted character while Wang Lung is an extrovert character. But Jayathilake is able to penetrate the reality of the time by presenting an introverted self-punishing, egoless character which is written in first person point of view.


K. Jayathilaka’s next major novel is Punchirala. Here, too, the setting is a village that becomes the background for the analysis of human relations. It focuses on the family, the attachment of father to the children, and the dotting care that both parents bestow on their children when they are ill. Punchirala was impelled by his ambitions for his children, sometimes he tamely tries to flout the norms that every person is expected to follow. Prof Sarachchandra said in his introduction to the English translation,

“The village of the Punchirala, however, belongs to a more recent period than the village in Charita Tunak. Its primeval character and its mores are being subjected to quick changes as a result of the urbanisation of its environs.

Punchirala’s children migrate to distant places to find employment. Their ties with the village begin to loosen in the course of time. Punchirala is, therefore, left a lonesome old man bereft of the succour and championship he needed in his last days. His friends, too, depart this life one by one, and the fear of death haunts him.

“In a delicate touch, the author recounts how Punchirala stores up his produce in a secret place in his house not allowing anyone to have access to anything. This is not to be interpreted, evidently, as the old man’s growing avarice, but rather as symbolic of his subconscious desire to preserve a link with his children for the sake of whom he has toiled all his life.”

According to Jayathilaka, the protagonist Punchirala was mainly created by his own father’s character.

Other books

K. Jayathilaka is a prolific writer. Besides above two novels, he wrote 14 novels, eight volumes of short stories, two poetry books, one drama script, 12 children’s story books, eight memoirs and 13 scholarly books.

He was a great reader. Especially he read world classical literature immensely during his earlier period. It is surprising that he could read all genres of literature because the time he read was not so much developed to bring a book home from abroad compared to now. At a literary function at his ancestral home in Kannimahara, Radawana, five years before his death, he said that he would burn his all kinds of Greek classical books.

The news was announced with a printed pamphlet too. This shocked all the people who participated in the event. The reason behind this decision was that a large number of books that he had collected throughout his life, now decaying without anyone to read them. Though the decision was not activated, his disappointment was correct. However, in the later period of his life he wrote more than ten scholarly books based on these old classics, without referring them once again as he didn’t have time to refer them.

Great critic

K. Jayathilaka was a great critic too. He could read books as well as people. For instance, he describes the disagreement between Sarachchandra and Martin Wickramasinghe, erupted in late 60s, and unfolded ill characteristics of both of them:

“It was a hilarious thing for some people that there was a disagreement between Sarachchandra and Martin Wickramasinghe. The people who were happy about this conflict benefited from both of the writers. However, most of them took the side of Sarachchandra at first. Though Sarachchandra seemed to be lucky enough to have followers like that, in reality he was unlucky to have them, because they work as serfs when they become friends, and they work as enemies when they went against him.” (Page 243, Punchi Pele Gasa Wena)

Jayathilaka tried his best to eliminate the disagreement between the two literary giants. As a result he could make once again friends with each other before Wickramasinghe died.

Analysis of children’s literature

He always took children’s literature very seriously. Hence, analysing the children’s literature, he said as follows:

“Many of these writers have not realised that writing for children is one of the most difficult subjects. You may write poetry, novels, short stories or essays without any training but not children’s literature. Children’s literature has widened in recent times and is no longer confined to stories alone. There are numerous new fields such as space travel, computer and new discoveries.

We can see his analytical skills and his broad understanding on children’s literature from this review.

Humanistic value

K. Jayathilaka advocated the progressive literature with Janatha Lekaka Peramuna, a literary organisation of which he was a member. But it’s a fact that he never wrote books according to the rules of that Socialist Realism prevailed in Russia during the regime of Stalin. His literature comprises of humanistic components, not the artificial progressive elements. The best example for this is his foremost novel Charita Tunak or Three Characters. Prof Sarachchandra said about it as “the piece that touched the hearts of all readers.”

K. Jayathilaka was a great man who always offered high hospitality. He never neglected to give a copy of his book when someone came to meet him. He was an adorable, pleasant person. One could easily enjoy his warmth if he started to converse with him. When he passed away from his life on September 14, 2011, we lost not only a great writer, but also a great human being.