A lonely writer who went to world literature | Sunday Observer

A lonely writer who went to world literature

11 July, 2021

If someone considers Sinhala short story writers in Sri Lanka, the first name after Martin Wickramasinghe that comes into mind is G.B. Senanayake. He is the writer who developed Sinhala short story to its artistic stage focusing on the structure. He created an artistic language to portray the present experiences, and highlighted the importance of poetic styles in short story. In other words, he found a new short story genre in between prose and verse. Besides that, he is the pioneering Sinhala poet in Sri Lanka who found free verse poetry or ‘Nisandes’. This great writer’s 108th birth anniversary falls on this July 13, and we thought to read his literature with regard to his life.

His early life

G.B. Senanayake or Gunathilake Bandara Senanayake was born on July 13, 1913 at Mulleriyawa, Colombo. He was the youngest of a family of four brothers. Though he wrote three memoirs, there isn’t any detailed account of his family background such as his parent’s profession, their hometown, the family’s early life. The only thing that we know for sure is that he had to suffer serious economic hardships, and because of that he had to abandon his schooling. As we found out the first school he attended for his primary education was St. Joseph’s College in Grandpass. Then he had his secondary education at Ananda College, Colombo. As mentioned earlier, he had to give up schooling at the age of 14 when he was Grade 7 at Ananda College due to economic problems.

There was an Indian teacher named Gupta for art in Grade six at Ananda. He was the one who turned Senanayake’s interest towards reading, especially reading western classics. So he started to read fiction and reading soothed his sorrowful life. He was addicted to reading so much that he finished reading a book within few hours without postponing it to tomorrow.

At the age of 18, he started going to the public library in Colombo which gave him the opportunity to access thousands of books. He calls it his own university.

His literature

There are two literary genres that Senanayake mastered in Sinhala literature. They are short story and poetry. The first short story collection of him was Duppathun Nethi Lokaya (World without poverty) published in 1945. Second was Paliganima (Revenge), published in 1946. The works he included in Paliganima comprise prose and poetry, and is considered as the beginning of nisandas or free verse poetry movement in Sri Lanka.

As said at the outset Senanayake improved Sinhala short story to its artistic stage. He didn’t include a word that is irrelevant to the story following a rule by E.M. Foster. Everything was emerged with a reason in his story. He polished the language until coming out the correct meaning and aesthetic sound. We must not forget that he was influenced by ancient Sanskrit aestheticism. He describes Bharata’s aesthetic rules extensively in his book ‘The Art of the Novel’, a critical analysis.

So, through the crafting and polishing of his fiction he could develop a delicate literary language to rightly portray the complicated life’s experiences. In fact, Martin Wickramasinghe was the first who tried to create a literary language blending the traditional literary language and the contemporary language. Yet he couldn’t create the most suitable literary language for the fiction, while Senanayake surpassed Wickramasinghe in it, albeit Prof. Sarachchandra mastered it. Speaking about his language effort he said in the book Vinividimi Andura (Penetrating the Drak) as follows:

“…..My father was an ex-bikkhu who excelled in oriental languages as Pali and Sanskrit. So he recited Sanskrit Shloka, Pali Gatha and other phrases in oriental languages while he was in a casual conversation at home. Not only recited, he also described the meaning of them in Sinhala. This attracted me very much to those languages”.

“…. I think the language of the Saddharma Ratnavaliya influenced Martin Wickramasinghe the most among the traditional Sinhala literary books. It is also the book that influenced me most.”

In this way, he was able to create works which are synthesis of prose and verse, though he couldn’t write poetic novels or Champu Kavya.

His Inspiration

Speaking about his inspiration for short story, there are two writers who influenced him very much. They are French writer Gye de Maupassant and Russian writer Anton Chekov. Senanayake tried to discuss the life of middle class living in towns same as Maupassant tried to bring out the tragedy of high class. The tragedy is common subject for both these writers. In terms of beauty, Chekov affected him the most. Senanayake tried to bring forward the complexity of life as Chekov. Especially, Chekov’s short story, ‘Woman with the Dog’ affected him much in terms of the beauty.


G.B. was a self educated person. His memoirs such as Vinividimi Andura (Penetrating Dark), Mage Sithum Patum ha Jeewitaya (My Thoughts and Life) and Mama Eda saha Ada (Me, Before and Now) describes what type of difficult life he had to go on in his teenage time.

“My university was the public library in Colombo. Those days there wasn’t any place to board for me. So I stayed at my relation’s house situated out of the Colombo. I would leave this place every morning at about 7 a.m. and come back at night at about 10 p.m. I would pass my whole day at this university’s reading room after I leave the house.

The workers of the library seemed to see me as a miserable person. Some of them directly implied it. However, I started to write articles for newspapers after I learned like this. Sometime later, my articles appeared in the papers with my photograph. One day when one of my articles was published with my photograph, a library worker looked at me as seeing a ghost. He seemed to felt that ‘Is this that loiterer?’, I felt.

“Now I recall a sad incident that happened to me those days. Once I came back to this relation’s house after 10 p.m. and was ready to eat rice. I unfolded the mat that I sleep on the ground and sat there, and started to eat. There was an oil lamp or Kuppi Lampuwa before me, the only one that was at this poor house. But immediately the woman who was my relation came up to me and asked for the lamp: ‘My husband asks for it.’ She went away with it. There wasn’t any light in the place, so I had to eat in the dark. I felt wretched about my life. There wasn’t this type of miserable life for me before. My sorrow increased, tears fell down from my eyes….” - Mama Eda saha Ada (Me, Before and Now)

These details show us why the subject matter of his literature takes so much moving about poor life. And it is not surprising that his first book, Duppathun Nethi Lokaya (World without Poverty) took that title too.

After Paligenima and Duppathun Nethi Lokaya, there appeared dozens of short story volumes from him such as Mithuriya (Girlfriend), Gamana (Journey), Netuma (Dance) and others. Nidhanaya (Hidden Treasure) was one of his short stories published in the Duppathun Nethi Lokaya short story collection. Dr. Lester James Peries made a film based on it, and the movie is today regarded as one of his best movie creations ever and one of the best films made in Sri Lanka.

Writer who turned his life as literature

According to Ariyawansha Ranaweera, a veteran Sinhala poet, G.B. Senanayake is the only one in Sinhala literature who turned literature as his life. It is quite right as he never had a private life. He never married, so he hadn’t a family life. He was a bird lived in another’s nest. Why he didn’t make family? It is because he wanted to dedicate his life to literature. He literally turned his life as a literary work. Even our foremost writer Martin Wickramasinghe had his own private life, but Senanayake hadn’t.

There is a creative isolation throughout his literary movement. He didn’t associate people, and never spoke loudly. Maximus Jayanta Anandappa, one of his neighbours at Kandana wrote an article to ‘Sannasa’ Web magazine on G.B. as follows:

“He was a silent man, never looked at anyone’s face when he was walking on the way. Occasionally, he dressed in a white full coat with a tie and suitcase, when he was going to Colombo, but all of the items with him were out of date and coarse. Even when he was going up to the well at the corner of his home garden, he stepped in slowly and without lifting the head”.

“His brother’s office room was his home. I never saw the windows of his room opened. It seemed that he never wanted to know about the world outside his room. However, he had a large library in his room. In addition to that there were a table, chair and a bed in his room. Cigarette filters were also common there. Very rarely G.B. came outside from his room. It looked like that he didn’t do any work other than reading and writing”.

No wonder, he was an introverted character which is very much needed for creative writing. Analysing his character Dr. Ruwan M. Jayatunga, a literary critic said G.B. would have been suffered from Melancholia.

He further said that it is clear by his literature that G.B. must have had a low self esteem, an agitation, a self pity and nihilistic ideas. But these characteristics are very much common for all the great writers such as Edgar Alan Poe, Dostoevsky and Gye de Maupassant. G.B. writes in his memoirs that he was suffering from a headache when he was small. But turned that headache to a ‘Saraswati Aweshaya’ or motivation for education. However, Dr. Jayatunga points out this headache must have been a Psychosomatic situation in a mental illness.

Children’s literature

Another aspect of his literature that we don’t focus on very much is his involvement in children’s fiction. He wrote more than dozen children’s books. And also translated celebrated children’s fiction including famous piece of work, ‘Masterman Ready’ or ‘The Wreck in the Pacific’ by Captain Frederick Marryat. It was translated as Ranarala. Veteran Sinhala writer Piyadasa Welikannage said about his humane qualities as follows:

“Once, G.B. Senanayake lived in a rented house at Attidiya near us. I got to know that he was a writer. I went to his house and asked a book from him. At the time I was just 8 or 9 years old. First he asked my age, and then said he hadn’t a children’s book for my age. But I insisted on, and gave me one after searching his personal library. It was a book titled Ranarala.

I came back and read it immediately. Then I once again went up to him and asked another book. He was somewhat amazed to know that I read it within such a short time. Though I couldn’t borrow another book at that moment, I could read few more books from his library after that meeting.”

This reveals his compassion towards children.


In 1980 G.B. became fully blind. But it was because of his unrelenting reading. The last book that he was writing when he became blind was Sahithya Sithuwili Dharshana, a critical analysis on literary philosophy. When he declared his fear of being unable to finish the book, his sister-in-law offered to write it if dictated. Out of his 50 odd books about 20 were written after he became blind.

At the end, this great writer passed away on March 15, 1985. His last poem Rathriya (Night) was written barely five hours before his death. Why was such a dark work coming out at that last moment of his life? Sometimes he must have premeditated his death.