One of Dhanapala’s best books | Sunday Observer

One of Dhanapala’s best books

25 July, 2021

Title - Among Those Present

Author – D.B. Dhanapala

Publisher – M.D. Gunasena

This is a collection of newspaper articles on important people who shaped events in Sri Lanka and even made history. Published in 1962, includes 22 articles or biographical reviews on 22 people – Anagarika Dharmapala, Ananda Coomaraswami, D.S. Senanayake, Dudley Senanayake, John Kotelawala, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Sirima Bandaranaike, Oliver Goonetileke, Philip Gunawardhane, P. de S. Kularatne, G.P. Malalasekera, L.H. Mettananda, Senarat Paranavitana, G.P. Wickramarachchi, Yakkaduve Thero, Nicholas Attygalle, Herbert Hulugalle, Soliyas Mendis, Nittavela Gunaya, Victor Dhanapala, Arunachalam Mahadeva, Ediriweera Sarathchandra.

Absorbing beginnings

The first chapter or the first article of the book is about Anagarika Dharmapala, a great crusader for a moralistic country independent from colonial clutches. It is very interesting to read as it begins with an incident. It was a sermon by Anagarika Dharmapala at the Galle Market Square which the author participated in. At the time the author D.B. Dhanapala was just seven years old, working as “a salesboy in a currystuff boutique in a suburb of Galle, Kumbalwella.”

The chief salesman in the shop had certain pretensions to culture and when the shop was closed, he started to read to the workers, with the aid of a bottle lamp inside the shop, interesting bits out of the Sinhala papers. One day they heard an announcement from a messenger that Anagarika Dharmapala would preach that night at the Galle Market Square. Dhanapala and several others went to hear the sermon. This intriguing story attracts the reader very much. In fact, the author here uses the storytelling technique to keep the reader with him.

The chapter John Kotelawala also starts with a story: “It would be interesting to recall how John Kotelawala first burst into politics.” He then relates that story which totally absorbs the reader. So these are good beginnings for each chapter. But not only beginnings, his descriptions are also captivating. Following passage is from the first chapter where the author describes how Anagarika Dharmapala appeared at the Galle Market Square:

“He did not dress like a Buddhist monk. He did not sit cross-legged as did the monks. He did not quote the scriptures as did the monks.” (Page 2)

Correct Portrayal

D.B. Dhanapala had the ability to portray people very correctly. One example for this is how he depicts D.S. Senanayake:

“A burly, big-made man with a hefty chunk for a chin he looked the type that brooked no nonsense. But as his thick-set lips cracked open in a smile, there shone forth vivid genuine geniality out of his rugged face. Generous, friendly and hospitable, around his rocky figure tempests lost their force.” (Page 24)

His portrayal ability also exemplifies the below passage about Anagarika Dharmapala:

“A high forehead that could often be low-brow on occasion; a pensive brow that bespoke a good deal of power; firm lips that brooked no hindrance but could speak kind words to a child; a personality oozing with energy but at the same time pervading a sense of peace and quiet; this was the aspect of this aristocrat wearing sackcloth who was a visionary with the ideas of a warload.” (Page 4)

He portrays people not only by their physical appearance, but by their speeches too. Below is how Anagarika Dharmapala preached at the Galle Market Square which describes Dharmapala’s character:

“Big machines and good clothes did not make a civilized man, he said. The English were uncivilized barbarians who exploited helpless people. The Sinhalese were a civilized race when the Britons were savages. Those who imitated the English were like African savages who bartered good diamonds for cheap coloured glass beads. Be proud of your civilization, your language. Stand erect before the conquerors. Don’t bend double. Have self-respect. Be yourselves and not cheap imitations of barbarians if you want to have a place in the world.” (Page 2)

Good Judgement

The author has a good judgement on each and every character in the book which is typical for a good critic. He speaks about Angarika Dharmapala as follows:

“The Buddhist schools he established, the Sinhalese Newspaper Press he started, the Ayurvedic dispensaries he commenced – all aimed at the regeneration of a degenerated race. He stopped the rot – for those who may come later to heal.” (page 5)

About D.S. Senanayake, he says, “Politics came to him; he never went in search of politics. Helped by the momentum of a term in jail and his brother’s fame as a patriot, D.S. Senanayake entered the legislative Council, more as a claimant to a legacy that had by rights been his brother’s than as one who was seeking a new world to conquer on his own.” (Page 27)

How he does judge Dr. Sarachchandra?

“Ediriweera Sarathchandra has more than most other Dons at the Campus given a sense of values and good companionship to the students who have come in touch with him.

“The more he grew in stature as a scholar, as an author, as a Don, as a cultural Pope, the less he seemed to feel his importance. He has given his friendship freely and easily to his students and as they associate with him they learned the greatness of simplicity and the pleasure of intellectual and cultural efforts.” (Page 209)

The importance of his writing

The importance of his writing is that he explores every aspect of someone’s character including his inner self too. His article on Ananda Coomaraswami exemplifies this fact and it is indeed a master writing:

“Coomaraswami was without peer as a scholar among Orientalists. It would be a great discovery if one could find another like him anywhere in the whole world, whose studies and publications cover as wide a range and are at the same time as numerous in quantity as excellent in quality. The place he occupied in the Oriental Art world was something like the position acceded to Mahatma Gandhi in the political field in India.” (Page 13)

D.B. Dhanapala expounds Coomaraswami’s scholarly career extensively which totally surprises the reader. It is a great research by the author. And in most cases the author participates in the events described in each article. In the chapter Soliyas Mendis, he elaborates a consecration ceremony of the new building at Kelaniya temple in which new Buddhist murals were to be drawn by Soliyas Mendis. This event was held on one Sunday morning in late January 1937 and Dhanapala participated in it too. Following is how the author describes Soliyas Mendis amidst the commotion in that consecration ceremony: “In the little assembly confined mostly to members of the Wijewardane family (Helena Wijewardhane) and Dayaka Sabha there was one man to whom nobody paid any attention. He paid attention to everybody by observing and making mental notes of this scene of consecration. For, he had to paint it on the bare walls of the new section of the shrine which had been gifted to the Sasana.” (Page 180-181)

When explaining an event which was experienced by the author, it naturally becomes authentic. Hence, the descriptions in the book are very much true for the reader. And he also connects his own stories to the main topic which increases that authenticity more. For instance, he says that he changed his own name after hearing that preaching by Anagarika Dharmapala:

“Soon after, even as a child, I begged my father to discard my Portuguese surname and English given name, which did not mean anything to me, and adopted the Sinhalese system of nomenclature with a Sinhalese given name (Dhanapala)” (Page 3)

His name is Diyogu Badathuruge Dhanapala. These personal anecdotes strengthen the authenticity in the book, apart from that they make the article close to the reader emotionally.