Inventing new realities | Sunday Observer

Inventing new realities

2 January, 2022

This year’s Swarna Pustaka award (the Golden Book award) for the best Sinhala novel went to ‘Bherunda Kedella’ by Rupa Sriyani Ekanayake. This is the second time she won the prize awarded by the Sri Lanka Book Publishers Association. The first time was in 2012 for her novel ‘Situwara Puwatha’. The Sunday Observer spoke to Ekanayake to discuss her literary career as well as her views on the Sinhala novel.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

Q: When writing, you are more concerned about the theme of a novel. The theme of ‘Bherunda Kedella’ is book piracy. Why?

A: The piracy theme is rare in the Sinhala novel - perhaps this might be the first time this theme is used in a Sinhala novel. The protagonist, Waruna Hemapala, pirates a book of his close friend, Professor Upanuwan Wegalla. Prof. Wegalla started to write the book some time ago and Hemapala was the one who encouraged him to write it. But before publishing it, Wegalla dies. Then, while Hemapala was on a visit to late Wegalla’s home, he saw the manuscript of his friend’s novel. He grabbed it at once and went his home. At first, he had no any idea of pirating it, but as time passed by, there develop a desire to publish it as his own, particularly because he is the only one who knew that Wegalla wrote a book.

So, Hemapala publishes the manuscript under his authorship and it quickly becomes popular, even winning literary prizes. But there emerge a multitude of issues because the book mostly consisted of Wegalla’s family problems, especially his disagreements with his wife – Mrs. Wegalla and the children begin to question how Hemapala knew all of their family matters which they only knew.

Through this story, I wanted to highlight how our mind works when a certain desire strokes in us, and how we deal with people around us when we are embroiled in these kinds of things.

Q: Were you inspired by similar experiences to write this novel?

A: No, this is not my experience. But we occasionally hear such stories from our literary field. For instance, a few years back, we heard that one author copied some paragraphs from a book by another author when writing her book (young adult book) – however, after winning an award for her book, people spoke out through social media that it was a piracy. Consequently, the author had to hand over the award accepting she copied some of its paragraphs from another book. But I never experienced such piracy incidents. Also, there isn’t any connection between this incident and the incident described in my novel.

Q: When we look at your literary work, we mostly see you write novels based on real life: your novel ‘Taru Bambasara,’ published in 2005, is based on an incident where a filmmaker exposes her wife in nude in his latest film, which is a real incident. Your recent novel, ‘Shobhana Mãligã’, is based on the character of Anagãrika Dharmapãla, a moral crusader and a freedom fighter. Comment.

A: The two novels you mentioned are from two genres: ‘Taru Bambasara’ is a novel with a contemporary theme while ‘Shobhana Mãligã’ is a historical novel. When writing a historical novel, you don’t have much freedom to invent things, though you sporadically create some minor characters and incidents in between. But with ‘Taru Bambasara’ I had more freedom to invent things and express myself. Of course, it was an actual incident. But I didn’t record that incident when I wrote it.

A writer is a member of the society. So, s/he cannot avoid socio-political issues. On the other hand, fiction is a reaction by a writer to socio-political movements - without the real life incidents, s/he cannot write. Before ‘Bherunda Kedella,’ I wrote a novel titled ‘Balan Purasiri Neth Wasã’ based on the government service in Sri Lanka. I used my experiences to write that book because I worked as a secretary in a ministry before retiring. Writing that novel was a cathartic experience for me.

Yet, you cannot record things when you are writing a novel. If you do so, it does not become a novel but a newspaper report. The real incident has to become a common experience when you write. When writing ‘Taru Bambasara’, I never had the intention to attack the film director - attacking is not the objective of fiction. During that time, there was a trend for nudity in the Sri Lankan film industry. So, my novel was my reaction to that trend. As a nation with a Sinhala-Buddhist culture which calls for morality and discipline, we cannot accept nudity in cinema, which was why my book was written.

Q: You always follow the formal written language when you write fiction. Why do you not use colloquial language?

A: The written language is my usual language style, and it never occurred to me to write in colloquial language. If I need some pace and rhythm for my fiction, I might use that language. Our written language is a fantastic language, it is beautiful. We can express ourselves in it more than any other language style. Also, we have rich conventional classical literature in the written language - for budding writers, there are so many things to learn from classical Sinhala literature, one cannot empty it using its positive elements for his or her writing. So, all these things helped me to choose the written language for my writing. On the other hand, selecting a language style is not a conscious effort. As I belong to the older generation inspired by the classical Sinhala literature, I cannot help using the written language. Moreover, I feel that my strength of expression lies in the written language.

Q: Professor Upanuwan Wegalla in the ‘Bherunda Kedella’ experiences a writer’s block when he starts writing – which is why he delayed to publish his manuscript. Have you ever experienced this when writing?

A: Not so much a writer’s block but I experienced other obstacles. For instance, when I was writing ‘Shobhana Mãligã’, I had to do a lengthy experiment on Anagãrika Dharmapãla. In fact, I read resource books for over three years to write that book. The problem I faced was the inclusion of facts without harming Dharmapãla’s character and balancing facts and fiction. I didn’t face that problem when I wrote other historical novels such as ‘Vijayay Kuweniyay’, ‘Senkadagala Maha Biso’ and ‘Dutim Nethin Kasup Nirinde’. Because of this, I had to select certain facts carefully when writing. Though some people reproached him that he was a racist, I consider Anagãrika Dharmapãla a great human being and a moral crusader. This was why I had to do such a careful selection.

Also, I had to investigate into some unknown facts about him. For instance, he lived in India for 40 years, a closed chapter for us. So, I had to collect facts on that period. I especially read about the contemporary socio-political environment in India along with facts about Mahatma Gandhi, Tagore, Vivekananda, Henry Steel Olcott and Blavetsky. Moreover, I explored Dharmapãla’s activities in Culcuttã – you might hear about his great speech at Albert Hall in Culcuttã. Once, Dharmapãla participated in an International Conference on Ethnic and Religious Conflict Resolution and Peace building in Chicago, where he ignited a desire among Americans to study Buddhist philosophy. In this way, the most difficult thing I faced in writing this novel was to balance the fact and fiction.

Q: How long do you take to complete a novel?

A: I started my literary career in 2003 with the novel ‘Vijayay Kuweniyay’. So, between 2003 and 2021, I published nine novels. I have spent two years for each novel. But, I should say that the time I allocate for a novel is varied according to the book I write. As I said earlier, I spent three years to complete ‘Shobhana Mãligã’, but for ‘Balan Purasiri Neth Wasã’ I only waged one year, because I already had all the facts to write that novel. ‘Bherunda Kedella’ also took one year to write while ‘Vijayay Kuweniyay’ took two years.

Q: Could you describe your art of writing?

A: I spend a fairly long time for a novel. The main reason for it is that I read all the words that I have already put on paper, before starting the next day. For instance, if I have already finished 100 pages, I have to read all that before writing the next day. With this writing habit, the number of pages I finish for a day would gradually decrease.

Q: Some writers read just a few pages before starting the next writing, don’t they?

A: Yes, you are correct, but I enjoy reading all pages - I take pleasure in it. The positive thing in my writing habit is that I correct the text every day while enjoying it.

Q: Do you feel you need to complete the story soon?

A: When I am exhausted with reading the text, I sometimes feel like completing the book soon. But I never accelerated the writing for the sake of finishing it. But some of my readers occasionally reproach me that I ended the book too soon. They especially made this allegation for the novel ‘Bedde Kulawamiya’. However, I didn’t feel disappointed but rather take the positive side. I come to the conclusion that they thoroughly enjoyed my book which is why they were not satisfied with my ending. I also had the same feeling when I finished reading ‘Aranakata Pem Benda’, a Sinhala translation of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novel ‘Aranyak’, translated to Sinhala from Bengali by a veteran translator late Chinta Lakshmi Sinhaarachchi. That novel describes serenity and heavenly beauty in a rain forest.

Q: Do you ever feel that you should adopt a writing method that satisfies readers?

A: No, because I haven’t received a huge negative reaction from readers. But I know my books are being read by people. My award winning novel ‘Bherunda Kedella’ was printed for the eighth time within a year.

Q: Do you receive responses from critics?

A: No, I don’t receive critical reviews for my books. The reason is that we have no critics in Sri Lanka. I say this seriously: I get to know about new books not by critics, but by author-interviews by journalists like you. We live in an environment where the book has become a commodity. A book would never get attention unless it wins a literary prize or media publicity because we don’t have literary critics. But if a valuable book hasn’t received any of it, the book is automatically neglected with time, which is an unfortunate thing.

Q: How many copies or different versions of the manuscript do you take before sending it to the publisher?

A: I don’t take hardcopies because I read and edit the manuscript when it is at the computer screen. My publishers take hardcopies. After the text is laid out and proofread, they send me back the hardcopies. My manuscripts are laid out and proofread by Pushpananda, a well-known book designer. Generally, their proofread hardcopies are filled with corrections.

Q: Do you engage in literary experiments with your writing?

A: Realism is my natural way of writing, so I am not interested in other literary experiments. But on two occasions, I did experiments: the novel ‘Dutim Nethin Kasup Nirinde’ I wrote according to the time machine concept by Wallace, and then ‘Gantera Getaya’, a young adult novel, was written with a surrealistic style.

Q: Are there any writers you follow?

A: I never follow any writer, but there are writers who inspire me. They are Martin Wickramasinghe, Gunadasa Amarasekara, K. Jayathilake and so on. I learn much from their fiction, especially in terms of language.

Q: How do you feel about your imaginary world while writing?

A: I always see my imaginary world from the outside while writing. Though I live with my characters, I never get attached to them, because if I do so, I don’t have the chance to see my imaginary world. I accept that I cannot control the story line after I start to write, but I roughly know the ending before the writing. A philosophical vision comes into my writing when I unfold my imaginary world from some distance. Olga Tokarczuk, the Nobel Prize winning Polish author for 2018, says that novel writing is a psychological process. She says that though we use a pen and a paper to write a story, it should have some psychological vision. But that vision takes place not consciously, but unconsciously. For this, a writer has to start a story with a wide view.

Q: Have you ever felt that you need to change your story when you go back and read a finished book?

A: I sometimes felt like changing the storyline when I read again but I haven’t done so.

Q: Is there a book that you are currently working on?

A: Yes, I started a new novel about artificial thinking. I cannot say about its progress, but I can say it is a new theme. I think there are different themes for us to explore. For instance, we are still unable to write about our disastrous education system, particularly the consequences of the Grade 5 Scholarship examination.

Q: Do you expect some social reform through your writing?

A: No, I don’t expect social reform, but I want readers to think about the issues I put forward. I want readers to understand, not with their mind but with their hearts. In other words, it is an understanding. Gunadasa Amarasekara wrote a novel sequence starting from ‘Gamanaka Mula’ to make the reader understand the evolution of the Sinhala middle class. I don’t want to write that type of novel. I just want my readers to enter my novels through their feelings and take wisdom from f it. The ideal example for this is ‘Gadfly’ by Irish writer Ethel Voynich. You can see how nicely the feelings and politics are blended together. In fact, this is why I do not like to write novels with a political content exclusively.