Saturday Magazine

W. A. Silva

by Padmadeva Jayakody

W. A. Silva, an outstanding novelist, with a considerable number of novels and short-stories to his credit, made a great contribution to the growth and development of the Sinhala novel when it was in its infancy stage. The descriptive phrases, i.e. Sinhala Nawakatha Raja and Katha Sakwithi, coined by his admirers to refer to him show clearly that he enjoyed unrivalled reputation as the greatest story-teller of the first half of the twentieth century. His immense popularity was due entirely to his excellence in the novel as well as in the short-story. His writings appealed to the people enormously because they dealt with subjects which interested the contemporary readers. His exceptionally great creative power coupled with his readiness to fulfil the needs of the people enabled him to attract the readers.

A thoughtful consideration of the literary works of W. A. Silva reveals his skill at all forms of fictional prose; novel and short-story in particular, novels with romantic love as their themes, detective stories throwing a great deal of light on the serious crimes of gangsters, historical novels describing events which date back to Polonnaruwa and Kotte periods and short-stories which are ranked among the best stories of the period. What is important to remember about his achievements is that each of them was adequately acclaimed during his own lifetime.

He showed promise as a writer of great merit when he wrote his first novel, Siriyalatha, at the comparatively young age of seventeen. This charming novel with a triangular love affair as its story was a success but there was an interval of about thirteen years between the publication of Siriyalatha and the appearance of his second novel, Lakshamie in 1922. The generally accepted view is that he made good use of that time to acquire a very good knowledge of oriental languages like Sanskrit and Pali and also English. Hingana Kolla, a highly readable romantic novel, made a tremendous impact on the readers when it appeared in 1923. The most striking feature of this novel is that it probes into that section of the populace that lives by vice and crime. The novel that followed was Pasel Guruwari, which, as the title indicates, is about a teacher named Wimala. Robert Rathnaweera, the manager of the school, and Bennet Alwis, a lawyer by profession, who incidentally falls in love with Wimala and marries her, are the other major characters in this novel. There appeared in 1933 Kelehanda which is generally reckoned to be his most celebrated novel, for it ran into several reprints within a short period of time. In the second and the third quarters of the twentieth century there was hardly any literate man or woman who hadn’t read Kelehanda. John Jayapala and Malani, the hero and the heroine, become household words as they managed to capture the hearts of the readers. In other words those characters had everything the readers had desired. Handapana was yet another novel which the people read with relish in the middle of the previous century. The central character is a young man, Sena Galapatha who represents the affluent urban society but, discontented with the drab urban life, he goes to a picturesque farming village, Rambutana where he meets a young attractive woman, Kusuma who ultimately becomes his wife. The novels which I have dealt with so far can be placed in the category where romantic love forms the dominant theme.

W. A. Silva, through his detective novels, opened up new vistas of interests for the Sinhala readers. Lakshamie (1922), the first novel of this genre, revolves round number of murders of which the salient feature is that although the crimes are committed in this island the murderers evade arrest hiding away in a country called Awkan. However, the mystery surrounding the murders unravels towards the end of the story. Radala Piliruwa (1939) was his second detective novel featuring a satirical portrait of a man, Raphael Baas who makes every endeavour to enter the upper class society from the lowest social stratum. In 1943 he published his third novel of this kind, July Hatha, marked by a sensational story where Wilson Wanaraja, a businessman finds among the various items of goods he has purchased, a box containing the head of a woman severed from the body. The police team, led by Inspector Samarasena and Sergeant Ranathunga detected that it was the head of a woman called Jennet who disappeared from her house on the seventh of July. Encouraged by this revelation, they intensified their investigations which eventually led to the apprehension of the murderer. Ridi Hawadiya which he wrote in 1956 describing the process of solving a puzzling crime was his last novel.

It was W. A. Silva who introduced the historical novel into the domain of Sinhala fictional prose. Daiwayogaya, published in 1936, unfolds a story which is set in the Polonnaruwa kingdom but the hero in the novel is not any of the well-known kings of the period such as Wijayabahu I, Parakramabahu I or Nissanka Malla but a provincial ruler, Keerthisena. The story in the second novel of this class, Sunethra Hewath Awichara Samaya, is related against a background of political instability and violence which followed the reign of King Rajasinghe of Sitawaka. The third novel in the series is Wijayaba Kollaya in which the story is presented in the context of the political and social upheavals during the reign of Wijayabahu VII as a result of the Portuguese inroads into the Kotte Kingdom. Writing a historical novel is a challenging and demanding job because the author must be thoroughly conversant with the social, political and economic conditions of the period which he deals and also of the language, customs and way of life depicted in the novel. In this respect even W. A. Silva’s severest critics admit that he showed his complete mastery over the handling of historical subjects in his novels.

W. A. Silva was a great novelist as well as being a gifted short-story writer. A survey of his writings is not complete without a reference being made to his output of short-stories. As in his novels, in his short-stories too, romantic love, disapproval of superstitious beliefs and parents undue pressure to make their young daughters marry the men chosen by them are some of the recurrent themes. His first collection of short-stories entitled Deiyanne Rate (1927) held an enormous appeal for the readers. Katharathnakaraya (1930), Lensuwa (1941), Amurtha Hasthya (1952) and Dala Kumari (1956), the other collection to follow, show his outstanding gifts as a short-story writer. The fact that Lensuwa included among the other stories, a Sinhala translation of Guy De Mauppasant’s Necklace is a manifestation of the inspiration W. A. Silva had drawn from the leading short-story writers of the west. Apart from the above mentioned collections he contributed short-stories to the periodicals and magazines which were published during that period.

The periodicals published under the editership of W. A. Silva are worthy of our consideration, for his many and varied interests are reflected in them. Sirisara was the first magazine to be started by him in February, 1919. In august, 1940 he began editing a literary magazine, Nuwana which was a very much sought after periodical of the period. Thilaka, yet another magazine published by him became increasingly popular among the contemporary readers. Needless to say, these publications helped the people in no small measure to improve their reading habit. In the opinion of most people the output of novels and short-storis was small during the latter part of his carrier in view of the fact that he had to put more effort to counter the critics who unleashed a torrent of abuse against him.

W. A. Silva was greatly instrumental in making fictional prose a popular form of entertainment among the Sinhala readers as he was one of the pioneers in the field of Sinhala fiction. So he made use of this new form of literature as a conveyor of new thought and feeling. He did so through the introduction of new themes and literary devices that could delight as many readers as possible. The striking feature of his young heroes and heroines is that they have the audacity to make a complete break with tradition by arguing with their parents about matters which concern their lives. Young women of marriageable age in particular, emphasise that they must have the freedom to choose their partners without undue influence from their parents. He delineates such characters in defiance of the contemporary conventions governing the conduct of young women. A close examination of the plots reveals a certain pattern of which the characteristic feature is that a story with a hero and villain who represent virtue and wickedness respectively ends on a happy note resulting in the triumph of the virtue over villainy. This fabric of the plot is marked by his exquisite management of the theme with a prose style of his own to carry it.

W. A. Silva was not a film director nor was he an actor, yet his name is inseparably linked with the Sinhala cinema. Most of his novels, viz Kelehanda, Radala Piluruwa, Siriyalatha, Daiwayogaya, Deiyanne Rate, Handapana and Hingana Kolla subsequently turned out to be successful Sinhala films. In point of fact Kelehanda, his favourite novel, has the distinction of being the first Sinhala novel to be selected by a film maker as the story of a Sinhala film. B. A. W. Jayamanne, father of the Sinhala cinema, inspired by the success of the novel, produced and directed Kelehanda in 1953. These films grew in popularity because the people were anxious to see the film versions of the novels which held a lot of interest for them.

Interesting novels written by the great writers of yesteryear including W. A. Silva were on the literature syllabus when Sinhala literature was taught in classes from grade six onwards but their books are not much read today because of the exclusion of that subject from the school curriculum consequent upon the implementation of the 1972 educational reforms. These novels may sink into oblivion unless there is a revival of Sinhala literature which has already become a neglected subject in our schools.

No serious assessment of W. A. Silva’s literary achievements was made during his lifetime. instead, some critics, without judging his books on their merit, tried in vain to deprive him of his due place as a writer. Kelehanda is generally regarded as his best novel, yet some critics went to the perilous extent of viewing it as his worst novel. It is common knowledge that Kelehanda received a favourable reception because the story, plot and characters held a firm grip on the readers’ attention. This sort of destructive criticism prevented him from making steady progress in is work.

W. A. Silva passed away on the thirty-first of May, 1957 marking the end of an eventful literary career which extended over a span of five decades. By a strange coincidence the premiere of Siriyalatha, a Sinhala film based on his first novel, happened to be held at Gamini Cinema, Maradana, on the same day.