Review – “Tradition Adapts to Modernity – A Personal Narrative By Nanda Pethiyagoda Wanasundera


It is seventy years since we were decolonized by the British. It is also the 200th anniversary of the Great Rebellion of 1818. Recent attempts to give us a portrait of the Kandyan Kingdom – the last bastion of Sri Lankan sovereignty - have varied from Professor Gananath Obeysekere’s refreshingly original description of the last King of Kandy as "The Doomed King" and Sunela Jayewardene’s imaginative travelogue "The Line of Lanka" including myths and legends of the Knuckles Range of mountains, the Dumbara valley and the city of Kandhe Uda Rata. Much more research and reinterpretation of the rich but sparsely documented past needs to be done through archaeological excavation and the unbiased analysis of oral tradition.

Nanda Pethiyagoda Wanasundera’s recently published volume belongs to a different genre and is described by her as a personal narrative of someone who was born and nurtured in the villages surrounding the city of Kandy with childhood memories brought vividly to life through portraits of family members and their experiences. She brings to this task the well honed skills of a published writer and a columnist of repute in a most readable volume attractively published by S. Godage & Brothers (Pvt) Ltd. with a beautiful cover design by Rajiv Wanasundera representing a collage of traditional crafts of the Kandyan region interspersed with judiciously selected photographs and drawings.

The central figure in the book is the writer’s mother, Loku Menike Abeykoon Pethiyagoda , widowed at an early age with five dependent children to be educated and guided into adulthood with the support of maternal grandparents. The village of Boyagama on the outskirts of Kandy is described objectively and in detail through the changes wrought in land tenure as the tenant cultivators’ rights expanded under legislation enacted by an independent post-colonial Government. The economic and social challenges faced by a brave widow, both in the village and in the urban milieu of Kandy, bring into prominence the traditional value system upheld by families of that period including the value of education provided by Christian schools in the region despite isolated examples of clumsy conversion attempts. It has to be read in juxtaposition with early sociological studies of the disintegrating village by the University of Ceylon (Sarkar and Tambiah) which Nanda Pethiyagoda herself updates by quoting Newton Gunasinghe’s study of Delumgoda village in his "Changing Socio-economic relations in the Kandyan Countryside".

Within the concise pages of fourteen chapters the writer portrays Boyagama and her life within the family, the transition to urban life in Kandy and cordial contacts with neighbours from other ethnic group like the Muslims, Tamils and Burghers, the cultural festivals, food, dress and jewellery, dance and drums, Kandyan architecture and wood carving, the caste system, Kandyan marriage and divorce and all other aspects of the Kandyan identity without a trace of pride or snobbery but with an understanding of the pressures of change which modernization brings. Selected quotations are used from scholars on various aspects which blend smoothly with the personal narrative and first hand observation.

Amidst the crass "Bollywoodization" of our TV entertainment and teledramas from the Republic of Korea and India there is a serious danger that even our history will be subjected to coarse interpretations and portrayals for the masses. Books like Nanda Pethiyagoda’s, based on authentic experience, are a welcome antidote to this.

Jayantha Dhanapala

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