Book Review


A lyrical portrayal of a suicidal mind

Latest Book of Poetry By Prof. Wimal Dissanayake 

Pp: 51. Publishers: Sarasavi PRAKASHAKAYO 

Reviewed by Dr. Siri Galhenage Psychiatrist

Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet, in his Nobel Prize winning collection of poems, Gitanjali, ‘visualised [natural] death as man’s partner in life, a partner of boundless joy, accompanying him on his voyage to the eternal home which he was prepared for after his emotional sensibilities had crystallised over time, as he saw life in all its splendour’ [as paraphrased by Mohit Chakrabarti]. But, many across the globe choose to change the course of their life prematurely and ‘stray away’ to their eternal home by their own volition. Such a resolve is the end product of a cumulative process that involves the complex interplay of a multitude of factors with immense psychological and social significance.

‘Jayasirige Samugeneema’, is a poignant piece of first person verse depicting the psyche of a young man at the crossroads of his life having chosen his own path to the eternal home. It is a unique piece of literary art by Prof. Wimal Dissanayake, that offers an intellectual and an emotional experience that invites sensitive appraisal.

I consider it a great privilege to have been given the opportunity to review this latest book of poetry by Prof. Dissanayake, an illustrious contemporary of mine at Peradeniya.

An erudite scholar of international fame, Prof. Dissanayake needs no introduction. He is a leading poet and a critic in Sri Lanka who has won state awards for his poetry and literary criticism, both in Sinhala and in English and was given the highest literary award [Sahitya Ratna] in 2014. He is a professor in the Academy for Creative Media at the University of Hawaii and an honorary professor at the Open University of Hong Kong. Prof. Dissanayake is the author of over forty scholarly books in English and an equally large number in Sinhala. His English books have been published by world’s leading academic publishers such as Oxford and Cambridge and Duke University Presses. He is regarded as a leading scholar in the field of Asian Cinema. He was given the Lifetime Award by the Sri Lanka Foundation of Los Angeles.

Cleverly crafted, Jayasirige Samugeneema is based on the Aristotelian design of the ‘three unities’ – unity of place, unity of time and the unity of action – as, for example, adopted by Shakespeare in his play, The Tempest. Prof. Dissanayake brings together the thought processes of a man in solitude, mulling over his current emotional turmoil and ruminating on his traumatic past, standing on the verge of acting out his self-destructive thoughts by leaping off the bridge into the Mahaweli. His imminent action is driven by his philosophical attitude towards life and death – the need to exercise his free will in deciding his fate. The psychological and the philosophical musings are conveyed by a skilful deployment of a series of similes and metaphors. It is a brilliant example of ‘image-driven narrative poetry’.

Lovers of poetry would agree that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to translate the lyrical qualities of original poems without seriously damaging their beauty and integrity. Poetry of high calibre, such as Jayasirige Samugeneema, is best enjoyed in their original language. Yet, I shall endeavour to translate a few snippets of verse to English, converting them to prose in support of my formulation. My translation is inexact and I remain dissatisfied with my attempt!


The bloated moon, hiding a secret, beams over the bridge as I watch, with a sense of tranquillity, the welcoming water that waves at me. There is a premonition of an imminent celebration in the air. No doubt, many a slanderous tongue would wag, denouncing me for my act. Fireflies in the vicinity wrote luminous words of dissent. Despite the dissonance within me and without I need to take life into my own hands. Freedom!

I am an only child. Memories of my upbringing emerge from a misty past. My mother passed away when I was 12. My father remarried, a year later, plunging me into an abyss of misery and captivity. Freedom was a mere word. My desire for emancipation never left me.

I wish to record my inner turmoil and pronounce it to the world but time has come to a halt and words have deserted me. The earth is too small to bury my dead thoughts and an ocean of water is insufficient to quench my parched self. I have become an alien to myself; no longer do I see my face in the mirror. The whole of my universe is engulfed with darkness with no light in sight to console my soul – nightfall follows the dawn. The night breaks into my mind to paint pictures that I abhor. The macabre scenes of hell on the walls of the village temple come back to haunt me. I hear a sad song searching for a meaning in the interlude.

I started my education at the village school and won a scholarship to Nugawela Central from where I gained entry to the University of Peradeniya along with my childhood friend, Maldeniya. It opened the door to a new world. A glow appeared in a corner of my heart driving away the darkness in me somewhat. Riding on a wave of excitement during the first year I diligently attended the Sarachchandra classes for creativity. In the second year, political activism took precedence over my studies as I embarked on a mission to change the world; the tension generated suited me. But I was soon to be disillusioned by the disharmony amongst my peers; their hypocrisy became apparent to me. It generated aggressive impulses within me: a blind archer drawing his bow in the dark against his enemy.

Gripped by sorrow and fear I write my verse in solitude. They point me to a world not to my liking. I tried to build a bridge between me and the world not by logical thinking but by feeling. The questions that I ask myself die without an answer. Death has cast a shadow over every thought; I do not fear it; a sense of happiness blossoms out of it. My attempt at expressing it - with borrowed words and stolen imagery – is lost due to my struggle with my lingo forming a barrier to my freedom.

After graduation I took up a job as a teacher in a state school in the Wayamba district. The tranquillity of the environment brought me some solace. Attracted by her beauty, I fell in love with a colleague, Padma, a science teacher. I adored her. After a while, dissuaded by malicious rumour, she decided to part company. Deeply hurt, I chose to lead a life of a bachelor. I was lonely as a scarecrow in a parched chena. The memory of the first blossom that sprung up in my heart lingers in me.

On leaving the state school I joined St. Anthony’s College as a teacher with the hope of turning over a new leaf. But my expectations were short-lived. Some made spiteful innuendo that I was mentally deranged. Unfortunately, following a serious altercation with a student my employment was terminated. I then made a living by holding tuition classes in Kandy.

Feeling trapped I embarked on a quest for freedom. I became obsessed with deep philosophical material by Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus gaining a third eye into life and death and freedom. The thought of self-emancipation by leaving life brought me a sense of relief and joy despite the dissenting voices I hear around me. The day has come. I have reached my destination on the path in search of freedom. I stand victorious.

A month previously Jayasiri has sent the following poem, ‘A poem without a verb’ to his friend Maldeniya. It had an ‘oriental’ design.

Dawn/ A ray of light/ A Bridge/ River/ A man/ a noise/ Shore/ A crowd/ Dead body/ A banner of triumph.


In a postscript, Maldeniya reveals that the collection of poems is based on personal records left behind by Jayasiri – some of it in poetic form, albeit disjointed. He wished to present them without a conceptual framework.

One could elucidate three significant themes in Jayasiri’s life – psychological, social and philosophical – that finally merge to produce the final outcome.

One could interpret that Jayasiri’s affectional needs were not met during his formative years with the loss of his mother and the remarriage of his father leading to a period in his life which he perceived as oppressive. His adolescence was marred by misguided rebellion and disruption to his undergraduate education. His peer relationships were strained with painful consequences. He lost the woman he loved – his first love, the most meaningful relationship he developed – due to malicious rumour. With the escalation of his emotional turmoil he was unable to continue with his chosen profession resulting in unemployment - an added blow to his self esteem and self-worth. The early wounds created distorted perceptions about life. The theme of ‘loss’ dominated his life. Loss of hope became a lethal element in ending his life.

Jayasiri became increasingly alienated as a result of the above developments. While recognising the influence of a wide range of psychological issues – depression and anger, in particular - Emile Durkheim, the celebrated French Sociologist postulated that ‘failure of social integration’ was the final determinant of suicide. He called it ‘anomie’ or ‘normlessness’, a situation which increased his emotional vulnerability and reduced his immunity to suicide. [Le Suicid 1887]. Jayasiri certainly felt disconnected with society unable to give expression to his thoughts due to what he felt was a deficit in his capacity to communicate.

Feeling alienated, Jayasiri mulled over the meaning of life and embarked on a search for a way out of his predicament. Intellectually endowed, he turned to the work of existential philosophers like Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus for an answer. Their philosophy appealed to him. Sartre addresses the question of human existence. ‘Existence precedes essence [nature]’ – the central tenet of his philosophy – and man, through his ‘consciousness’, determines his own existence. He needs to be able to ‘transcend’ any constraining situation by harnessing his self control. ‘Freedom’, for him, is of the essence. According to Camus the ‘meaningfulness’ is one of the most important philosophical issues in life and if life has no meaning one must consider whether life is worth living.

Emotionally crippled and socially dislocated, Jayasiri uses an intellectual platform to transcend his oppressive situation and launch his mission to leave life. Having made his decision, he gained a sense of satisfaction in anticipation of what he perceived as his triumphant end.

Many would however disagree with Jayasiri on moral, ethical and medical grounds, and would even condemn him for the ‘glorification’ of suicide, while regreting the loss of a valuable life with intellectual and creative potential.


Through his latest book of poetry, Prof. Dissanayake, a literary figure par excellence, has proved himself to be a psychologist of similar measure. He has crept into the crevices of the human psyche and has emerged with a gem that reflects both human sensibility and the beauty of the written word.

The author in his introduction expresses concern that his work may fail to garner substantial attention by the general readership due to three reasons – as it is composed of a stream of imagery without a clear narrative; its theme of suicide which some may consider unpalatable ; and, the complexity of its architecture. But, I sincerely believe that those readers who are ‘psychologically minded’ or ‘socially conscious’ or ‘aesthetically sensitive’ would surpass such barriers and find this fine piece of literary art captivating.

Prof. Dissanayake wishes to point out that the characters Jayasiri and his friend Maldeniya are fictional. But as Albert Camus has said: "Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth"! Sadly, there are too many who have not lived to tell the truth.


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