Martin Wickramasinghe: A literary colossus of the last Century


The 34th death anniversary of Martin Wickramasinghe, patriarch falls on July 23.


by Dr. W. A. Abeysinghe


Way back in 1964, Joseph Needham, fellow and President of Caius College, Cambridge, writing a foreword to Martin Wickramasinghe’s "Buddhism and Culture" opined thus:

"I have read these essays of my friend Martin Wickramasinghe with great interest and appreciation, and commend them to all readers in the Western as well as Eastern world. For the former especially, there is no greater need than a better understanding of the world-outlooks of the peoples of Asia, and here we have an enlightened Buddhist telling us of his reactions Russian and West European literature, to modern education, science and learning. With this we can all, as it were, sit in a basket chair at Nawala (Rajagiriya) and enjoy the conversion of one of the most active minds of contemporary Ceylon."

For over six decades, up to his death on the 23rd of July 1976, as one of the most actively involved intellectuals, Martin Wickramasinghe has been a dominant and dynamic figure in the Sri Lankan literary scene of the twentieth century. Although reference has been made by his bibliographer to a "tiny booklet of 12 pages entitled "Balopadesaya" (which incidentally was published in 2003 by the Martin Wickramasinghe Trust) written by a boy of thirteen years named Martin Wickramasinghe, being the son of late Mr. Don Bastian Wickramasinghe, Officer of Police," his ascertainable literary career really begins in 1914, the year "Leela", his first novel subtitled as "Rasawath Katantarayak" appeared in print.

During a period of sixty-two years spanning from 1914 to 1976, Wickramasinghe produced nearly two thousand pieces of writings both in Sinhala and English, inclusive of nearly ninety books. Those writings can broadly be categorised as creative, academic and journalistic. In all these three forms of writings, his subject field encompasses a wide range in the Humanities and the Sciences. His main concern however, was with subjects such as language, literature – both oriental and occidental- religion, philosophy, culture and social anthropology.

As it was the case with many men of letters, Wickramasinghe, too, started his writing career as a journalist. The "journalist" during his time - especially during the pre-Independence era, and a few decades immediately thereafter - was a man of a different mould in stark contrast to his present day counterpart, the elegantly dressed computer-literate media man who follows a particular branch of his chosen journalistic field he is supposed to have specialised in. The "journalist" in Martin Wickramasinghe, was an erudite personality disciplined in a variety of subject fields ranging from Sinhala culture to Indian Vedanta philosophy and Western rationalism. His invaluable and perennial contributions to various journals and newspapers at that time - before, during and after the time he adorned the highest editorial chairs of Dinamina and Silumina - are full of meaning even in the first decade of the third millennium and one feels obliged to congratulate the "Martin Wickramasinghe Trust" on the posthumous publications of many of those articles in book form. In his journalistic career, both as a professional and a freelancer, he used a few pseudonyms, in addition to his writings under his byline. One of such interesting pseudonyms during the early period was "Malalagama M.W."

He also wrote under such pen names as "Hetuvadi", "Vijitha Manuwara" and "Mayurapada". Though written in a very readable journalistic style, "Mayurapada’s contributions to the Silumina were scholarly columns of an enlightened intellectual of the highest calibre.

Wickramasinghe was a pioneer journalist who disseminated knowledge of subjects such as biology, archaeology, social anthropology and the theory of evolution to the Sinhala reading public at a time when they were quite alien to this country. In the context of journalism in Sri Lanka, Wickramasinghe emerged not merely as a writer of and a commentator on various subjects, but as an involved and enlightened intellectual who so selflessly played his role in the cultural resurgence and national awakening during the early part of the last century.

Wickramasinghe’s contribution to Sinhala fiction, in both short story and novel, has been evaluated fairly well and a host of critical studies, mainly in Sinhala, has appeared during the last three decades. Suffice it to say at this instance, that here too, he was a pioneer. He was undoubtedly the first Sinhala writer who was responsible for the emergence of the truly realistic novel, and "Gamperaliya", the first of the celebrated trilogy (the other two works being "Kaliyugaya" and "Yuganthaya"), which appeared in 1944 was a landmark in the history of Sinhala fiction. Then again, nobody disputes the fact that "Viragaya" was the first psychological novel, which set in motion a series of such works shaping the Sinhala novel into a serious from of art. Our short-story too, owes much to Martin Wickramasinghe, for he successfully fashioned it into a delicate and sensitive mode of fiction, having immensely derived inspiration from the Russian short stories of the Chekhovian tradition. The numerous translations of his novel and short-stories into English, French, Chinese and East European Slovak languages including Russian and Bulgarian are fitting testimonials to the creative genius of the Sri Lankan celebrity fondly described as the "Koggala Isivaraya" (Sage of Koggala) by a grateful nation.

I personally feel that it is in his critical works and academic essays that Martin Wickramasinghe vociferously expresses himself. His wide knowledge of religion and philosophy, his insight into life, and his incisive interpretations of culture and civilisation, brought into being an intellectual par excellence.

When "Sinhala Sahitye Negeema," another pioneer work in literary studies, appeared in the early years of Nineteen Forties, Senarat Paranavithane, reviewing the book in the Ceylon Daily News, acclaimed it as a "book, on the whole, is thought - provoking and ought to go a long way in the creation of a good literary taste among the Sinhala reading public."

This landmark critical study was later translated into English by Prof. Ediriweera Sarathchandra, entitled "Landmarks of Sinhalese Literature" and the celebrated translator had this to say of Martin Wickramasinghe:

"In the meantime... the original work... still continues to be the most daring and thought provoking estimate of classical Sinhalese literature that has emanated from the band of any critic. Most of the critical works subsequently written has been merely a rehash of the views expressed by Wickramasinghe. By and large, his estimate of the classics has stood the test of time and has come to be generally accepted by the critical reader."

Wickramasinghe was not a writer or a scholar who amassed knowledge just for the sake of amassing it. Any kind of pedantry was not evident in his writings. The wealth of knowledge he acquired from various sources, be it Sinhala folklore, Indian Vedanta philosophy, the Russian Novel or the Freudian psycho analysis, he incisively interpreted it in terms of culture and society, in a thought provoking manner, thereby adding his wisdom to the world intellectual heritage. In an essay as short as this, I do not for a moment think that justice could be done to this literary colossus, in the context of his contribution in the academic arena. Nevertheless, I cannot resist quoting a few random sentences from his interesting comparison of "The Buddhist Jataka Stories and the Russian Novel", where he dismisses scholars of the calibre of Prof. Winternitz, thus:

"The spiritual, psychological and sometimes the environmental elements that combine to make some peculiar characters in the novels of certain Russian writers, have affinities to those elements of the characters of some of the Jataka Stories. These affinities may be many due to similarities of experience and the philosophy of life of the Russian novelists and the Buddhist writers who handled the Jataka Stories. Ancient India was like pre-revolutionary Russia, a vast country, with more or less similar economic conditions, and a heterogeneous population oppressed by rigid social and religious conventions."

It was this critical approach to many branches of learning, so characteristic of Martin Wickramasinghe’s intellectual discipline that inspired Prof. Joseph Needham to call him "one of the most active minds of contemporary Ceylon."

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