by Smriti Daniel
The recently crowned Gratiaen Prize winner Madhubashini Dissanayake-Ratnayaka describes her winning work and her journey towards calling herself ‘a writer’
Madhubashini Dissanayake-Ratnayaka is on the run. Her colleague is on the phone with a question related to work, her younger daughter is waiting for a ride (they’re late for chess class), her elder daughter will need to be picked up soon and her usual parking spot was taken.
The mother of two wouldn’t usually expect to find a journalist keeping her company on her many errands, but the news that Madhu’s first novel ‘I Have Something to Tell You’ was the winner of the 2011 Gratiaen Prize is still fresh. Now Madhu must squeeze a session of ‘basking in the spotlight’ somewhere into her overflowing calendar.
People who know something of her demanding schedule can seldom resist the temptation to ask Madhu, marvelling, ‘how do you find the time to write?’ For the author, however, the crucial question is a different one – how could she not find the time? “I live half my life in the car,” she tells me.
She is constantly composing paragraphs in the notebook in her head – waiting in traffic and washing dishes are prime writing time, each strangely akin to meditation. She is a voracious reader. Offer her a few minutes off and Madhu will reach for a book. It’s a family joke that she keeps her library in her car – currently Junot Dias is nestled in the space under her windshield.
“Every life has to have a meaning and for me that meaning comes because I am a writer,” Madhu says. Her whole being is caught up in her young family but her private, literary life is as essential, albeit in a very different way. “I have my dark days when everything gets onto my head, but reading and writing is like my pressure valve,” she says.
‘I Have Something to Tell You,’ a large, somewhat intimidating manuscript had a gestation of nearly three decades. Not that she was writing all that time, Madhu hurries to clarify – but that she encountered some of her characters early on and found that they needed more pages than she could spare at that time. “It was exhilarating to watch it come together. I have been living with those characters and exploring those ways of thinking and being for a long time,” she says.
Her first publication ‘Driftwood’ (1991) won her the State Literary Award for the Best Collection of Short Stories in English. Years later, she would follow on that success with two books in quick succession, both of which would make the Gratiaen shortlist – ‘Tales of Shades and Shadow’ (2002) and ‘A Strange Tale of Love’ (2004) were collections that equipped Madhu to take on the challenge of constructing a full length novel.
Now, she knows the finished product needs a little more work – readers have told her that ‘I Have Something to Tell You’ was perhaps over long and that they’re never sure whose story they are actually following, as her numerous subplots only gain in intricacy as the novel progresses. Madhu, who agrees with much of the criticism levelled at the work, would like to explore ways of reorganising the book rather than reconceptualising it entirely. She is fiercely determined to retain its complexity – believing that the reader should have the issues she is presenting to them couched in a luxuriantly detailed context.
The one line description of her novel is that it is about “seven characters growing up in the latter half of the 20th century”. Her characters are young people for most part, about to undergo the test of their idealism. As a writer, Madhu finds their youth provides a rich vein for a story teller to mine.
“We’ve all been young once. We remember the intensity of their passions. Cynicism hasn’t set in yet, usually, and cynicism is such a dampener when one is writing,” she says, explaining that she and her characters become entangled with issues such as “the financial inequality that exists in Sri Lanka, social class, the English language, the politicisation of Buddhism, music and ownership of the language it speaks.”
Her characters and their concerns often reflect Madhu’s own preoccupations. “Whatever happened to this novel, it was in a way healing the rifts within myself,” she says, conceding however that she is yet to find any answers. “Writers create more questions than answers,” she confesses ruefully. That Madhu has begun to see herself as such i.e. a ‘writer’ is in itself noteworthy.
Becoming one was a cherished childhood ambition, but Madhu has resisted claiming the title for years. As the Head of the English Language Teaching Unit at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, she has a job that stimulates and challenges her, but secretly, she’s always felt that writing was what she did best.
It was why, when closing in on her 40th birthday, she decided to take up a Fulbright for a Masters in Creative Writing at NYU. To do so, she had to leave her current job, abandon a Masters she was pursuing locally and uproot her family. The gamble paid off. Living in New York, surrounded by other writers, she was in the company of kindred spirits. Still, she was different from her classmates, many of whom had yet to see 25. “I felt old but that wasn’t a disadvantage at all,” she says, explaining that she chose not to socialise much outside class but that she didn’t feel lonely and nor was she excluded. “When you’re 40 you feel free to do your own thing.” Very hearteningly, she also found an agent based there who was very enthusiastic about her work.
Her book progressed apace on her return, thanks to all the reading she had managed to do: ‘New York is a wonderful place to be if you want to research your own country,’ she says talking of libraries overflowing with books written by and about Sri Lankans.
Now the Gratiaen win has provided a much needed boost in confidence. “When you want to be a writer – it’s like floating on air,” Madhu says, explaining that many people she has encountered cannot quite understand how having no fixed hours, no boss, no office and crucially, no guaranteed pay check at the end of the month, could possibly constitute having a job.
“In Sri Lanka when someone asks you ‘what do you do?’ and you say you are a writer, they repeat the question – ‘but what do you do?'” All things considered, now Madhu should finally have the confidence to refuse to change her answer. She is, to her own satisfaction, a writer.
Excerpt from ‘There’s Something I Have to Tell You’ by Madhubashini Dissanayake-Ratnayaka
Shhhh shhhh shhhhh!
Janu looked up at the hailing. A boy was standing at the fence that separated the house from the temple premises, his eyes following the movements Janu made with the cricket bat. Janu swung a few more imaginary sixers, casting looks at the stranger in an offhand way. The boy seemed younger than Janu’s ten years, and stood barefooted and bare bodied with only an orange cloth tied around his waist, his dark shaven head shining like a walnut under the Jak fruit tree. Even in its shade his eyes could be seen gleaming as he regarded the bat in Janu’s hand. Once Janu nodded him over, it took the boy only a few minutes to scale the tree and hop over to this side, something he did with more ease than Janu knew he could have managed even with his more convenient shorts and T shirt. The boy was inches shorter than him, and Janu watched the bald head shinning near the bat as the boy bent over it, breathing deep and fast.
“Good bat. From Colombo, no? Only Colombo would have such good bats. Not even my village had bats like these.”
“Aren’t you from Bulankulama?”
“From Madirigiriya. Is this yours? I had a bat at home but had to leave it when I came here.”
“Buddhist monks don’t need bats, they said. Where is the ball?”
“You are a hamuduruwo?”
“Not full monk yet. Samanera, a novice. Do you have a ball?”
Janu left the bat in the boy’s hand and ran back to his house to get his cricket ball. As he sped out again, he half feared that the possible playmate would have gone – hardly any boys came to this ancestral house of his father’s called the walawwa, the mansion of the village, as they were not considered good enough to be his playmates when he was brought here once every long school holiday.
But the boy monk was there, taking position as the batsman, tapping the earth with the tip of the bat so that Janu could bowl without ever stopping the run he had started from the house. Janu breathed a sigh of relief as the ball sailed over his head. Good company at last.
“What do I call you?” Janu shouted as he bowled the fourth time towards the boy, his arms curving over his head furiously. He wondered how he could get to bat – any other boy in the village he could have ordered out. “Reverend Sumana,” he shouted back. “Little Monk, if you wish.”
Janu frowned. There was no way he could fight with someone he had to call reverend. Even a king has to go down on his knees before a Buddhist monk. He would have to catch that ball. Janu waited eagle eyed – the monk couldn’t be that good that the ball wouldn’t end up in his hands. But he was. It took Janu more than three overs to get him out.
“When did you become a monk?” Janu asked when Little Monk finally said he had to go back to the temple to have his lunch. No one who had not held a bat for long could play the way the monk did.
“A few months ago,” Little Monk said, still keeping the bat firmly in his hands as he turned towards the temple.
“That is why I haven’t seen you before,” said Janu.
Little Monk kept a foot carefully on the jak tree avoiding the wire of the fence that ran before it. He reached for a branch with one hand and vaulted himself over, holding the bat with the other. One he was standing on the other side, he tested it a few times on the top leaves of a golden daspetiya plant, causing the tiny petals to scatter on the sand around it. Then he handed the bat over to Janu over the fence.
“Keep it for a while. There is another inside the house,” said Janu. There wasn’t. This was his best bat. But something in the Little Monk’s face made him say it.
“Monks are not supposed to like games. They are not supposed to like anything too much, actually.”
“Liking leads to sorrow. That is what they say,” Little Monk said with his face turned away. Since Janu hadn’t taken his bat back, Little Monk continued to prod the flowers lining fence with it.
“Why did you become a monk then?”
Little Monk shrugged. “The Chief Monk here is a cousin of my mother’s. He wanted someone to take over the temple after him, I guess.”
Little Monk seemed to wait, leaning on the bat and after some moments Janu hastily took his feet out of his slippers and attempted the same leap that the monk had done. It cost him a scraped knee and scratched palms but he managed and Little Monk made no comment about his clumsiness. Perhaps he had known that Janu was from Colombo and didn’t have a chance to posses the skills that he had. Janu got up from the sand where he had landed on all fours, wiping his hands on his shorts. Janu was familiar with the temple, having come here with his parents each time they visited the village. It was only this particular way of getting here that was new.
As they walked through the coconut grove, Janu could see the clay lamps lit even in the afternoon around the bodhi tree, shivering points of light underneath the shade. As he stepped into the white sand of the temple proper, the grains of which were swept into the pattern of a coconut palm, the white stupa rose over him. And more than any other temple he had been into, there were flowers here, lining the outside of the shrine room, all along the path to the monks’ abode, alongside the bell tower. Pottering among them was the dark form of Saranelis, the temple acolyte, the sight of whom made the Little Monk give the bat back to Janu.
“Walawwe appo, little master,” said Saranelis, cracking his old face open in a broken toothed smile, the first scowl vanishing at the recognition. “I heard that you had come.”
Little Monk went without stopping to the clothes line hung by the well and took down his saffron robe. He draped the robe around himself and Janu stared at him, startled. He could not have played cricket with the person standing in front of him now.
“Your father came to see our chief monk a few days ago,” Saranelis said walking out of a flower bed, wiping his face with a dirty rag he had slung over his shoulder. “I was sorry that your mother hadn’t come this time.”
A flood of coldness hit Janu’s stomach. He had forgotten that something was wrong. Janu wished he had been allowed to ask her what it was before he had been bundled into the car by their driver before the silent drive that had brought him and his father here.
“She was not well.” Janu said shortly. “She had a stomach ache.”
“Yes, yes,” said Saranelis absently. “Ah, life!”
Sarala’s father began bringing home any old English newspapers that he could find since that day in 1975, when the Tamil New Tigers shot and killed Durraiappah, the Tamil Mayor of Jaffna. Durraiappah had been a strong supporter of the Sinhala lead Sri Lanka Freedom Party which had come to power first on the promise of making Sinhala the only official language of Sri Lanka. Rumour had it that it was one among a small group of young Tamil boys making a crazy demand of a separate state up north of the country, who had shot him, a man called Prabhakaran.
Sarala’s father brought home English words wrapped around tea buns, crushed around bunches of plantains – the yellow ambul and kolikuttu, the long green anamalu. He smoothed the pages over with his palm on the kitchen table, leaning over it instead of sitting down on a chair. Often still in his white kurta shirt and sarong he wore to school, he called Sarala over to his side to point out the words to her. As she leant her elbows on the table and squinted at the black print, he followed her progress, tracing with his forefinger unfamiliar sounds that twisted her tongue strangely.
“It is almost as if he has forgotten he is the Sinhala teacher in our school, not English,” she complained to her brother and his friend as they sat outside the Vivekaramaya temple one fullmoon poya holiday. They were here lured not by piety but the laden mango tree that bordered the temple ground.
“Do we have an English teacher in school?” Upali asked.
“We are supposed to have. But it is difficult to get English teachers to come to villages like ours.” Kamal said.
“What do you mean, ‘villages like ours’?” Upali asked.
“These areas far away from Colombo are called ‘difficult areas’. Trained English teachers come here only for the compulsory two years they have to serve after their training. The moment that is done, they leave.”
“Who told you?”
Sarala had heard her father mention to her mother that Kamal had an unusually good brain, that they will not have to worry about their son. As she twisted her tongue around strange English words, she hoped that by doing so she would lessen the worry they had about her as well. A girl was a weight, needing protection till marriage and a dowry then. She knew there was no gold, money or land that her parents had to give as her dowry. The house they were in had been mortgaged to Lucky mudalali even before it was inherited by her father. It was a small amount the mudalali had needed to lend her grandfather – the mudalali was the richest shopkeeper in Bulankulama and could afford to lend money to the whole village if he wanted to – but the debt kept getting bigger and bigger as time passed with the accumulation of the enormous interest rate. Sarala imagined it going down the generations. Kamal paying it, then his son. She hoped she would one day marry a man who had a house that was not mortgaged.
They were sitting under the Crow Bo tree growing outside the temple premises. Sarala sat cross legged on the cement slab lodged at a gentle angle on the earth below the tree. She was at ease because this was a Crow Bo, not commanding the awe and respect demanded by a sacred Bo tree. The seed for a Crow Bo was believed to have been carried in the excretion of a crow. It sprang accidentally. The Bodhi tree inside a temple was planted with much ceremony.
All three of them were holding mangoes in their hands, sitting comfortably in the shade, the boys sucking the mangoes in companiable silence. The three of them never spoke about Walawwe appo’s visit. Appo had returned to Colombo the very next day and after that Upali behaved the way he always did with Kamal. The brother and the sister never wanted to ask him what had happened because the little they had gathered of his past has told them that it was better left untouched.
Upali’s mango was sucked to the seed. Kamal was peeling the second half with his teeth. Sarala was holding hers reddish green and whole in her hand. Upali had knocked them down from the temple mango tree heavy with fruit. She would not eat it because it had been got by breaking the second promise of the five that all Buddhists had to take every day. But she would not say it either and get laughed at by her brothers. She spoke about the more pressing problem instead.
“Where would we use English even if we were to learn it? Who speaks English here? I don’t see the point.” She was tired of squinting at the smudgy newsprint like she had been doing the last two months.
“Ask him then. And stop complaining to us.” Kamal said dismissively. He didn’t know her problems, being quick to catch most things in school. She pressed her lips together. She would.
Anila’s island had been called Serendip by the Persians, who got it from the Arabs’ Serendib, who in turn had used the name Swarna Deepa – the Golden Island – by which the Sinhalese called their land. The heroes of the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip were always making discoveries of things they were not seeking. In 1754, Horace Walpole used this story to coin a new word into English, Serendipity.
So many names for this little piece of earth. The island was Tambapanni – bronze palms – for Vijaya, their Aryan ancestor, falling exhausted off his boat onto the golden beach, rising with copper coloured sand on his hands. Alexander the Great called it Taprobane, though he didn’t live to cross over the mountains to India and come to its teardrop in the Indian Ocean. For the Portuguese, the drinkers of blood and eaters of stone that the Sinhalese watched as the white men had their bread and wine on the beach, it was Ceilan.
They left behind Roman Catholicism and names like Becker, De Souza. The Dutch called it Zeilan, leaving behind a people who didn’t want to return, the Burghers. The third and last colonizers to come sniffing after the fragrance of cinnamon and the smell of profit were the British who named the island Ceylon.
They brought with them like the others, according to Uncle Senevi, injustice and exploitation. But when they were gone, the islanders found themselves left with plantations for tea, a transport system to ferry it throughout the country, a language, a religion, a way of life.
Anila had once gone to see the Kotmale reservoir with her parents. It was part of the giant hydro electricity project that was made by diverting the natural course of the longest river in Sri Lanka. The great Mahaweli was dammed and made to run over villages and lives in the name of progress. On the viewing bridge, the wind that whipped her hair across her face carried the smell of water and wet earth.
The waters were of a blue that one would choose to draw it with if one was very young. As far as the eye could see, it was only water and mountains and sky – the hill country was most beautiful in this area of Kotmale. It may never have been touched by humans, even if it were people who had dammed the river and made the reservoir. There had been life once where there was water now. Villages, temples, devales, ancient reservoirs had gone under water to allow the Kotmale Reservoir to exist. Water moved through doors in rooms where people had slept, over fields where children played. Now the sky they flew kites in was water. Mud that had raised paddy, river bed. Stupas stood sentinel over the drowned villages still.
The shrine rooms once thick with joss stick smoke and faith, now had a thicker element contained within its walls. What remained behind? Anila wondered. One can never leave completely. Her trip to the hill country with her family lasted only a day but there would always be a woman, on leave from her office in Colombo, standing on the bridge, watching unmatchable beauty with haunted eyes. The three thousand families who lost their homes to the water had lived on this land that had passed down to them from centuries.
What was falling apart underneath? What never will?
The rock fill dam towered 285 feet. It was 600 metres long. It was powerful enough to hold 141, 000 acres of water in check.
She looked at the water and thought – that is my heart. Then she looked at the barrier – that is what I have done with it.
(The article on Madhubashini Dissanayake-Ratnayake was written by Smriti Daniel for the “Sunday Times” of June 3rd 2012. The excerpts from the Gratiaen prize winning novel were also selected by Smriti for the “Sunday Times” of May 20th 2012)