K. Jayathilake’s Charitha Thunak (later translated into English as A Chaff of Grain, by Sarachchandra) and Mahagama Sekara’s Thunman Handiya have several unmistakable similarities and coincidences; as well as distinct echoes in theme, style and philosophical concern. Some of the more innocuous intersections include the common locality of Radawana, around which both short novels are centered, the protagonist being the eldest male child of the family under study (Loku Maama, of Thunman Handiya and Isa of Charitha Thunak); not to mention the “number 3” in both titles.
Both works are concerned with notions of time and its passage, eliciting the many changes that set in cutting across socio-political, cultural, economic and domestic spheres and how these complexes, in turn, fashion and transform identity and the organic values of networks in which the characters move. The submerging of one (older, traditional) order and the emergence of a new capitalist machine of life is portrayed with much emphasis in both narratives. Sekara’s Podi Maama becomes, in that capitalist sense, a foil for the anti-hero Loku Maama who, in spirit and integrity is the more “human” in his social responses. He represents a community-oriented fast-fading “traditional” phase, which banks on sentiment and feeling, and is non-profit oriented; thereby, un-profiteering. His is an aesthetic-romantic universe and its fading — as opposed to the rise and prosperity of Podi Maama — is seen in the gradual but definite decline in the one industry for which Radawana was known: the making of horse carriages.
Similarly, the organic, agriculture-based world occupied by Isa of Charitha Thunak is clearly polarized, with the dawn of a new era in modern entrepreneurship (no matter how crass and without sentiment it is manifested) for which Ranjit stands witness. Not that Isa was in want of ambition in his own universe as the “Kokilane Sitano” — an unused thick overgrowth which was once thought impenetrable, which Isa cultivates by his own in search of prosperity and economic stability. But, these traditional expectations of a pre-industrial consciousness (and Isa’s worldview is strictly based on agrarian concerns) are superseded by Ranjit’s priorities and parameters. Ranjit fast annexes the land that surrounds their traditional property and further enhances his material bank by marrying a woman who is regarded by Isa as being of unaesthetic proportions and manners. She, for her part, is a physically less vital daughter of a crumbled walauva; with the burden of age already haunting her.
Both Podi Maama and Ranjit — along with their annexations and worldviews –, therefore, share much resonance; as much as Loku Maama and Isa do. While Loku Maama of Thunman Handiya evokes an existentialist aura, he is not an informed subject, for he is not conscious of the transformations that take place around him. Nor does he appear to be a resistor against the toll that is leveled on him. Sekara’s narrator, I felt, does much to elicit the “human goodness” in this man, in spite of him being consistently rejected and discarded as a drunk and as an idler. The sidelining, of course, is based on the superficial belief that sobriety (in the non-alcoholic sense) and industry are the marks of a man on the making. The dialectical trajectory the text assumes — dialectic to the very social ethos and the value-endorsement the characters reflect — in making the “alcoholic idler” the man whose misfortunes and fate induces our tears is both memorable and is a triumph in narrativization.
Unlike Sekara, Jayathilake’s Isa undergoes a conscious phase of self-realization, where the epiphany of life and its materialist bonds dawn on him with an existentialist anxiety. It is crucial to note that Isa has two paradigm shifts of sorts at two decisive moments in the text — first, at the death of his father, where he is transformed into the responsible seat of being the “man” of the house. This, incidentally, is a moment he was waiting for; as he is determined from a young age to better his father’s agricultural prospects and efforts. However, the intimidation Isa consistently undergoes in face of the physically superior, riotous younger brother Sana makes his enterprises cautionary. The second shift takes place in the aftrermath of his mother’s (Amma’s) death; where Isa becomes renounced from worldly comfort and desire. His final act of initiating a reconciliation with Sana’s family is a sign of resignation from the material world; even as Sana’s numerous family has much to gain by befriending the aged Isa. One should also not be oblivious to the suggestive implication of “isivaraya” (or the Wise One), which can be plucked from the name “Isa”.
Jayathilake and Sekara write in the 1960s; and when I first noted the resonances between the two texts to fellow readers, the offhand quip from the majority was that “Jayathilake must have copied from Sekara”. Given the stature Sekara has earned / been garlanded with in his multifaceted literary career, the quip — cracked, I’m sure, in a lighter vein –, perhaps, is pardonable. However, to set Jayathilake’s record straight, Charitha Thunak was written in 1963, while Thun Man Handhiya is published 4 years later, in 1967.
Among other mutual reflections, most memorable are the “missed chances” at matrimony either protagonist experiences. Isa, owing to his inability to initiate a mutuality (in spite of many open references to his agitated, stirred libido), misses out on marrying Lalitha who shows much concern and love towards Isa. Loku Maama, too, is unable to marry the socially superior classed young lady whom he desires; which adds to the Romantic assessment which one may make of his character. The antagonist in each case (Podi Maama and Ranjit) are typified and located more in objective terms: as foils and as offsets. Their marriages are seen as capitalist necessities and as ventures of that business spirit, neither morally appeasing nor aesthetically fulfilling.