Punyakante Wijenaike’s “The Monkeys” is an innocuous short story which deals with a kid monk’s reciprocation with a monkey herd which frequented his ashram. This kid monk — who, as per the dogma, is subjected to rigourous Buddhist training, and is made to abstain from worldly comfort — finds solace in feeding and playing with the kid monkeys in the vicinity of his retreat; and things go smooth until, one day, the monkeys follow the monk to the ashram and create havoc. Subsequently, the abbot of the ashram reprimands the kid monk and “corrects” him, while re-orienting the little fellow in the path of renunciation.
I encountered this simplistic story several years ago in a collection of Lankan Fiction, edited and collected for a cheap commercial purpose by a well known English scholar who, of late, does cheap shopping for the government. Among other work collected in the volume under scrutiny were items prescribed for a cross section of local exams, from A/L to courses in External Degrees. “Monkeys”, corresponding with the anthology maker’s choice, was in a study course offered by the Sri Jayewardenepura University External B.A.
The short story, though innocuous, —- and perhaps, in a simpleminded “innocent” way characteristic of certain Punyakante Wijenaike texts — tables several themes which, in a narrowminded country like ours, where fraught Buddhist patriotic banners are waved with saber-sharp tenacity to the least of provocations, can be “controversial”. For instance, the story unveils a kid monk who is given to the robes at a tender young age, where the decision taken on his behalf by his elders, deprives the kid of his childhood. In fact, in the playmates he seeks in the monkeys is a letting off of anxiety at being subjected into the Spartan principle of monkhood at that age of play.
Questions of free will and suppression repeatedly emerge in the story where the Sinhala Buddhist mainstream is invited to rethink a cultural practice (of ordaining kids as monks) which has been naturalized into the system. Once — late 2011 or early this year — I remember speaking of this short story at a seminar organized by the USJP (where, as I felt it, I was making little sense to the largely “Packeted Literature” fed audience of the day) where, amidst a group of 80-100, a solitary monk occupied the front bench. I have very rarely spoken Literature at seminars / sessions attended by monks; and to comment on thematic strains which to the uncritical Buddhist mass would appear as “unpatriotic” and “demeaning” of their institution was a novelty.
A few months from the USJP seminar experience, I was introduced to the GCE Ordinary Level English Literature syllabus which had, by then, been in use for several years. As a person who sees very little imagination and openmindedness in the GCE A/L syllabus for the same subject, I confess, the O/L Literature Syllabus caught my eye for an intriguing line up which, I felt, had sufficient fire and energy in it to stimulate the student and teacher alike. Among prescribed passages and prose material, I also discovered the short story with which we have been breaking bread so far: “The Monkeys”, by the Grand Old Lady of Lankan English Literature.
Upon this chance discovery, in a vein of jest, I casually mentioned the Jayewardenepura Incident to a O/L teacher friend: where I had to hold forth at a seminar of the kid monk’s childhood being twisted and of how he was deprives of choice; less of all, of having to submit them with a monk taking down notes in the front row. The friend informed me that the people responsible for syllabus design have issued an amendment to the O/L syllabus, removing “The Monkeys” coming to effect from the next batch. Though not documented anywhere, the reason for this removal could only be one —- and that, I assure, is not the simplistic quality of the Wijenaike text. Being an insecure, volcanic social mass, the narrowmindedly “Sinhala Buddhist” sentiments are hurt by the Wijenaike story, in spite of its mediocrity as a short story to be taken seriously. I back up my insinuation that someone in the education bureaucracy would have seen the “inaptness” of the story as a “post-war” Sri Lankan narrative, where tribal insecurities and cult-consciousness have permeated into a whole new premise of social regimentation and appropriation.
The Wijenaike story, I am told, is set to be replaced by Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince”. Wilde, being a worthy writer who is hardly given discursive space in our literature studies, makes a welcome feature even though the GCE O/L is a level too low (and “The Happy Prince” being not the best of his works) for him to be studied with the tenacity which Wilde’s work deserves. Nor is this inclusion to Wilde’s merit; for his short story is being used as a substitute required by a mean political agenda.
“The Monkey story”, at its best, reflects how our syllabus material are weighed, appropriated and imposed —- how, even in a subject that is meant to broaden our reading of culture and politics, petty insecurities creep in and how narrowmindednesses and perversions infiltrate. Literature is no longer a safehouse in a country imploding to ignominy. Education is not about opening out to critical discourses — it is more the serving spoon of the state, where the soup of its anxieties are poured out.