First Rising, by Somachandre Wijesuriya, is a novel set in the rural Omara-Matta, a village in the Kegalle district; which highlights the acute political and social changes the post-independence Ceylon undergoes under successive corrupt regimes. The story is based on the fortunes and falls of the Sirisena family – a support of the Freedom Party and of Bandaranaike politics since the latter’s rise to eminence in 1956. The novel, in fact, opens with the Bandaranaike election victory and leads us through the nepotism, revenge motives, corruption and hatred of UNP and SLFP-led governments, collectively heralding the country into an impasse. The abrupt and climactic conclusion courted by Wijesuriya is with the “first rising” of the JVP-led “rural masses” in 1971, which is both justified and mapped out as a social inevitability.
The narrative also focuses on the germ of ethnic hatred, mainly through the conflict seen between the post-independence trajectory chosen by the pro-Sinhala parties and the aspirations of the Tamil Estate labour who are struggling for a range of rights, from better food to the right of citizenship. We see the protagonist Gunasoma’s father Sirisena, a school principal and a staunch supporter of the nationalist block passive and lethargic as the village thug Edwin threatens to kill the Tamil apothecary and his family. Earlier, Sirisena and the memorable Liyanarachchi – a school teacher at Omara-Matta upon a punishment transfer – had both welcomed the “era-defining” victory of the nationalist camp. Yet, Liyanarachchi’s Samasamajist tendencies make him a force which dictates “social equality”; and that includes the rights of the Sinhala, the estate comradeship and Tamils alike.
Ramasamy is the LSSP lynchpin in the Rangala Estate and is the forerunner of carder mobilization and organization. He is illiterate and lacks the textbook theory in politics, but he is given by Liyanarachchi the dream of salvation from the slavery to which he and his kind are subjected to. Ramasamy is later committed to the Bogambara Remand Prison, on a charge of murder – in killing the English proprietor of the Rangala Estate, Mr. Norwood. It is later revealed that Ramasamy’s involvement was a framing, orchestrated by Edwin, who bears false witness against the coolie. In reality, it is Edwin who had killed the white man, as Edwin, much later, confides in Liyanarachchi, who – true to his hunter’s instinct – was in the process of killing two birds with one stone: the “white man” who, as the nationalist chief monk Rakkitha of the Omara-Matta temple repeatedly highlights, grabbed the land from our rural folk and the Tamils – who, according to the same nationalist project, do not belong in “Sinhala lands”.
Prior to Ramasamy’s hanging, he spends a prolonged jail sentence (of roughly five years), within which period his trial is held in open court. In prison, Ramasamy inculcates a “political consciousness” by teaching himself to read; and by allowing himself to think. As an estate labourer Ramasamy has not had sufficient leisure to critically engage or reflect on the issues that weigh on his repressed condition. But, through meditative thinking and reflection Ramasamy becomes an “aware being”, empowered by a deep, conscious reasoning of his situation and crises. He is further learned in English which he teaches himself through material provided to him by Liyanarachchi. Liyanarachchi gets Ramasamy an English Bible and an English-Tamil dictionary which he puts to efficient use. At one level, Ramasamy resembles Edmund Dantes of Victor Hugo’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Both Dantes and Ramasamy are imprisoned under false allegation and are locked up owing to forces beyond their control.
While Dantes of Hugo’s novel – a sailor and lacking in the finesse of social refinement – receives an education while in prison courtesy of the friar Peria, he expands his capacity acquiring knowledge which would later serve him, Ramasamy, too, prepares himself for an improved political programme the day he would be freed. Unfortunately, Ramasamy never sees an end to his prison term.
Another crucial factor is the striking contrast of the novel’s opening and its conclusion. What dawns as an optimistic “breaking dawn” with the Bandaranaike triumph of 1956, by the concluding chapters had transformed into a desperate and fruitless hollow. While the Sirisena family was seen in proactive political activism in the 50s, with deep conviction and commitment to “change through action”, by the 1960s the same family had become the patrons of a devale. Gunasoma’s mother becomes a lay priestess who earns a name for occult practices, giving her much fame and reputation. This transformation of the Sirisena bedrock from being pioneers of “committed change” through political activism to the patrons of a devale resonates the degeneration which the nation had undergone in that fifteen year period. From a “progressive vibe”, the nation had corroded into a place of “magic” and “occult”. Method and process is replaced by conjuring tricks and make belief.
The novel ends with the death of Sirisena who, in spite of his staunch belief in the SLFP ethic and a lifetime’s commitment to it, dies heartbroken and in debt. Wijesuriya highlights how easily one can be marginalized by one’s own party and how nepotism and favouritism undermine years of labour. Gunasoma, in spite of his education, remains an unemployed, as the government appointments are either held up; or, when filled are channeled through partisan and dynastical motives. Gunasoma’s father, a political victim who is transferred to a far off outpost by the UNP in 1965, deteriorates both physically and mentally during the tenure far off home. He survives a heart attack and the precarious life conditions there, but merely manages a retransfer to a school fifteen miles from home upon the SLFP re-election in 1970. By then, he had given all he could and the twin burden of Gunasoma’s unemployment and the lack of opportunities for his marriageable daughter sucks up what is left of him. He leaves behind a meager pension and a house mortgaged to pay off debts caused by the devale construction.
The devale, to Gunasoma, is the unanswerable bane – and so it is for the reader. Given the vibe we feel in the Sirisena household when the novel commences, one would hardly expect the Sirisena elders to take refuge in such an occupation; no less squander their fortune on it. Yet, this can be read as a metaphor of reversal and irrationality the nation, in years postdating independence, bungled into. The “truly” progressive Liyanarachchi, too, ends up losing his memory – a complicated case of amnesia. This, yet, again, unfolds a deep reading, for the type Liyanarachchi represents – agents genuinely committed towards social egalitarianism and welfare – have become redundancies and irrelevancies in the order of things.
The novel ends with Gunasoma joining the revolutionary JVP – or so it is suggested, as he goes in search of Anura Kularatne, who at one time was a monk at the Mawanella Pirivena. The members of the JVP are seen as educated, reflective and earnest individuals who are organized and with the depth which has the acumen to engineer a social transformation of sorts. The intellectual depth of the JVP carder is seen in the politically-relevant, minimalist but effective posters they have pasted, as well as in individuals such as Darmaratne Thera (later, Anura Kularatne) and Kumanayake, whom Gunasoma meets in the company of the monk. But, Wijesiriya also insists that the “rising” was fuelled by mass frustration and bureaucratic corruption, which had alienated the energetic and the intellectual of the learned youth. The carnage of the government reprisal of the rebellion is tightly recorded and in that flat statement the essence, in what it chooses to make compact, betrays the depth and width of that slaughter: “the armed forces of the Government of Ceylon tortured, hacked, shot, hung and killed twelve thousand youth” (407); which, Wijesuriya sums up is the “first rising”.