Among Lankan writers who have been active through the post-Independence years and who have contributed to their strengths to the corpus of Lankan Literature, Sita Kulatunga is one whose name is crucial for a few reasons. Primarily, Kulatunga is a writer who, with her writing, could transcend class and social boundaries; while moving between social and cultural extremes in search of humanity and sensitivity. Secondly, Kulatunga is one of our early writers who managed to internationalize her perspective and go beyond the “national boundary” in search of stories to tell. Her novel, Dari the Third Wife is a convenient example for this. However, Kulatunga — alike her literary sisterhood and brethren of the 1970s and 1980s — is also a largely under-represented writer in the scholarly classroom.
Perhaps, this entry is redundant and inconsequential, as even I feel that this is not a piece motivated by the heart, or by a strong feeling towards Kulatunga’s services to Lankan writing. Had it been so, this should have been written at least 24 hours ago, before Kulatunga breathed her last. A message to that effect was forwarded to my mobile this morning, by a friend in journalism. Sita Kulatunga is a name we often list among the likes of Chitra Fernando, Lalitha Withanachchi and Maureen Seneviratne: a corpus of writers who are “convenient pickings” for unimaginative syllabus designers and uncritical teachers, for whom a “convenient package” of social and moral themes are “conveniently stored” by these writers.
Recently, I had the good fortune of working alongside a group of readers with whom we read a short story from Sita Kulatunga’s The High Chair and Cancer Days. The story we focused on was the title piece, a reflection on issues of caste, mobility and modernity, as the narrative dealt with two young persons from a Lankan village — a “high caste” boy and a “lower caste” girl — caught in the abyss of caste politics. Our reading of Kulatunga was, once again, within a wider corpus of stories from the same list of predictable short story writers we conventionally and convenienetly bank on. However, the tragedy — on hindsight — is that we couldn’t develop our dialogue beyond where that dialogue had been already brought to; by a hundred possible others, before our one hundred and first effort.
In the coming week, there will be a few appreciations of Sita Kulatunga and a review or two, depending on our journalists’ knowledge of her work. The Academy has written her off in the same way it has written off 99.9% of Lankan Writers, whose dislocation from the Lankan Creative discourse has served the classist assumptions and snooty ends that must be maintained. The absence of a critical literary culture in Sri Lanka — the king of sins — is the other detrimental reason why some of the writers who can be more “meaningfully placed”, or who can be “better assessed” in the context of their times and climes, have lost any kind of registration until the registrar of deaths opens his ledger.
As mentioned earlier, the group of us who were reading Kulatunga failed to inspire a sustained and meaningful dialogue beyond what we could comfortably pick off the top of her story’s fabric. But, as the person who led and prompted the discussion, I didn’t fail to be sensitive to a “sinister uneasiness” among the group: an unexpressed, thwarted, uncomfortable load as references to and details of the inter-caste parity was being read out. Who can say “The High Chair” is irrelevant; or that its preoccupations dull and unexciting? As a largely caste-conscious person I, myself, felt the sensitive task at hand in leading the discussion ahead with the most carefully chosen phraseology, subdued wit and with a degree of self-consciousness in everything I would be saying. The group numbered 40 of us altogether, and we would equally be sensitive to the political and discursive implications of caste. We all knew the possible diversity of our inbuilt caste identities and the historical and superior narratives that, thereby, drill in a bar code and a price tag for us. But, we wouldn’t know who is of which caste; but, one sweeping look across the group made me more than certain that we were all synchronized into one uncertain, heavy collective body. Had Kundera written a story on us, I would suggest the title, The Unbrearable Bearing of the Heaviness of Being (Casted).
The Sita Kulatunga text had given us the cue. The dull, unimaginative way in which meaning was sought in her story made us lose the spark that would have ignited a meaningful and constructive discussion. Instead, the mundane in a general thematic discussion made our day; and we took the balmy refuge of dishonesty and of not discussing what really matters and counts.