The paradox of our English Literature classroom, both at high school and university level, is the under-representation of Sri Lankan Literature, even though, in their “peddling” of ideology, the majority of Education’s string-pullers are committed to a location of our reality within the rubrics of a postcolonial politic and so forth. None of the national universities, save one, is yet to offer a degree course in Sri Lankan Writing in English, and where that component is offered as a smaller part of Postcolonial Literature, the study scope is often limited to expatriates or dual citizens such as Michael Ondaatje, Shyam Selvadurai and Romesh Gunasekera; with the dynamics, and complexities of resident writers, along with their representations of the anxieties, tensions and frictions that is Lanka not even being considered worthy of exploration or discussion. The resultant misrepresentation of what is representative of Sri Lanka both locally and abroad has since become a “big issue” which the better academics in literature repetitively (and with the right jargon) lambaste at conferences and such, like a garment they dip in the mud, and then wash, so as to keep the discourse and pay cheque alive. In these circles, studies into Sri Lankan Literature cannot go too far, as they operate within the imposed confines of a narrow and vicious facade of representation that makes no sense, and because these precious souls are, in any case, not honest in their trade as writers, or, alternatively, as scholars.
In spite of several key areas where it can improve as an academic entity, the University of Sri Jayewardenepura is singular in its offering both the General Degree and Special Degree a full course in Sri Lankan Writing in English. The Department of English which offers these courses has also provided the groundwork for the course(s) to be flexible and dynamic, so as to accommodate both the “classical” study areas locatable within the subject, as well as a degree of the more contemporary and current tendencies. Naturally, with a course unto its own, the way in which even an Ondaatje or a Selvadurai can be contextualized within the frame of a “Literature that relates to Sri Lanka” can be more meaningfully and more imaginatively explored: an approach to Literature which makes more sense, when those texts are comparatively placed within a larger corpus of writers who are “closer to home”, and who seem to represent the “dynamics of culture, space and politics”. As the syllabus is taught and discussed at Sri Jayewardenepura at present, classroom experiments are carried out at a further level, to meaningfully and strategically place narratives of representation written in English, juxtaposed with similar narratives in Sinhala / Tamil. In recent years, the English Literature classroom has shared thought and opinion on works such as Keerthi Welisarage’s Kaala Sarpa (trans. Time Rebounds), K. Jayathilake’s Charitha Thunak (trans. Grain and the Chaff) and S. Ponnadurai’s Sadangu (trans. Ritual). Literature of a more unconventional and – at times – even controversial nature to make the list includes Shobhasakthi’s Gorilla and Traitor, Visakesa Chandrasekaram’s Tigers Don’t Confess and Rohitha Munasinghe’s Eliyakandha Wadha Kandhawura (trans. Eliyakandha Torture Camp).
The reading of Rohitha Munasinghe, in particular, was a challenge and an important challenge at that, as his is one of the most comprehensive witness records of being extra-judicially detained, tortured, harassed and treated with gross impunity by the Sri Lanka army, at a torture camp in Brown’s Hill, Matara in 1989. Munasinghe has a JVP connection between the party’s resumption of democratic politics in 1977, and 1982. In the early 1980s Munasinghe has been a frontline leader of the party within his hometown, Matara, but has later cut ties with party activism. When he was extra-judicially rounded up and taken into custody in 1989 he had had no connection whatsoever with the JVP or with its militant thrust at the time. Eliyakandha Wadha Kandhawura was written in self-imposed exile in France, which Munasinghe reaches as a refugee, after smuggling himself out of the country in 1991. The book is a compelling and harrowing document of impunity and degrading treatment of the worst imaginable kind, by (a microcosmic, and representational) group of Sri Lankan military personnel on a camp full of detainees picked up on “suspicion of being” JVP sympathizers.
Munasinghe is perhaps one of the most important writers whose workbench has since the late 1990s produced a consistent body of literature that help us view the historical narrative of the Bheeshana Samaya comparatively, with emphasis on a subalternized, or de-selected perspective of the same which the mainstream narrator does not sanction. Mainstream sources (available in English) documenting the debacles of 1987-90 such as C.A. Chandraprema, A.C. Alles and Rohan Gunarathna present a blatantly pro-establishment view of things which they don’t even attempt to temper down. Alles’ The JVP 1969-1989 is in fact a dishonest document: an extension of his treatise of the 1971 insurrection, hurriedly extended with a glossing over of the worst human tragedy the island’s South has known in a few additional chapters. Chandraprema’s is a very disturbing book, as he seems to hint to know the finer details and aspects of a series of deaths that fall into the “extra-judicial” category, the ways in which they were carried out, who the authors of these were, who the ultimate authorities involved were and so on. Munasinghe’s narrative, in a way, counterbalances the drift created by establishment voices that often downplay the humanitarian tragedy caused by military violence. Other influential work that complement Munasinghe’s subaltern narrative includes his Rangala Preme (2002; supposedly a fictionalized portrayal of JVP frontliner a military wing leader Ragama Somey), Ja.Vi.Pe Sangavunu Ithihasayen Bindhak – I&II and Upanayaka Upatissa Gamanayake (2016; on the life and death of the JVP’s second in command Upatissa Gamanayake).
One of the earliest documents to challenge the mainstream records of the Bheeshana Samaya is Prins Gunasekera’s Lost Generation (1998), again, written in exile. The book locates the history of the JVP from the late 1970s, in the context of anti-democratic maneuvers by the state that pushes the proletariat party out of the political mainstream, forcing it to go underground. Gunasekara, with roots in the traditional Left-Center writes with evident empathy for the JVP, and with apprehension of the UNP governments of JR Jayawardene and R. Premadasa. In more recent years, writers like Prasanna Sanjeewa Tennakoon, Ruwan Jayathunga, Ravindra Fernando and Udeni Saman Kumara have contributed to an extending corpus of literature re-probing the extra-judicial violence of 1987-90 as championed by the country’s legit military and the assortment of military top brass and politicians who were the authors of a death toll that is variously pronounced to be between 50000 and 110000.
Writers such as Shobhasakthi, Malaravan (the author of War Journey) and Rohitha Munasinghe are equally important in our English Literature classroom for a reason that goes beyond the ideological dictates of representation, as well. As an educator, the Literature classroom can benefit itself and society by sharpening the ways in which society, history and politics can be read through the means of textual intervention. As such, literature that relates to the very climates, outcroppings, foundations and roots of the socio-political and cultural nexuses of which we are a part should receive rigorous scrutiny in the hands of the literature student. What we are missing right now, in the class room, too, is that; where we often read texts based on the pleasure principle, without political or historical awareness. I am told that one must read a text for pleasure, to enjoy, and to feel good about what you read. For me, there is only one way to read a text: and that will excavate the document for political, social, historical nuance and resonance; or the lack of them.
This would be the more impactful validity of Literature studies: its sharpness as a tool of political and historical engagement. This is also the reason why our Literature classroom has to look beyond Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy and Romesh Gunasekera’s Reef; as the larger function of literature and the way in which it can be localized within the classroom space runs outside the family, is definitely not funny, and is a sharp tool of intervention (as opposed to being a fender, a reef). Most unfortunately, persons with dubious qualification and empty heads that lack imagination are among the key players who decide our national literature at high school level. At the university level, very few academics go outside their little fiefdom of influence; and to vye for the recovery of a more meaningful literature seems to be too much of a bother for a six digit pay pack.