Of the Sri Lankan Literature of diasporic and expatriate spaces, the work of Rohitha Munasinghe, to me, is of crucial significance. This is a fact that I have iterated frequently through this space and other arenas where I have had reason to evaluate the Lankan Literature of expatriation. For one, Rohitha, since his self-imposed exile in 1991 – and more particularly in the last decade or so – has been producing at a rate which, at its best, can be said to be enviable: in the past 3 years alone he has managed to make available through his Sri Lankan publisher 5 works of fiction and biography. Secondly, Rohitha’s contribution through literature is significant for many contemporary readers – specially, those born / raised in the post-1987 period – as they table, at varying degrees, “witness observations” of the brutal Reign of Terror (1987-1990), which saw the extra-judicial murder of at least 60,000 Sri Lankans in the South alone. Rohitha himself was a victim of the state violence of this period, from which he barely saved his life, and which became the immediate cause of his exile to France in 1991.
Among Munasinghe’s more noted biographical work are Eliyakandha Vadha Kandawura (translated into English by Bhadraji Mahinda Jayathilake as Eliyakandha Torture Camp), Sisira Mudalali, Rangala Preme (a biography on the last days of J.V.P frontliner Ragama Somey), Adaraneeya Gabba and two volumes on the “less known facts” of the J.V.P; particularly following its extra-judicial expulsion by the state military and paramilitary. In more recent years, Rohitha has branched off into fiction: work that often anchor on the lives of ordinary and common folk in the South of Sri Lanka, in which he focuses on the day-to-day struggles of communities straitjacketed by culture and various clamps of social stratification. However, among these diverse growing interests, Munasinghe’s Upanayaka, Upatissa Gamanayake (2016) detains the reader’s imagination for two main reasons.
This biographical sketch is anchored on the life and death of the Secretary of the J.V.P from 1984 to 1989: the man often hailed as the “second in command” of the uprising of 1987. and the second in the “wanted” list by the government during that anarchic phase. Rohitha Munasinghe presents us through his biography an illustration of Gamanayake, tracing his life from his younger years to the time he was a diehard revolutionary, as has rarely been done in Literature in any of the Sri Lankan languages. Even in political science and sociological texts available in the mainstream, very little reference is made to Gamanayake, even though Rohana Wijeweera is abundantly represented (and, one may add, misrepresented). One reason could be the actual absence of detail regarding Gamanayake who, even if we go by Rohitha’s own hint, has lived a relatively obscure life for the greater part of his activist years. In fact, when we read the biography, we are challenged by sections where we feel a dearth of detail and a frugality of record. But, then, again, Rohitha has tried to work around these loopholes and provide the lay-reader a side to the J.V.P top layer as not available in the mainstream.
One of Rohitha’s key analysis has to do with the nature in which both Wijeweera and Gamanayake were rounded up by the state military almost within a day of each other. While Wijeweera was apprehended while living in cognito at an estate in Ulapane, Gamanayake was “picked up” from Bandaragama, where he had been posing as a small time merchant, “Dias Mudalali”. The ever-vigilant Gamanayake, along with his onetime cadre spouse Karunawathie, have been moving from location to location at the merest suspicion of having “created a suspicion”, ever since the J.V.P’s proscription. By 1989, Karuna had set up a prospering sewing business with several machines and workers employed at a domestic level. One observation Munasinghe makes is of this growing sense of “domestication” of the Gamanayake household which may have, at some level, come into friction with the “guerilla knack” of quick movement and vigilance. He extends the same hypothesis in his reference to Wijeweera, who, on the eve his capture had been warned to remove from Ulapane, but is said to have delayed his withdrawal on account of one of his children.
Literature that refers to the 1987-90 period has been shy and slow in entering the mainstream until very recent publications which gradually seem to open out that dark phase for wider consumption. In English, such literature is most minimal, with writers like A.C. Alles, C.A. Chandraprema and Rohan Gunarathna writing in the immediate aftermath of the crushing of the J.V.P; and with a vigour and slant to match the state’s battle cry and often even justifying the extreme means through which the counter-offensive was carried out. At least one of these writers is widely acknowledged to have had close links with the very paramilitary that was known for the running of torture and slaughter houses in the very heart of the metropolis. Whatever non-state narratives of the 1987-90 period exists in a slim body, as found in the writings of Prins Gunasekara, who writes A Lost Generation (1998) from exile.
In Sinhala, literature of a non-establishment line on 1987-90 is more promising, but is, again, of more recent growth. Of more recent authority, Dharman Wickramaratne’s Ja.Vi.Pe Dhevana Karella (“The Second Rebellion of the J.V.P” – supposedly the first of a two-part edition) has courted the popular reader as a revelation of many “inside aspects” of the uprising, its trajectory and its subsequent quelling. In fact, Wickramaratne makes reference in detail to the complex political web at the time, offering snippets as well as annotated commentary that help “fill the spaces” of a jigsaw puzzle which is otherwise under-represented in the mainstream. As such, Wickramaratne adds to the work of writers such as, among others, Prasanna Sanjeewa Tennakoon, Udeni Saman Kumara and Ruwan Jayathunga, whose efforts at permeating the mainstream with dislocated narratives of conflict I have acknowledged through this space in earlier instances as well.
One may, indeed, identify in Rohitha’s writing a persistent thread of nostalgia. This, in fact, is a palpable trait of his biographical work and intersects his writing exercise even in his non-political prose. The more complex political circumstances of the day do not get voiced with their nuances and ambiguities in his book on Gamanayake (much like the book on Ragama Somey written in 2002), and that absence of depth in capturing the political mire of the age is laid bare if Upanayake Upatissa Gamanayake is juxtaposed with Wickramaratne’s recent text. Yet, it is also to be understood that the ambitiousness of Wickramaratne’s project goes far beyond what Rohitha Munasinghe seems to aim at as a writer. And for Rohitha, his illustration of Gamanayake is one stop of an ongoing journey in providing missing slates to revisit and reread a phase of history disfigured with much blood, death, denial, erasure and imposed-amnesia.