- The 1971 Insurgency in Sri Lankan Literature in English
It is my feeling that 20th-century human conditions demand a poetry of witness. In East Germany, South Africa, Guatemala, Cuba, Taiwan, South Korea, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, Poland, Iran, Uruguay, El Salvador and Chile, poets who do present the real world and speak out on behalf of those who have been silenced are not permitted to perform. . . .—Chris Llewellyn
Sri Lanka and India have been exceptional among Third-World countries in preserving a multi-party parliamentary system since gaining independence from their colonial master (Britain)—India in 1947, Sri Lanka in 1948. However, there have been two serious but abortive attempts to overturn the established order by violence in Sri Lanka. Oddly enough what may appear to be such an instance, in 1959 when Prime Minister Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was assassinated, was in fact a consequence of conflicts within his own party. In 1962 a few high-ranking officers of the police and armed services planned a coup and were arrested before the coup took place. In April 1971, there occurred the only planned and organized uprising against the [End Page 131] government of the day. The insurrection was confined mainly to the rural Sinhalese youth, but it appeared on a scale hitherto unprecedented in Sri Lanka's modern history. It "shook not only our complacency but our conscience" (de Silva 69) and has been the most traumatic single event in recent years to have spurred creative writing in English. The ethnic issue that has surfaced periodically has assumed in its present manifestation more fearful and far more intractable dimensions, but it has produced so far much less fruitful results in the field of imaginative writing because (predictably) what emerges is the exposition of entrenched attitudes, pacific or otherwise, rather than imaginative explorations.
In this essay, I will discuss the literature of the insurgency in relation to history, focusing on the complexities of this connection: how the literature begins from a political, social, and cultural situation; how it captures and how it interprets this situation; and how it registers the "authenticity" of historical and imaginative truth. My approach to history is to regard it as composed of disparate yet interconnected and interdependent streams of experience. I take into account all the important fiction that focuses on the central event of the insurrection—James Goonewardene's Acid Bomb Explosion (1978) and An Asian Gambit (1985), Ediriwira Sarachchandra's Curfew and a Full Moon (1978), Punyakante Wijenaike's The Rebel (1979), M. Chandrasoma's Out Out Brief Candle (1981), and Raja Proctor's Waiting for Surabiel (1981). I also refer briefly to the poetry.
The insurgency by itself was not wholly responsible for stimulating the quality of the works written about it. This can be illustrated with reference to two of our important writers, Punyakante Wijenaike and James Goonewardene. Characteristically, our writers in English (all living in the big towns, usually Colombo or Kandy) are conscious that they are alienated from the mass of the people and local traditions by virtue of their English affiliations. When writing in English established itself in the 1960s, novelists tended to turn to rural experience. Contemplating the countryside or rural characters was, in a way, an attempt to capture truly national, authentically Sri Lankan experiences and find roots in the soil. The writers, when successful, were able to overcome the (language) barriers that separated them from their subject and, by means of their imagination, entered into rural experiences and rural milieux. Punyakante Wijenaike achieved a considerable measure of success in this vein in her first two works, The Third Woman (1963), a collection of short stories, and The Waiting Earth (1966), a novel. But in her third work, Giraya (1971), a novella, she tries to address the problem of alienation directly by contemplating the upper class to which she belongs. She is very critical of it, and while apparently suffering from a sense of guilt [End Page 132] because she belongs to it, turns against it.1 Having expiated her sense of alienation and guilt in fictional terms, Wijenaike was ready to deal with current public...