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 Post subject: Rendering history through the Sinhala novel
 Post Posted: Sat Mar 27, 2010 7:24 pm 

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Rendering history through the Sinhala novel

Sinhala scholarship was traditionally rooted in the Buddhist clerical establishment, and the vast majority of ancient and mediaeval literary works were of a religious nature. Except for a few political treatises, there were virtually no distinguished works of secular interest. From the late 19th century, however, a multitude of secular literary (prose) works began to appear; the close link between modern history and the evolution of the Sinhala novel can be traced back about seven decades.

Manouri K. Jayasinghe

According to K.M. De Silva, ‘in the first decade of the twentieth
century there was a perceptible quickening in the
pace of political activity in the island after the near immobility
in formal politics in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.’1

The early 1920s saw unrest among skilled workers;
encouraged by influential political leaders, they demanded
better working conditions and higher remuneration. Marxism
entered Sri Lankan politics around 1926 through the Suriya
Mal movement and gained ground in the 30s, eventually
resulting in the establishment of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party
(LSSP) in 1936.

Although independence was gained through a peaceful electoral
process in February 1948, the post-independence history
of Sri Lanka is spattered with blood. The passing of the ‘Sinhala
Only’ Act in parliament in 1956 heightened tensions
between Tamils and Sinhalese. With the opening of the economy
in the 1960s, Sinhalese felt their jobs being threatened
as their knowledge of English was poor compared to Tamils
who had close contact with English missionaries. Unemployment
among Sinhala youth contributed to the birth of the
Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which called for the liberation
of the Sinhalese people from the shackles of post-colonialism
and led to the youth insurrection of 1971.

Difference in political status, the rift between English and non-
English speakers, and measures taken by the Sinhalese governing
party resulted in the formation of a separatist group in
the Tamil community. Evolving through mergers and splits
over 35 years and using guerrilla and terrorist attacks to achieve
their ends, this group is known today as the Liberation Tigers
of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In the early 1980s the dormant conflict
over land flared up, and the late 80s saw a period of virtual
anarchy with government forces combating Sinhalese
insurgents in the south and separatist Tamil guerrillas in the
north. After 20 years of guerrilla war, an uneasy peace now

History and the novel

In examining how the Sinhala novel reflects Sri Lankan history,
I consider history as resulting from disequilibrium in a
nation’s cultural, political or economic life. These closely related
aspects are in fragile equilibrium: any imbalance in one
area will give it prominence over the others, thereby creating
social events recorded as history. From its beginnings up to
the early post-independence period, the Sinhala novel depicted
history mainly as the result of changes in cultural and political
outlook; economic trends were given greater prominence
from the 1960s. Some Sinhala novelists set their work against
a historical background, some treat events ahistorically, while
others favour the symbolic representation of political events
which make up history.

Wasanawantha Pawula haa Kalakanni Pawula (The Fortunate
and the Unfortunate Family, 1866) by Issac Silva (1844-1907)
can be considered the forerunner of the Sinhala novel. More
a narrative than a novel, the tone is one of debate. In contrast,
Silva’s contemporary Bentota Albert Silva (1866-1919), known
for Vimala (1892) and Adara Hasuna (Love Letter, 1894),
manipulates the imaginary to create atmosphere. Although
works of fiction, these authors’ writings cannot be classified
as novels since they lack many features of the form. Hence
Meena (1905), a simple love story by Simon Silva (1874-1920),
is recognized as the first Sinhala novel – it focuses on the inner
workings of the heroine’s mind, revealing a gift for character
development, and bears other characteristics of the novel as

Although secular prose works had been appearing for some
25 years, the first writer to deal with history as a central theme
was Piyadasa Sirisena (1875-1946), whose works reflect his
commitment to safeguarding the values of traditional society
threatened by the anglicization overtaking Sri Lankan society
in the pre-independence period. Apata Wetchche Dey (That
Which Happened to Us) and Yanthan Galavunaa (Managed to
Escape at Last) represent the views of this highly nationalistic
writer as well as the period’s cultural climate.

Martin Wickramasinghe (1890-1976) may well be the greatest
20th century Sinhala writer. In his trilogy Gamperaliya (The
Change in the Village, 1944), Yuganthaya (The End of the Era,
1949) and Kaliyugaya (The Epoch of Kali, 1957), he depicts the
transition of Sri Lankan society from the last vestiges of feudalism
to urban mercantile capitalism, which generated socialism.
3 Inevitably, his works deal with class differences. Gamperaliya
is a great work of literature, the first full-fledged
Sinhala novel. It describes the advent of capitalism through
the experiences of farmers living in a feudal village in southern
Sri Lanka. Though the novel is ostensibly the story of the
love between Nanda, the daughter of the feudal landlord, and
Piyal, a lower-caste school teacher, the theme of social change
is its thread, evoked by the changing social status of the two
protagonists and their eventual marriage.

The two novels that follow continue this family saga. In Yuganthaya,
published just after independence, the order is reversed:
the focus here is on Nanda and Piyal’s British-educated, revolutionary
grandson Malin Kabalana, who aims to change the
social system upon his return to Sri Lanka. The author explains
that the struggle of the working class against capitalism, especially
in 1947, influenced the writing of this novel.4 In Kaliyugaya,
written about a decade after independence, Wickramasinghe
highlights the confusion of Sri Lankans who had
embraced urban capitalism, describing Nanda and Piyal’s disenchantment
with their family and offering insights into early
post-independence Colombo high society. The trilogy is of historical
value because it represents the socio-political evolution
of the period. On the other hand, Viragaya (Detachment, 1956)
is a masterpiece considered to be the turning point of modern
Sinhala literature.5

K. Jayatileka’s Parajithayo (The Defeated, 1960), depicts the
political and social realities of the 1950s. These emerge in the
obstacles to social advancement which confront Udeni, a
young man from the village who goes to study in Colombo.
Another of Jayatileka’s novels, Delovata Nathi Aya (Those Not
Belonging to Both Worlds, 1963), deals with the plight of the
masses after independence, the author’s disillusionment with
the lack of change in Sri Lankan politics after 1956, and the
political landscape of that period.

T. B. Illangaratne’s Peraliya (Insurgency, 1972) and E.R.
Sarachchandra’s Heta Etchchara Kaluwara Na (1975)6 are monuments
to the 1971 youth insurrection. Gunadasa Amarasekera’s
Asathya Kathaawak (An Unreal Story of a Death, 1977)
and its sequel Premeye Sathya Kathaawa (A Surreal Story of
Love, 1978)7 also treat aspects of the youth rebellion. Continuing
into the 1980s, Sumithra Rahubhadhdha captures this
tumultuous period in her novel Itipahan (Candles, 1998),
alluding not only to the attempted youth revolution of the 70s,
but also to the period of mayhem in the 80s.

Milestones in history

Gunadasa Amarasekera, in his series of six novels begun in
the early 1980s, is the most prominent of the novelists who
ahistorically illustrate milestones in history. He deals with the
evolution and predicament of the rural middle class, which
migrated to the capital shortly before independence, and how
events in history influenced them. The first book in the series,
Gamanaka Mula (The Beginning of a Journey), is set in the
immediate pre-independence era when migration to the towns
began. Gamdorin Eliyate (Out of the Village), depicts the postindependence
period from 1948 to 1956 and the transformation
of the rural middle class into one that emulated its urban
counterparts. The third book, Inimage Ihalata (Ascending the
Ladder), portrays the change in Sri Lankan politics that took
place in 1956. Piyadasa, the main character, is a rural migrant
caught up in the whirlwind, with no possibility of return. The
fourth novel Vankagiriya (The Labyrinth) deals with the 60s,
when Piyadasa, now a disoriented, disillusioned youth, rebels
against accepted social norms and society in general. In Yali
Maga Vetha (Back on the Path), Piyadasa mourns his lost rural
values; this novel is more inward-looking than outwardly
focused. The recently published Dura Rataka Dukata Kiriyaka
(Suffering in a Far-off Land) describes Piyadasa’s suffering
during higher education in England. A transformed man, he
returns to Sri Lanka, but not before the long-awaited victory
of the United Front in the 1970 general election has been
marred by the insurrection staged by the JVP in April the following

Another ahistorical work, Sarath Dharmasiri’s Sada Sulanga
(The Violent Winds, 1991), deals with the wasteland reforms
initiated by the Colebrooke commission in the 1830s, their
impact on the rural economy and the suffering of the rural
people which culminated in the uprising of 1848. Piyadasa
Welikanna’s award-winning Sudu Sevanali (White Shadows,
1986), acclaimed as a mirror of the cultural, economic and
social spheres of mid-19th century, deals with the birth of the
National Liberation Movement around the hill country in 1848,
its struggle against British colonization, its eventual defeat
and the establishment of British rule in every corner of the

The last category of novels, which reveal tendencies in modern
Sri Lankan history but give no hint of the period, falls into
two groups, either figuratively representing politics or specifically
indicating their political references and thus their relation
to history. Miniwan P. Tilekaratne’s Thrushnaabharana
(Bedecked in Jewels of Desire, 1991) is of the first type, and
takes a refreshingly new approach to political problems. The
protagonist, realizing the ridiculousness of the governing system,
attempts to undo it by using naivety to expose the idiosyncrasies
of the rulers. This novel could refer to various political
regimes of the last few decades. Sunanda Mahendra, in
the more politically explicit Unu Alu Palla (On Burning
Embers, 1993), depicts the thorny public and family life of a
leftist school teacher who goes to all ends to stand up for his
convictions. This protagonist could be representative of the
leftists of the mid-thirties as well as their modern-day heirs.
With the centenary of the birth of the Sinhala novel falling this
year, it is hoped that this paper can serve as a tribute to it, by
tracing its evolution and the many ways the novel can and has
been used to illustrate modern Sri Lankan history. <

1. De Silva, K.M. 1981. A History of Sri Lanka. London: Hurst and Company.
p. 373.
2. Sarachchandra, Ediriweera. 2005. Sinhala Nawakathaa Ithihasaya
haa Vitcharaya, 8th ed. Colombo: Sarasavi Publishers.
3. De Silva, K.M. op. cit. p. 39.
4. Wickramasinghe, Martin 2005. Yuganthaya, 23rd ed. Colombo: Sirasa
Publications. p. 11.
5. Dissanayake, Wimal. 1971. Girikula haa Sandamadala (The Mountain
Summit and the Moon). Colombo: Hansa Publishers. p. 36.
6. Translated by the author into English as Curfew and the Full Moon
7. Fernando, Vijitha. (Translation of both novels 2003). Out of the
Darkness. Sri Lanka: Visidunu Publications.

Manouri K. Jayasinghe
Lecturer in Sinhala
Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, Paris

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