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Martin Wickramasinghe: The novelist, critic, and problem



By Uditha Devapriya


The novelist

Last Saturday marked the 131st birth anniversary of Martin Wickramasinghe. In a career spanning 59 years – from his first work, Leela, published in 1914, to his last, Bhavatharanaya, published in 1973 – Wickramasinghe authored more than 80 novels and 2,500 essays. Most of those works were translated into other languages, including English, and also Russian. Though many associate him today with the Koggala trilogy – rightly touted as the greatest novelistic saga ever written in this country, in Sinhala – his writings extended to every theme, from language to culture to history to Buddhism. He never obtained a formal education; owing to a death in the family, of his father, he had to withdraw from Buena Vista in Galle. But his eclecticism survived and thrived through this deficiency; it sharpened his sensitivity to the world around him, opening his eyes to the dynamics of social change unravelling in the country.

This sensitivity is very much evident in Gamperaliya, and arguably more so in Kaliyugaya. The Koggala trilogy takes place against a backdrop of not just a changing village (Gamperaliya’s title in translation) but a changing economy. Piyal, the outsider with hopes for a better life, leaves this changing village for a changing Colombo. The departure is well timed: in the city, a rubber boom and some astute investments grant him access to the kind of wealth and social mobility difficult to obtain back home. Wickramasinghe, like Balzac, has a knack for delineating a milieu through descriptions of objects, and in this part of the story he identifies the descent of the Kaisaruwattes with the crumbling down of their ancestral walawwa.

Yet, despite their reduced circumstances, they refuse Piyal’s offers; it’s only when the husband of the youngest daughter, Nanda, who Piyal tried to court before he left the village but could not owing to caste barriers, dies that they marry her off to him. Gamperaliya ends on a conundrum: will the idealism of their romance survive their new class status?


answers this question, but not in the affirmative: Piyal’s entry into the bourgeoisie transpires at the cost of his humanity, and that adversely impacts his marriage. What interests me here is how Wickramasinghe explores the contradictions of Piyal’s rise, and his relationship with Nanda, through the recollections of his eldest son, Alan.

Rejecting his family and his inheritance, Alan leaves for England with his lover; years later, in a lengthy, blistering letter to the two of them, he exposes their pretentiousness, the hollowness of their lives, the emptiness of their values. He contrasts these with the warmth he saw in the village and faults the mother for keeping him away from there as a child.

Wickramasighe’s depiction of Alan in Kaliyugaya, though sketchy at one level, is intriguing: his rebelliousness borders on revolution, but he keeps himself to a personal critique of the values to which his parents adhered. It’s in Yuganthaya, the most political of the three stories, that a whole new generation – epitomised by Alan’s sister’s son, Malin Kabilana – revolt against the values of the old – epitomised by the man the sister marries, Malin’s father Simon Kabilana.

What Wickramasinghe attempted with these novels, which in Yuganthaya end on a conundrum not too different from that which ends Gamperaliya and Kaliyugaya – how will the young really achieve their dreams for a new society? – was more or less a sociological treatise on the clashes of class, caste, and generations that linked the rise of a new Sinhala bourgeoisie to the rise of the revolutionary Left. Wickramasinghe depicts these conflicts as independent of the personal lives of his characters, yet shows how they impact the latter in ways they can’t imagine or predict: in Yuganthaya, for instance, Malin’s flirtations with Marxism are at first tolerated by his father, but as time goes by, the two of them realise that they can’t reconcile.

It’s probably reductive to say that Wickramasinghe was subscribing to a Marxist conception of history, one dictated by class antagonisms – from aristocracy versus bourgeoisie in Gamperaliya to bourgeoisie versus working class in Yuganthaya – here. But it certainly is in tune with such a reading: class antagonisms are rooted in specific historical conditions, and instead of insulating them from the processes unleashed by these conditions, Wickramasinghe shows how people in his stories undergo vast transformations under the pressures of those processes.


The critic

This view of history and social change is what permeates Wickramasinghe’s non-fiction writing as well. A voracious reader of Marx and Darwin, Wickramasinghe intuitively understood, if not grasped, the currents of reform making themselves felt in post-independence Sri Lanka. How he understood these winds of change had to do with his reading of the country’s history from two vantage points: the place of Sinhala culture in contemporary society, and the question, not of the place of the Sinhala language in that society, but of which Sinhala to fit into it.

The polemics that ensued from this centred on a debate between what he referred to as the great tradition and the lesser tradition: he identified the former with purists who viewed language as a vehicle of slick, ornate aestheticism for the few, and the latter with reformists who viewed it as a means of access for the many. Indeed, his critiques of the former make up much of his writings on language: many of his essays dismissed them as “an imitative tradition.”

These essays dovetail with his prolific writings on culture and society. For Wickramasinghe, the history of the country was linked to the evolution the language of its majority. In that sense, the five centuries between 1100 and 1600 AD marked the rise and fall, the peak and decline, of the culture: with the Sanskritisation of the language, a crude syncretism invaded the temple, turning the people away from Buddhism’s intellectual roots to a superficial cult of deities.

The confrontation between Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula and Vidagama Maithri, in that sense, boiled down to a debate between the great traditionalists and the lesser traditionalists. It is within these encounters that the cycles of peak and decline of culture and language, indeed of religion, were eventually resolved. In that battle, the lesser traditionalists won; what made them the superior of their adversaries was the latter’s inability to influence the culture of the people. The Buddhism that Wickramasinghe idealised was, naturally, in tune with the latter culture: a Buddhism free of Brahmanical excretions, a Buddhism rooted in the folk.

It would be a mistake to equate this with the romantic nationalism which accompanied the folk revivalist movements of 19th century Europe. Wickramasinghe’s valorisation of a Buddhism of the people was informed less by a nostalgia for the past than by a need to reflect on the past as a way of charting the future. Indeed, his revivalist rhetoric, far from channelling inflammatory and exclusivist chauvinism, attempted to strike a balance between past and future, between tradition and modernity; this put his search for roots far away from, say, Johann Herder’s call for a return to the values of the past through immersion in folk culture.

This was why, though he heeded and approved of their call for a less ornate language, he did not share the Hela Havula’s belief in a pre-Vijayan civilisation. In Sinhala Sahithyaye Nageema he rejected the existence of such a past: his conclusion was that “pre-Aryan inhabitants remained for a long period of time at a very primitive level of culture.”

The Hela Havula obviously did not subscribe to such a reading: the pioneers of the movement, Munidasa Cumaratunga and Raphael Tennekoon included, argued that Kuveni’s engaging with a spinning wheel at the time of Vijaya’s arrival showed that pre-Indo-Aryan civilisation had been quite advanced. Wickramasinghe, on the other hand, wrote that they lacked even the implements of an agrarian society: when asked for food, for instance, the same Kuveni points Vijaya and his followers to sacks of grain stolen from merchant ships.

One need not engage extensively with these niceties to understand Wickramasinghe’s views on society, history, language, religion, even politics. He was not averse to welcoming change where change was needed; this explains, for instance, his opposition to monks who held a fast at S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s residence against the latter’s pact with S. J. V. Chelvanayakam.

It may come as a surprise to those who read Wickramasinghe as a crude nationalist that instead of rejecting the pact, which granted devolution to areas preponderated by Tamils, he denounced the monks and the intelligentsia backing them for stalling attempts at granting “the rightful place to the Tamil language.” For him, nothing much distinguished these agitators from purist scholars engaged in translating scientific words to “chaste Sanskrit”; the same scholars who, he surmised, “treat[ed] the common man’s spoken Sinhalese as a vulgar language.”


A problem

All that leads me to an intractable dilemma. Political movements tend to absorb from literature. Lenin, for instance, read Gorky, and counted him as a close friend; he also credited Chekhov’s “Ward No. 6” for having turned him into a revolutionary. The Indian independence struggle similarly borrowed from Tagore, as did the Irish independence struggle from Tagore’s translator in the West, Butler Yeats. Sri Lanka’s independence struggle, on the other hand, was inspired more by the stories and tracts of Piyadasa Sirisena and W. A. Silva: in short, the literature of a petty bourgeois trader class hemmed in by colonial economic constraints.

Tissa Abeysekara once recalled the intellectual leap he made as an adolescent from Sirisena and Silva to Wickramasinghe; for him, it constituted no less than a transition from one sensibility to another. That the sensibility of the many, attuned to Sirisena’s nationalist-propagandist tracts and Silva’s romantic historiographies, did not make a similar transition to Wickramasinghe’s works tells us about the class composition, the class limitations, of those who read him and those who did not. It also tells us why Wickramasinghe’s output, prodigious as it was, enjoyed or suffered the same fate as Lester Peries’s films and Sarachchandra’s plays: while these objets courted the patronage of a nationalist intelligentsia, they did not shape a nationalist-modernist consciousness in Sri Lanka as much as Tagore and Yeats did in their respective societies.

Why not? I suggest that this has to do with the failure of the post-1956 generation to make the transition from a cultural ethos rooted on the one hand in exclusivist chauvinism and on the other in a servile, comprador modernity to an ethos that combined the best of both worlds. Chauvinists and pro-Western “modernisers” alike must, certainly, share the blame for this failure. Yet dishing the blame, whoever the guilty, is neither here nor there; the point isn’t so much that they failed as how this failure was reflected in their response to the cultural artefacts of 1956: Sarachchandra’s plays, Peries’s films, and Wickramasinghe’s novels.

The generation of 1956 which came to influence the course of politics – a largely Sinhala petty bourgeoisie, educated but unemployable – gave way to the generation of 1971 and 1989: two of the bloodiest years of our post-independence history. Their worldview remained far more insular than Wickramasinghe’s. Revolutionary in a facile way, yet upward aspiring and concerned with reforming society to suit their class interests, their cultural tastes naturally reflected their warped politics and perceptions of social change; the latter diverged significantly from the politics and perceptions of social change the pioneers of 1956 had envisioned in their works.

More than a difference of sensibility thus separated these pioneers of 1956 from the generation of 1956. Those who raised the revolutionary banner in 1971 and 1989 found more inspiration in the songs of Sunil Ariyaratne and Nanda Malini, the protests of Pavana, than the humanism of Wickramasinghe’s, Peries’s, and even Gunadasa Amarasekara’s works. In saying this I am by no means offering a critique; I am merely stating a fact, making a point.

Perhaps it was despair at these changes that moved Wickramasinghe to censure the rebels of 1971. I understand Wickramasinghe’s criticism of those rebels, just as I understand his feelings of repugnance at their insurrection. That leaves me with much to ponder; exactly half a century after the insurrection, reading through his novels, stories, and essays, poring over his comments on people and politics, on culture and society, I often wonder what 1956 would have become had it drunk from the waters of the cultural renaissance it ushered in, one which Wickramasinghe laid the groundwork for, instead of the rhetoric of revolution that overwhelmed it and turned it blood-red. 1956’s failure to become what it should have, what it represented, was in that sense a failure, not merely of cultural sensibilities, but more fundamentally, of national values.

(The writer can be reached at

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Sat Mag




Geographical factors prepare the agrobase while astrological factors determine the time-frame of our annual Solar Festival.

As prominence given to more mundane things has held sway over our annual solar festival, popularly known as ‘aluth avurudda’, (and loosely referred to as the Sinhala-Tamil New Year), most of us little know or have not given sufficient thought to how this unique phenomenon has evolved over the years. Hence, although several weeks have elapsed since the dawn of the solar festival in mid-April this year, ruminating on its evolution and development thus far cannot be confined to a particular month or a few days of the year, although it is the culmination that reaches in mid-April. Even a cursory glance through its occurrence (recurrence!) shows that the dawning and waning of this nostalgic-event are spread over the whole year, and that it’s not a spontaneous activity. Even a rudimentary glance through the cyclic nature of this event shows that it’s the outcome of the interplay of several repetitive happenings basically influenced by geographical and astrological determinants.

Geographical Determinants

(i) Solar Festival Coinciding with the Vernal Equinox

When discussing the geographical determinants of our solar festival, the two events that we need to lay emphasis are the two major events coinciding with the (virtual) movement of the sun. The sun crosses the celestial equator twice a year. When the sun crosses the celestial equator in its northward journey up to the tropic of Cancer, it is referred to as the vernal equinox. Its timing is March 20/21. This is the commencement of the astronomical spring and summer for the northern hemisphere. It takes three months to reach the northern limit, that is, the tropic of Cancer (23.5 degrees from the equator), and its timing is June 20/21. In the sun’s return journey southwards it again crosses the celestial equator on September 20/2, referred to as the autumnal equinox. This event heralds the dawn of summer for the southern hemisphere. Thereupon, the sun journeys up to the tropic of Capricorn , that is, to its southern limit, on December 20/21. This limit too is 23.5 degrees away from the celestial equator.

(ii) Positioning of Sri Lanka vis-à-vis the sun’s upward – downward journeys

Against this backdrop what is relevant to our discussion on the solar festival is the positioning of Sri Lanka vis-à-vis the aforesaid journey of the sun. Sri Lanka is

approximately 7/8 degrees north of the celestial equator. Therefore, when the sun is over Sri Lanka in its northward journey it will be 23/24 days after the vernal equinox.

90 days – 23 days = 67 x 2 (up & down) = 134 days = Approx. 4 ½ months (Yala)

Its timing, therefore, coincides with April 14/15, on which date we celebrate the solar festival. From there onwards the sun takes approx.. 66/67 days to reach the tropic of Cancer, and for the sun to be over Sri Lanka again, in its southward journey, it takes another 66/67 days. So the sun’s movement from being over the island and back again to be over the island will take approximately 134/135 days or 4 ½ months.

(iii) The Yala – Maha Seasons and their impact on the Solar Festival

Due to Sri Lanka’s positioning nearly 8 degrees north of the equator, we saw that the sun in its northward journey, would be over the island on April 14/15. Again in its southward journey to the autumnal equinox the sun would be over Sri Lanka on August 26/27. The sun’s journey to the tropic of Cancer, from being over Sri Lanka and to be back to be on Sri Lanka would take 133/134 days or nearly 4 ½ months; that is, on the basis of 67 days of the sun’s upward journey from Sri Lanka to the tropic of Cancer and again it be over Sri Lanka in its backward journey. This shorter period of 4 ½ months is the Yala season or the ‘lesser harvest period. Invariably, therefore, the Maha season is the longer period of 7 ½ months, which is considered the principal or the main harvesting period.

(iv) Why the Solar Festival cooinconicides with the end of the Maha Seasons –

Lexilogical Evidence

This determination would drive home the fact that while the Yala season in the island is shorter, the Maha season enjoys a wider spread of about 7 ½ months, vis-à-vis the total period of 12 months. Our Solar Festival is at the end of the Maha season, which provides a bountiful harvest during the month of Medin. The word Maha comes from Mas which is a combination of Maha+As (large+harvest). The month of Medin is what you get by combining Maha+Din. Maha is great/large or bountiful, and Din is reaping / cutting or harvesting. The oldest reference to the word din is in the Dhampiya Atuwa Getapadaya, inferred to have been written by king Kassapa V (Aba Salamevan Kasub) of the Anuradhapura period, that is, inor around the 10th century AD. Din also appears in the same context in several other subsequent literary works, namely, Amavatura and Ruwan Mal Niganduwa (a lexicon of the Kotte period).

The month coinciding with the Solar Festival is known as Bak Maha (month of Bak). It follows the month of medin. Hence, it needs no explanation that with the advent of the month of bak the country will be richer with a bountiful harvest gathered in the month of medin. The month of Bak (bhagya in Sanskrit for fortunate) thus becomes a propsperous – bountiful month as a result of the long period of agricultural pursuits under the Maha season, and the bountiful harvests gathered thereof in the month of Medin.

Astrological Determinants

While geographical determinants set the groundwork for the staging of our solar festival, astrological determinants help fine-tuning the exactitudes as to what, how and when the gamut of related activites has to be performed. As to when the application of astrology to our routine and special activities commenced remains in obscurity. But the fact remains that timing is everything in our society, and shows how pervasive astrology has been in the Sri Lankan society. The success of something is often related

to when it happens. The astrological chart linked to the solar festival, therefore, plays a major role in determining the numerous activities linked to the Solar Festival, ranging from the waning of the Old-Year to the dawning of the New Year. There are three important phases in the sun’s transit from the old year to the new year. These are (i) The tail end of the old year referred to as ‘parana-avurudda’, (ii) The period of transition, referred to as ‘sankranthi’ (a Sanskrit word) or ‘nonagathaya’ (the period yet to arrive or the period un-arrived), and (iii) aluth avurudda (dawn of the new year).

‘Nonagathaya’ (the period not arrived/un-arrived) is an interesting word that gives a clue in an attempt to trace the history of the traditions of the solar festival. This word is derived from the combination of na + agatha. agatha is a past participle that appears commonly in many rock inscriptions including that of Vessagiri, belonging to the 6th century A.D. (of the early Anuradhapura period). One of its inscriptions says:

“dhamarakitha thera Agatha anagatha chathudisha shagasha dine.

anikata sona pithaha bariya upasika thisaya lene”.

(could be translated as “The rock cave donated to Dhammarakkhitha thero and sangha or fraternity who came from the four directions. This is the rock cave of female devotee Tissa, wife of Anekatta Sona’s father.)


Entry of Religious Observances, Customs, Rituals and Festivities

It is pretty obvious that, with the passage of time any human activity would grow in size

with the entry of beliefs, rituals, customs and festivities. They also provide a fertile springboard for the sprouting of faith-related activities. With the phasing out of the of

the total event into old year, interim phase and the new year a whole hog of things found their way into the system. Leaving aside the avurudu sports, festivities and community-activities, this is how such observances and customs as listed herein came in: (i) Bathing for the passing year, (ii) Cleaning and kindling the hearth, (iii) Boiling the milk-pot, (iv) Preparing the first meal, (v) Waring a particular coloured costume, (vi) Exchanging pleasantries, (vii) Partaking the first meal, (viii) Transacting with the well and with family members, including planting of a tree (ix) Visiting relatives and friends (x) Bathing (purification) for the newly dawned year, and (xi) Leaving home for diurnal activities. Each of the more important rituals and observances was guided by an astrologically determined auspicious time.


Nonagathaya (un-arrived time) and Religious Activities

Among the different phases of the solar festival much importance was give to

‘nonagathaya’ or the un-arrived time. During this time, according to tradition the Sri

Lankans have been encouraged to refrain from material pursuits, and engage solely in

religious activities. This is the period the sun is said to be transiting from rewathi nekata of the Meena rashi (Pisces) to aswida nekatha of the Mesha rashi (Aries). Astrologically this span of about 6 ½ hours isn’t result bearing period, and therefore, the people have been, for ages, bent on religious practices. Some have dared to refer to nonagathaya as an inauspicious time.


Commonality of Our Solar Festival with those of Our neighbours

Probing into the festivals of our neighbouring countries reveals that their national festivals also coincide with our solar festival. This revelation enables reaching the obvious conclusion that wherever agricultural pursuits had been their main stay, the sun played a decisive role in determining their activities. The national holidays referred to as Songkran in Thailand also falls on April 13, and goes on for three days up to April 15. Songkran is derived from the Sanskrit word sankranthi. They also believe in the sun’s transiting, which is specifically referred to as meṣha saṅkrānti. In Thailand event has lately been transformed as the National Water Festival, highlighting the impact of water on their daily pursuits. The geographical spread of the solar festival also establishes the impact of the Hindu calendar and the influence of the Sanskrit language on their civilizations. It also reveals that the traditional solar-based New Year is celebrated in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, Mauritius, some parts of northeast India, parts of Vietnam and China as well. The timing of these festivals is almost similar. All these countries including Sri Lanka had been following the Solar Calendar until the advent of the Gregorian Calendar. The Silappadikaram of the 5th century, an elaborate poetic interpretation of Tamil culture mentions the 12 Raasis or zodiac signs that correspond to the Tamil months starting with Mesha/Chitterai (Aries) in mid-April.


Conclusion – The Sun, the First Time-keeper to the Nation

Hence, the above revelations compel us to conclude that our solar festival is more than just a solar experience. As it is intensively interwoven with the habits of the people, it is a festival that celebrates Sri Lankan culture, history, and science. In fact, the sun has been our first time-keeper to the nation. Greek culture was referred to as the Hellenistic culture as they were worshippers of the sun. Helio is the sun. Our ancestors were also worshippers of the sun, and they were also referred to as Helas. It is the four Hela clans (Yak, Na, Dev, Rakus) that later became siv+hela and ultimately Sinhala. Heli helei heleyya… a song that continues to be sung by our fisher-folk is a strong indication of our closeness with the sun. There’s hardly any doubt, therefore, that our solar festival goes back to unrecorded prehistoric times.


It needs to extend a word of appreciation to Prof. Ajantha S. Dharmasiri for providing the writer an opportunity to research and make a presentation on our Solar Festival to the Institute’s staff.

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Sat Mag

Professor Ashley Halpe, the great humanitarian I knew – I



By Rohana R. Wasala

I do not know
the thin reek of blood, the stench
of seared flesh, the
cracked irreducible bone; I know
only the thinner reek of pity,
the harsh edge of self-contempt,
the ashy guilt of being too old,
salaried, safe, and comfortable.
I would know their reasons,
the rigour of their hot hate, their
terrifying faith. But
they have said everything
in dying, a communication
beyond all speech….
        Ashley Halpe, ‘”April” 1971’

In the incantatory rhythm of the short meditative lyric contained in Professor Ashley Halpe’s collection of his poems entitled “Silent arbiters have camped in my skull” from which the above lines are quoted, we sense the ebb and flow of the self-assumed guilt (note the play on the word ‘ashy’ that echoes the sound of his first name) and the attendant self-contempt of a socially well ensconced and physically secure but conscience-stricken senior don; he imagined that he was so circumstanced as to be a helpless onlooker while the young students, for whose safety and wellbeing he held himself at least indirectly responsible, were getting slaughtered during the April 1971 JVP rebellion. The young people he empathised with were engaged in a violent struggle in the name of a cause that they fiercely believed in. Professor Halpe had the deepest concern for the education and wellbeing of the youth of the country. On its publication by the Tisara Prakasakayo, Dehiwala, in June 1976, Professor Halpe gifted me an autographed copy of the volume: He wrote “What about writing, too?” in the inner title page before signing it for me. I still have it with me.

He had great sympathy towards the young people who took part in the first JVP insurrection, that took place in April 1971; but he didn’t show any interest in the politics that drove their activism. He had a number of poems in that selection which were implicitly dedicated to the many young boys and girls, including university students, who had perished in that ill-prepared, ill-timed and ill-fated adventure, attempted though it was by a group of selflessly committed and genuinely patriotic young Marxists.



This present piece of mine, reluctantly autobiographical and discursive, is a memorial tribute to the late Professor Ashley Halpe of the University of Peradeniya, who breathed his last, aged 83, on May 15, 2016. It is five years overdue, though, (the reason for which is explained below). I was prompted to write it after reading three recent write-ups published in honour of the late professor: Tissa Jayatilake’s commemorative essay “Remembering Professor Ashley Halpe”, Aparna Halpe’s filial appreciation “Learning from My Father, Five Years after His Passing” (Aparna was no more than a little chatterbox of a toddler when I first saw her in her father’s light blue Datsun stationwagon, looking through the open shutters and commenting on the passing scenes on the way in her charming baby-prattle during a drive from the campus to Kandy) and George Braine’s “Shakespeare in a takarang shed”, befitting a pupil, published in The Island issues of May 17, 23 and 26, 2021, respectively. To date, Tissa Jayatilake has written quite a number of articles in appreciation of his beloved teacher and respected senior colleague in the academia over a long period of time. I still remember how Tissa, as a novice assistant lecturer, wrote a well-argued defence of Professor Halpe, the foremost Shakespearean scholar of the time in the country as he described him, countering an attack on the latter by some biased critic; it was published in a national newspaper, probably in the Daily News or the Sunday Observer. It was in the second half of the ‘70s decade. I find many laudatory assertions Tissa makes about Professor Halpe in his deeply felt latest eulogy (which is devoid of any hint of hagiography, nevertheless), that I can endorse through my own experience as one of the late professor’s close companions (at a particular time). The only reason for my inordinate delay in writing a commemoration article in honour of Professor Halpe was my own persistent diffidence and hesitation to do so caused by the feeling that the attempt might involve telling too much about myself in the process (instead of the person remembered) that would not be of any interest to my readers. However, I have now realized that that potential danger cannot be avoided by any of his grateful students in celebrating the memory of Professor Halpe simply because of his self- effacing humble nature. While alive he played a distinguished multifaceted role in the national educational and cultural sphere as the doyen of Sri Lanka’s English literature academics.



I enjoyed the opportunity to closely associate with Professor Ashley Halpe, the English scholar, poet, dramatist, translator, and painter, initially as my teacher and mentor, and eventually as ‘friend and colleague’ (as he had us identify him) during the 10 years from 1972 to 1982. He treated all his junior associates in the same unassuming manner. At times a rare vainglorious person among them would pretend to be extra pally with him by addressing him by his first name, something that our then colleague, the late Aubrey Kuruppu, well known cricket columnist, commentator, umpire, administrator, and coach – in fact, cricket filled his life – used to ridicule as trying to be ‘on Ashley terms’ with the professor! Professor Halpe was above all a great human being as Tissa Jayatilake has stated more than once in his writings about the late professor.

To me, Professor Halpe was an immensely knowledgeable teacher and a kindhearted guide with a philosophical bent, at a familiar personal level, rather than at a routine official level, due to the uniqueness of the circumstances on my side that caused me to seek his help at a time I had no direct connection or communication with him; but to him, in his own generous estimation, I was one of his ‘young colleagues’, an honour I let myself accept with a keen awareness of my own inadequacy beside him. The latter phase of our relationship (‘friends and colleagues’ stage) was during 1976-82 when I served as an English instructor in what was then known as the sub-department of English (which at a later time became the English Language Teaching Unit/ELTU), whose function was to teach English to the new entrants of all the faculties of the university who lacked the proficiency in the language that they needed to acquire in order to complete their academic studies at the high level of excellence that the university traditionally maintained.



The Peradeniya University’s department of English, even then, more than two decades after its heyday, harked back to its classical fame under its legendary gurus, such brilliant English scholars of the ‘40s and ‘50s as professors EFC Ludowyk, HA Passe, and Doric de Souza. They together bequeathed to the later generations of students the likes of Professor Ashley Halpe and Associate Professor Thiru Kandiah {the latter later moved to the Department of English Language and Literature of the National University of Singapore}.) The Trotskyite English don Doric de Souza (a prominent member of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party) played a significant part in the formation of the sub-department and was responsible for the compilation of a prodigious amount of appropriately chosen practice materials which were designed to meet the advanced linguistic needs of the general mass of students who had little or no English on admission.

I believe I was lucky enough, under the volatile circumstances later reflected in this personal account, to have the chance to subject myself to something of the lasting influence of the first two stalwarts mentioned above, in my attitude to, and grasp of, English literature from and through Professor Halpe, while drawing similar inspiration from the astonishingly creative and productive ideas independently incubated by Doric de Souza about teaching English for academic purposes (which our work as instructors was all about) through Dr Thiru Kandiah. I didn’t personally know Dr Kandiah before my appointment as instructor in 1976, but from then on, my friendly as well as productive interactions with him became as close as those with Professor Halpe.

At this point I feel that a quick flashback to my senior secondary school days is necessary to put my relationship with Professor Halpe in perspective. (By the way, I’d like to alert my readers to the fact that the account given here is not going to be linear; it will have a number of duly indicated flashbacks and flash-forwards, which, I hope, you will not find to be too much of a disjunction in the narrative.) My particular family circumstances caused me to interrupt my GCE AL studies and find a job. While still attending school at Poramadulla Central, I appeared for a competitive examination for admission as a ‘non-teacher’ to the Government Teachers’ Training College at Maharagama, the country’s premier secondary teacher training institution of the day (The National Institute of Education stands at the same venue today) for following a secondary English teacher training course. In those days (the latter ‘60s), Maharagama specialist trained teachers (in any of the specialized fields of science, maths, English, etc) enjoyed special recognition and were paid on a higher salary scale than those from general teacher training colleges. This salary disparity was removed under the UF government of the ‘70s. Our English teacher at the GCE OL in the mid-60s was an alumnus of G.T.C Maharagama.



It was at the G.T.C. that I started entertaining an English Honours degree ambition, thanks to two scholarly lecturers there: Mr A.M.G.Sumanapala Akmeemana who held a BA English Hons (London) degree, and was also a postgraduate TEFL (UK) diplomate, whose thought-provoking lectures delivered in flawless (but not stilted) English left a lasting impression on my young mind. It was from him that I learned what the ‘Socratic method’ of teaching was: for a considerable part of the lecture time, he didn’t ‘teach’; he asked questions and made us think. Tissa remembers the same stimulating approach used by Professor Halpe, and I agree with him. (Incidentally, the senior English lecturer at Vidyalankara University, Mr A.M.G. Sirimanne, that George Braine mentions in his piece was Mr Akmeemana’s older brother, but I never saw him; I had only heard about him as a first-class English scholar.) The other lecturer who similarly inspired me when I was training at Maharagama was the late Ms Chitra Fernando, linguist, academic and author, and eminent English fiction writer. She was a Peradeniya English Hons graduate, who had been tutored by Professor Passe and other stalwarts in the later ‘50s; she was perhaps a little junior to Professor Halpe at Peradeniya. On my first day at Maharagama, she called me to her after a lecture, and asked me from where I was and how old I was. I told her. When I said I was 19 plus, she said to me: “You are still too much of a kid. You should be in a university, not here. Don’t stop your studies after training”. Her words made a seminal impact on me. The training gave a foretaste of my Peradeniya experience, which I went through in unusual circumstances.

Before being enrolled as students of the Teachers’ College, the successful candidates were appointed as assistant teachers so they could be paid while in training.

They were made to sign a bond committing themselves to mandatory unbroken government service for a specified period after training, failing which they were required to pay back the cost of the training in full. On completion of the two year course, they were appointed to secondary schools. As luck would have it, I was appointed to a secondary school close to my home town, which suited me in view of my family responsibilities and my postponed university education prospects. This was a year or two before the first JVP rebellion of 1971.

Now, still in my early twenties, while teaching in that school, I successfully appeared for my delayed GCE AL exam as a private candidate offering English as one of the standard four subjects to be offered at the time in the arts stream instead of the science stream which I had followed at school, and qualified to apply for enrolment in a university. However, I couldn’t legally find admission to a university or leave the state school system which employed me without losing my job because of the training college bond that I had signed with the government. So I decided to achieve my ambition as an autodidact, and got enrolled for the external degree programme of the Peradeniya university as a special English trained teacher.

Following this, I wanted to make contact with an internal student in the English department. I did that through a former schoolmate of mine who was just finishing his studies in another department of the Peradeniya university. He said he had a friend doing English, who, he was sure, would gladly help me with his notes and other materials as he was a ‘kaddek’ with revolutionary leftist ideas in politics ‘like us’, and offered to take me to him. (The slang word ‘kaddaa’ in university parlance meant a (male) person who was already competent in English or was pursuing studies in the English medium; ‘kaddee’ would have been the feminine form, which I never heard, though.)

By the way, it may be said that the campus colloquialism ‘kaduwa’ for English (from which base the above forms were derived) originated among university students, about or just before the time covered in this narrative; they, having mostly come from the non-English speaking (or exclusively swabhasha speaking) rural peasant and generally subaltern sections of the society with negligible English, recognized the alien language (English) for what it had been in the past: a symbol of colonial power and privilege and an instrument of oppression and exploitation; a perception that they expressed by calling it ‘kaduwa’ (sword). I owe this analysis of ‘kaduwa’ to Dr Thiru Kandiah mentioned above, internationally known Sri Lankan linguist, who both spoke and wrote about it occasionally in his normal research related contexts. He drew upon his research experiences among Black and other non-white subjects from dispossessed backgrounds in America in this respect. I remember him describing “kaduwa” used in that sense as a remarkably expressive poetic construction. Being a senior lecturer in English, he happened to be the coordinator of the subsidiary division of the English department at the time I got appointed to the permanent cadre of instructors in1976 after facing a highly competitive recruitment test (By that time, I had completed my English Hons degree, while working in a government school as a teacher.)

To go back in my narrative again, the ‘kaddaa’ that my school friend took me to was none other than the same Tissa Jayatilake I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, then a student of both Halpe and Kandiah. This was around 1970 to early 1972, i.e., well before I came into any close contact with the latter two. Today he is well known as English academic, political analyst and director of the Fulbright Commission of Sri Lanka, among other things. When Tissa was appointed as the director of the American Center (called the American Corner at present?) in Kandy in those early days that I am talking about, he was given a big official vehicle by the embassy that employed him. I still remember (hope my memory is not erroneous) him telling us how embarrassed he felt to be driven about in that ‘limousine’ among the poverty stricken fellow citizens of the place. I also remember attending a public lecture on the prominent ‘metaphysical poet’ John Donne (of the late 16th- and early 17th century) that he delivered as a fresh lecturer (no doubt on being recommended by Professor Halpe) at the British Council library, then located in a building adjacent to where the current supergrade branch of the Bank of Ceylon in Kandy was built decades later. In passing, it must be remembered with gratitude, that the British Council and the American Center libraries in Kandy, which were well stocked with books, offered the local readers (mostly students) free library facilities, that I made the best use of as additional resources in my scholastic endeavours.

Going a few years further back from this point, the past scene of my first meeting with Tissa is clearly etched in my mind. This was in the early ‘70s, during the months that the April ‘71 insurgency was gradually fomented, got suddenly ignited and was quenched with considerable violence. The security situation in the country was still tense consequent to the JVP revolt, which I had survived miraculously unscathed. The untimely death of my father due to sudden illness a few years previously left my family without its anchor. The responsibilities that my father shouldered largely devolved on me. This left me neither the opportunity nor the inclination to take part in the revolutionary political movement, which had been initiated by the ‘Peking Wing’ (of the Communist Party) led by N. Shanmugathasan. The activities of the ‘Peking Wing’ led to the formation of Rohana Wijeweera’s Janatha Vimukti Peramuna.

We – my school friend and I – , to resume the episode of my first meeting with Tissa, called on him in his room in a hall of residence whose name has now slipped out of my memory. He was reclining in his bed against some pillows, chatting with some friends of his (from the adjoining rooms, as was obvious). He immediately sat up, and welcomed us with warmth, while his friends left, letting him talk with us. Tissa showed great empathy with my situation. He proceeded to give me some very useful hints. He named books that he thought I had to read in addition to the prescribed texts for the first year exam or the General Arts Qualifying (GAQ) examination, which he had already been through. Later, Tissa introduced me to an assistant lecturer named Wimal Weerakkody for help with Western Classics. The latter’s brilliance in spite of his visually handicapped situation was amazing, and he was very generous in helping me. This Wimal Weerakkody was none other than the late Prof Emeritus of Western Classical Languages D.P.M. Weerakkody (familiarly known as Wimal Weerakkody), then an assistant lecturer in that subject, who was residing in either Jayatilake or Arunachalam Hall of Residence – I can’t clearly remember which – close to the Arts Theatre and the central library of the university. Meanwhile, my schoolmate friend borrowed the books that I needed from the university library using his student library tickets.

Subsequently, I passed the GAQ examination, earning eligibility to read for a Special (or ‘Honours’ as it had been known until not long before that) degree in any of the three subjects that I had offered for the GAQ (namely, English, Western Classical Culture and Economics). I opted to major in English, which had been my lifelong dream. I chose Western Classical Culture as the subsidiary subject to go with my principal subject English. This happened about a year after the first Che Guevarist uprising (1971) of the JVP was brutally put down by the government security forces, as shown above.

I thought it appropriate to go and see Ms Chitra Fernando and Mr Akmeemana at Maharagama and express my gratitude to them for invigorating me with their kind advice and guidance. Unfortunately, the former was not there. But I was able to meet Mr Akmeemana. He seemed more pleased to see me alive than to hear about my exam success (not that he underrated the second). “My family circumstances and my passion for English saved me, sir”, I told him. Like Professor Halpe (whom I came to know a year or two later), Mr Akmeemana, it was evident, wept in his heart over the ‘tragic destruction of young lives’. “Those innocent boys and girls were on the threshold of life. But their idealism killed them”, he mused, “They were just waiting to be slaughtered in the jungle!”

(To be continued)

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Cattle slaughter in India



This is a controversial subject and I know it will attract allegations of communal bias. What puzzles me is: a Muslim urging his community members to stop killing and eating cows is lauded everywhere. If a non Muslim writes, they are immediately accused of inciting hatred.

But it is not meant in that spirit. Last month my team has raided markets all over Assam and found hundreds of cows and calves being killed in the open and sold by shops, like chickens in wayside shops. The police used the excuse of communal law and order to do almost nothing. Cow killing is banned in Assam and it is a BJP state, but no one takes action because of a fear of riots, and Assam kills as many cows as Kerala.
So does Bihar. One “cold storage” in Siwan, next to the slaughterhouse, had 50 tonnes of cow meat, dozens of cows tied up outside, blood and dead bodies all over the place – but the SP and the local SHO “could not find anything”.

There is no doubt in my mind that the police allow this because of the extra income they make. In Bihar cow killers work under the protection of the police, and the slaughterhouses are in ghettoes. In districts like Aurangabad, trucks full of cows go for slaughter to West Bengal every day – stopping to pay their police dues at the chungis. Any attempt to stop them is always interpreted as an “attempt to create communal disharmony”. But a law is a law. If it is illegal to cut cows, why is the law not being followed? Yogi Adityanath inherited a state where there were over 20,000 illegal slaughterhouses. Within three months he shut them down. The same police, that allowed them to operate, moved in speedily. There are almost none now.

There is no doubt that Hindus own slaughterhouses as well – in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh especially. These are exceptions. But the beef-eating Muslim has become a stereotype. And it has become the reason for tension between the communities.

And it has allowed the more rabid of all communities to come out on top. The crazies on the social media are enough to make anyone afraid. To give you one example: a man who looked like a Muslim was filmed beating a calf almost to death. There was a social media outcry. It turned out to be a drunken Hindu farmer wearing a rural Maharashtrian cap. Immediately everyone lost interest, and the calf was not confiscated by the police. It was irrelevant that this baby is being beaten every day.

Why don’t the Muslims take a decision to stop killing and eating cow meat ? The reasons are always the same: right to eat what you want in a democracy (then why is elephant meat banned?), caste divisions, vegetables are also live, it will destroy the fabric of India, etc. It is considered intellectually honest to organize a “beef festival” and its counter a “pork festival” at Osmania University in Hyderabad – using the dead bodies of animals in order to have a fight.

This is not about democracy. In a democracy, I can swing my hand as high as I want as long as it does not hit your nose. Mutual understanding and tolerance are the only two routes that can make India progress.

You will say : if that is so, then why don’t the Hindus tolerate the meat-eating habits of Muslims. Because gauseva is the basic tenet of this religion. The Hindus are not going to change century-old religious beliefs.

But where in the Quran, or in any Hadith of the Holy Prophet, does it say that Muslims have to kill cows or eat their meat ? There were no cows in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and camel milk was occasionally drunk. There is absolutely no record of the Holy Prophet even eating meat.

Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, a classical Islamic scholar in Qur’anic sciences and Uloom ul Hadith from Al-Azhar Institute of Islamic Studies, M. A. in Comparative Religions & Civilisations and a double M.A. in Islamic Studies from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, writes :

“The reality is that it is neither obligatory (wajib) nor mandatory (fard) in Qur’an to consume meat. The Holy Prophet Muhammad exhorted his followers to abstain from eating the cow’s meat. He is reported to have said in a Hadith, “There is value in cow’s milk, a healing quality in its ghee, and a disease in its meat”.

This article is not about Muslims not eating meat. It is about not eating cow meat. Muslims’ self-imposition of the beef ban could go a long way to bring about a peaceful religious coexistence.
If Kashmir is considered the heart of Muslim India and Sufism its deepest soul, here is what the author of a book on Sufism, Sadia Dehlvi, writes “I am not for bans on eating one’s preferred form of meat, but let us understand that in the syncretic culture of the Kashmir valley, there has traditionally always been an understanding that beef and pork are not served on the table. The Kashmir cuisine enjoyed by both Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims uses sheep mutton and not beef…a voluntary decision based on mutual respect by the Kashmiris.”

Heads of the prime Sufi shrines in India have urged Muslims to give up beef. On the conclusion of the annual Urs of Khwaja Moinuddin Hasan Chisty in Ajmer Sharif, the spiritual head of the shrine, Syed Zainul Abedin and descendant of Sufi mystic Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti stated: “On the occasion of the 805th Urs of Khwaja Moinuddin Hasan Chisty, who all through his life strived for peaceful coexistence of Hindus and Muslims, we Muslims should give up eating beef to honour the religious sentiments of our Hindu brethren,” (reported in HT).

He is reported to have taken a pledge that he and his family ‘would never have beef for the rest of their lives’ . “I have always believed that the cause of an issue that is creating a conflict among communities should be dealt with at the roots. Hence we used this platform on such an occasion to convey the message”.
“Muslims should set an example by resolving to not consume beef in the interest of communal harmony in India” read the joint declaration by the heads of Sufi shrines who were part of the congregation at the Ajmer Dargah.

Bovine meat has never been part of the Islamic identity. I quote from an article on the Islamic history in India: “From Fatwa-e-Humayuni to Durr al-Mukhtar to Maulana Hassan Nizami and Hakim Ajmal Khan, the message has been reiterated time and again that cow slaughter is not mandated in Islam, that sacrifice of sheep and goat are considered superior to cow slaughter, that poor Muslims are not obliged to offer sacrifice and that neither the Holy Quran or Arab traditions support cow sacrifice.

The Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, who led the first war of independence in 1857, had issued a decree declaring as his enemy any person who sacrificed a cow, bull or calf, and making such an act punishable by death. This was similar to a farman issued by Emperor Akbar, whose love for cows finds elaborate mention in the Ain-i-Akbari written by Abul Fazal. French Traveller Francois Bernier, who closely studied the Mughal courts, also writes that cow slaughter was akin to man slaughter under the law.

All of us dream of an India where there is no communal tension. Cow and pig meat have been a trigger since 1857. Is it not time for both communities to let these go?

To join the animal welfare movement contact,

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