The novelist, poet, short-story writer, playwright, literary critic, biographer, travel writer, science writer, philosopher, religious scholar and all-round Renaissance man Martin Wickramasinghe was born in 1890 in the village of Koggala on Sri Lanka’s south coast. By the time of his death in 1976 he’d authored some 85 books. His Wikipedia entry grandly but uninformatively describes him as ‘the father of modern Sinhala literature’. This profile in Sri Lanka’s Daily News gives more detail about what to expect from his writing, calling him ‘a liberal intellectual who consistently attacked dogmatism, obscurantism, oppression and elitism from any source, religious, political or social.’
As far as I know, not many of his books were written in or translated into English – both Wikipedia and the website dedicated to him list 11 such titles – which makes it difficult for someone like myself, illiterate in Sinhala, to immerse myself in his work. I have, however, read two of the translations.
© Sarasa Publishers
His Selected Short Stories (2007) reveal a man who’s unhappily aware of the social divisions in Sri Lankan society and the hardships and indignities that poverty heaps upon those at the bottom of it. For example, Diversion is a damning account of how some wealthy, Anglicised Sri Lankans amuse themselves whilst waiting for the passengers to disembark from a liner at Colombo harbour. They start throwing coins over the jetty’s edge, so that they can enjoy the spectacle of the poor local street children diving into the water in a race to retrieve them. This has tragic consequences for one child: “The little urchin was nowhere to be seen,” recounts the narrator. “I had myself forgotten him in the excitement surrounding the divers.”
Meanwhile, Bondage is the story of a hard-working but ailing carter and his beloved, similarly hard-working and similarly ailing cart-bull, which has the reader wondering which of the two is going to die first. The Torn Coat features a just-married man dreading having to confess to his wife that the fancy outfit he wore at their wedding was actually borrowed from a richer family in their village. And Woman compares the situations of two female friends. One has tried to be virtuous, but thanks to a treacherous husband struggles to make end meet and is prematurely aged. The other has lived shamelessly and now, as a rich man’s mistress, enjoys wealth and comfort and remains youthful. “We have to accept that we pay for sins carried over from the past,” the poor decent one tells the rich immoral one, despite the evidence suggesting this isn’t true. Other stories in the collection explore other themes, but these ones about economic hardship I remember best.
I’ve also read Lay Bare the Roots (translated in 1958), Wickramasinghe’s account of his childhood in Koggala. It lovingly records the characters, stories, flora and fauna, arts and crafts, pageantry, customs and religious rites of a time and place that seem very distant now – especially as that part of Sri Lanka is best-known today for its tourist beaches and hotels.
It’s interesting that Wickramasinghe defends the hedonistic, earthy elements that once pervaded the local Buddhist festivals and processions – carnival-style entertainments and stalls, for instance, and folkloric ‘devil dancing’ by non-religious mummers – against the complaints of more earnest Buddhists. He notes regretfully: “Men’s desire for amusement must be satisfied as well as their religious piety. The religious festivals held at our village temple once catered for both these needs; but due to a few clamorous and educated busy-bodies they have now turned into dull gatherings for the purpose of austere worship and contemplation which only appeal to hermits.”
© Sarasa Publishers
Koggala’s most famous son has left the village, which is actually more of a town these days, with an important physical (and no doubt money-spinning) legacy. Contained there in the writer’s former home is the Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Art Museum. It displays countless historical and cultural items that he collected over a period of 70 years. These include religious artefacts like temple lamps, monks’ fans, alms bowls, Buddhist paintings and stone, brass, marble and wooden Buddha statues; old agricultural and fishing implements, such as a lasso for catching buffalo, a fishing-net weaving machine and wooden rattles and stone-firing bows used ‘for scaring away birds’; artistic items like masks, puppets and musical instruments; tools for preparing traditional medicines; pottery; jewellery; weapons; and articles from the traditional textile, leather, carpentry and cane and reed industries. There’s also a Sri Lankan costume gallery, an exhibition hall full of antique furniture and a shed containing ‘traditional vehicles’, which range from handcarts and ‘temple tricycles’ to tuna-fishing boats and fishing-net barges.
A few months ago while we were enjoying a holiday on the south coast, my partner and I visited the museum. I decided the following things were my favourites in the collection: among the masks, some satirical ones that caricatured red-faced and obviously sunburnt and sweating ‘British officers’; among the puppets, a life-sized marionette show; and a selection of traditional Sri Lankan board games including wadu getage, ‘a carpenter’s puzzle’ that could be likened to a very old Rubic’s cube, magul parakhuwa, which consisted of 11 pieces of wood contained within a square and which challenged you manoeuvre the largest piece out through a side-opening by sliding aside but not lifting out the smaller pieces, and magul getaya, known as ‘the wedding knot mystery’, which was apparently used at wedding parties by the bride’s parents to test their new son-in-law’s brainpower.
A sign just past the museum entrance warned visitors to beware of unofficial and duplicitous guides. Accordingly, when I was in the middle of museum and a small, rather elderly man approached me and attempted to strike up a conversation, I initially tried to shake him off. It was embarrassing when a little later my better half did start talking to him and we discovered that he was really the institution’s curator. He’d seen me taking my time looking at the exhibits and writing comments in a notebook and he’d wanted to explain things to me in more detail. (We must have seemed unique to him because, alas, the local visitors didn’t hang around. They whooshed through the museum. For a while I even found myself being propelled along in a fast-moving line of chattering Sri Lankan grannies – whom you might’ve expected to proceed more slowly, given that they were probably old enough to remember a few of those exhibits actually being used.)
So, should you ever visit the Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Art Museum, don’t be alarmed if a little old man comes up to you and starts talking. He’s not some money-grubbing fake guide, but the very informative proprietor of the place.
Also, don’t forget that, on your way out, there’s a little shop next to the exit where you can stop and purchase a couple of books by the museum’s distinguished founder.