Sunday, November 16, 2014

The "heroes" of Martin Wickramasinghe II: Alan

Martin Wickramasinghe
This is the second in a series of sketches on certain elusive characters in the novels of Martin Wickramasinghe, aimed at first-time readers. Featured this week is Alan from "Kaliyugaya".

Martin Wickramasinghe's "heroes" are frail. I have already mentioned both Tissa and Aravinda Jayasena. It is true that no proper comparison can be made between them and the "stock heroes" of Western literature. They are not the traditional heroes who triumph in the end, who defeat the antagonists of the story and emerge as victors. They are instead "the defeated". 

But Wickramasinghe's "world" wasn't occupied by these defeated beings alone. To him, and perhaps to countless readers of his books, they symbolised a different type of people: those who love humanity, those who have an overarching thirst for living with other people, harmoniously, and berating the injustices in this world (or at least, as with Aravinda, shying away from them).

The transition from Gamperaliya from Kaliyugaya can appear, at first reading, confusing and utterly disorienting. Gone is the quiet, romantic depiction of the village. It is to an entirely different setting that the two main characters of the Koggala trilogy, Nanda and Piyal, are removed: Colombo. Piyal is no longer the romantic idealist of Gamperaliya, and neither for that matter is Nanda the obedient wife. Both succumb to the pressures of city life, the allure that comes with it. This can only come at the cost of forfeiting one's humanity, which is what happens to both of them.

The focus of Kaliyugaya, however, is not on Nanda and Piyal. The focus is on two characters, the only two who remain defiant of urban life till the very end: Nanda's sister Anula, and Nanda's son Alan. I will write of Anula later, Alan presently.

Alan is depicted as an aimless and emotion-driven character from the start. The story of Kaliyugaya begins with Nanda receiving a letter from him, domiciled in England and almost an exile from home. The letter is aimed at both mother and father, criticising them ruthlessly for what he thinks to be their inhumanity. It is also a confession, a throwback to his childhood and to various encounters he had with those who regularly visited their Colombo mansion. With the letter, a definitive introduction to how radically different the world of Kaliyugaya is from that of Gamperaliya is presented to us.

This, however, doesn't make Alan the “innocent” in the story, as he himself notes in the letter. He has married a Burgher woman, by name Irene, which in turn has ostracised him from his entire family (save Tissa). He admits his stubbornness and that this has got him to where he is now, in exile and with no hope of continuing his studies. Having dashed his mother's and father's expectations of him, he begs forgiveness. Nanda, a prouder and less shy woman than in Gamperaliya, is reserved. It is only towards the end that reconciliation is struck between mother and son, but till then, the letter triggers off a current of memory in Nanda which lasts for a good portion of the story.

With their entry to the city, both Nanda and Piyal are changed, sometimes for the worse. Piyal's mother, always proud of his son's achievement, slowly begins to be disillusioned by this new life, and soon enough leaves the city. From the first story, only two characters – Tissa and Anula – remain in the mansion, with Tissa symbolically moving to and from both city and village and Anula leaving for her ancestral home when she becomes ill (of tuberculosis).

Alan is witness to all this. He has a pliable, gentle mind, which absorbs everything he sees. He is fascinated and at the same time shaken by what he thinks to be his father's slight inhumanity, though he does not condemn him. He observes much and criticises little, as witness for instance in the sequence in the fourth chapter of his coming across a letter from a woman asking his father for 300 rupees. Whether or not this reflects infidelity on his father's part is never fully answered in the book. It is his observations which reflect on, which serve as a mirror to, and which guide both mother and father.

This does not make Alan a rebel in a political sense. He observes, and in his observations he comes across much in Piyal that he dislikes. He remembers just how tenderly he was looked after in his younger days, and puts forward the question why his father couldn't reflect this same selfless attitude to other people and children. He deplores the monetised society to which they have been removed. One feels, however, that his condemnation does not make him the political rebel that Malin Kabilana is in Yuganthaya.

Does this make Alan a less "committed" being than Malin? Not really. In Kaliyugaya, we come across an "aimless humanist" in him. I call him that because, for one thing, he is aimless and slipshod in his condemnation of mother, father, and city life (it is provoked by purely personal changes of feeling and attitudes as he grows up) and, for another, he is genuinely moved by humanity in general, which also explains his defiance of mother and father when marrying Irene. This isn't an academic article, so I won't go further. There is however another reason for his being who he is in the book.

This is the search for roots that is at the heart of Alan's journey in the story. He dislikes city life. His parents have provided much for him, in terms of education (he is sent to Royal College) and upbringing (he is provided with a "beautiful Sinhalese ayah"). He is privileged, which he resents later on (he hits a friend, for instance, who salaams him as the son of his father). Detesting the pressures of city life, he begins to travel to the village more often, trying to find his roots. To this end, he seeks and finds solace in his loku amma, Anula.

This is where the conflict between him and Nanda begins to show, because Nanda does not approve of this at all (she fears, irrationally I should say, that Anula's illness will afflict her son). The breaking apart of family bonds is what city life has done to Nanda and Piyal, and Alan's defiance of them reflects his passionate love for his ancestral village and everything it stands for. This does not mean, nonetheless, that Wickramasinghe portrays rural life as a paradise.

Part of the charm and richness of Kaliyugaya comes from there being multiple points of view in it. It's not just Alan narrating the story. The narrator appears to be Martin Wickramasinghe himself, clinically but at the same time sympathetically examining all his characters by giving each of them a chance to let the reader know of his or her point of view. Thus, Alan's letter begins a current of memory in Nanda, which in turn begins a clash of past and present. It is resolved only towards the end, when Irene dies (this he tells her in the letter itself) and he marries an Englishwoman. Not that there is a complete reconciliation in the end: in the final scene, we see Alan and his new wife, aboard a ship headed to England, waving at Nanda, and Nanda waving back, uncertain as to what the future holds.

The film adaptation of Kaliyugaya, directed by Lester James Peries, reduced a good portion of the story to the conflict between Alan (played by Sanath Gunathilaka) and his parents. He is shown as the aimless humanist he is in the novel, but as a more stubborn and defiant individualist. He is very studious, but infuriates Nanda (Punya Heendeniya) by carrying a picture of Irene in his book. He also is a reader of novels, in particular those of Charles Dickens, which again infuriates Nanda (who appears to be disapproving of novels in general).

He is vindicated towards the end, when he pays a visit to Anula (Trelicia Gunawardena). While there in the village, she berates his abandonment of studies; Alan questions her a little strictly, and at the end of that sequence, puts to her that she left the city precisely for the same reason he hates it now. Anula is quiet at this point, silently agreeing with Alan and thereby vindicating what she scolded him for. Moreover, the film leaves his fate undecided in the end: in his last letter to Nanda, he claims that he might very probably die in England, which shocks her, thereby closing the chapter on perhaps the richest and most complex story Martin Wickramasinghe wrote.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, November 16 2014