Sunday, November 9, 2014

The "heroes" of Martin Wickramasinghe I: Tissa

Martin Wickramasinghe
This is the first in a series of sketches on certain elusive characters in the novels of Martin Wickramasinghe. A caveat: they are aimed at first-time readers of this unique and for me the greatest writer Sri Lanka produced. Nothing more. This article deals with Tissa from the Koggala trilogy.

I was very young when I came across Martin Wickramasinghe. The book was Madol Duwa, which I suppose no childhood would be complete without here. It took me some time to appreciate Wickramasinghe's extraordinary breadth and keen eye for detail. I remember reading his biography in Grade Eight. I also remember coming across a word in there which stuck with me ever since: "ස්වෝත්සාහයෙන්" ("by oneself" would be a rough translation). To me, no better word could describe this man, lacking any kind of formal education and at the same time so multifaceted in ways no education could impart.

It took some years for me to revisit the man. It was through another book of his, arguably his greatest and representing the peak of Sinhala fiction. The book was Viragaya. Perhaps it was a flaw on my part, but I had seen Tissa Abeysekera's film adaptation beforehand. I don't know whether my reading of the book was adulterated with any preconceived bias towards that film, but I enjoyed the book through and through.

Viragaya was quite obviously a world away from Madol Duwa. In terms of mood, characterisation, and narrative style, no two books could have been more different. I remember now just how "hard" it was to keep track of Aravinda Jayasena's story, narrated as it was through a series of vignettes more self-reflective and self-critical than in any other story I had read until that point.

Then came the Koggala trilogy. There were those who claimed that Gamperaliya diverted the Sinhala novel from the romantic world of Piyadasa Sirisena and W. A. Silva. That's true. The story of Gamperaliya teetered beautifully between social commentary and romantic fiction: as witness, for instance, in the sequence of the pilgrimage to the temple. For the first time in a Sinhala novel, I discovered just how beautifully language could be used to depict a social process, in this case the deterioration of one social order (the old aristocracy) and the emergence of a new one (the capitalist aristocracy).

But there was something missing in Gamperaliya. Some vital character, some plotline, was being sidelined, and deliberately so. I didn't know who or what this was. Hesitantly, I plunged into Kaliyugaya, the sequel to Gamperaliya.

I read the first few chapters. Looked at them again. Made notes. Thought. And then, out of the blue, it struck me: there was one character, the only one who appears in all three novels, who caught my interest. The character, as anyone will know, was the brother in the Kaisaruvatte family, Tissa.

Perhaps owing to this, I found Kaliyugaya the richest of the three novels. There was a charm to the whole story. I just couldn't figure out what it was. In terms of characterisation, of plotline, of narrative, and of social commentary, it is considered vastly superior to the other two stories.

The entire story of Kaliyugaya hovers between two worlds, that of the village to which Nanda and Piyal (the two main characters in the first two stories) belong and the metropolis to which they are now removed. The conflict that ensues thereafter is recorded beautifully, sharply, and sadly by Wickramasinghe. It seems at one point that nearly every complex emotion, self-contradictory as they are, is captured by him in the story. But this is beside the point here.

There is a sequence in Gamperaliya which I go to again and again. Those who have read it will remember the scene where Tissa, in Colombo and walking around the less frequented areas therein, comes across a prostitute. In a memorable encounter, Tissa walks around a shanty settlement, and Wickramasinghe captures his elusive mood (for Tissa's psychology is that: elusive), through a series of vignettes with regard to the sights, sounds, and smells (in particular the smell of fried chicken intermingling with the stench of a drain) thereof.

This sequence is remembered at one point in Kaliyugaya. By this point, Tissa's character has become all but comprehensible to us. The only thing we understand about him is this: he desists from responsibility. Very frankly, Wickramasinghe depicts Tissa’s attitude to women, shaped by his love for and fascination with them and also by his way of giving them up when forced out of an affair. For a while, I wondered where else I had come across such a character as this, and then it hit me: Aravinda Jayasena.

Viragaya isn’t considered a landmark in Sinhala fiction for its narrative structure alone. For the first time in our literature, at least in the 20th century and in the context of the novel, there is presented to us a character in the mould of a "superfluous man". Yes, that term eluded me for some time. I wondered where exactly such a character, whether in a novel or in real life, could emerge from. I did my reading for some time. I realised then that Aravinda Jayasena's character had been shaped by two diverse and yet mutually inclusive sources: the stories of the Bodhisattva in the Pansiya Panas Jathaka, and the Russian novel.

It is acknowledged by some that Aravinda Jayasena is presented as a Bodhisattva-like figure. As crass as this generalisation may be, this is true. The entire story of Viragaya deals with a selfless man, selfless not just because he is altruistic, but because he realises the superficial quality of this world and tries to shy away from it. Ever shrewd and sympathetic towards women, Wickramasinghe portrays a threefold depiction of womanhood itself by the female characters in the story: Menaka (Aravinda's ambitious sister), Sarojini (his fiancée, whom he lets go), and Bathee (the “vulgar” girl who looks after him towards the end). They entangle in his world, and his attitude to them eventually reflects his attitude to the world at large.

It is also acknowledged that Aravinda is not your typical protagonist. He is no hero, he is not vindicated at the end, and he never reconciles with the outside world. A deconstruction of Aravinda would be necessary here, but this is not the time for that. Suffice it to say this then: the closest "stock figure" Western literature could offer as an analogy to him was the "superfluous man", to be found in the novels of Dostoyevsky and in particular in Ivan Goncharov's novel Oblomov. The plot of that story revolves around an aristocrat who is incapable of shouldering any responsibility, and who notoriously doesn't move from his bed in the first 40 or so pages.

The point I'm trying to drive at is this: Aravinda Jayasena's character represented a peak in Martin Wickramasinghe's career as a writer and an observer of individuals. This antiheroic individual, I think and I believe, was what he first struggled to depict in the character of Tissa in the Koggala trilogy. Every writer who figured in prominently in his or her country’s literature maintained a dominant pattern with regard to choice of themes and character in their novels. This is the case with Shakespeare, with Dostoyevsky, and with Salman Rushdie.

The characters that Martin Wickramasinghe built up in the Koggala trilogy all succumb to the pressures of a changing social order. They do not shy away from it, but at the same time fall victim to it. Within this process of construction and destruction, we see and empathise with the only character who neither succumbs to nor shies away from it; a character who accepts the better aspects to the new order while at the same time critiquing its defects. This is Tissa. This is that antiheroic character which figures in Wickramasinghe’s entire career.

Piyal from Kaliyugaya pithily puts his character thus: “තිස්සට කිසි දෙයක් ඕනෑ නෑ. කිසිවක ආසාවකුත් නෑ” (“Tissa doesn’t need anything. Neither does he get interested in anything”).

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, November 9 2014