Thursday, December 18, 2014

The 'heroes' of Martin Wickramasinghe IV: Aravinda Jayasena

Martin Wickramasinghe
This is the fourth in a series of sketches on certain elusive characters in the novels of Martin Wickramasinghe, aimed at first-time readers. Featured this week is Aravinda Jayasena from “Viragaya”.

I wrote a little about Aravinda in my article on Tissa, the first in this series. I did so intending to show (or prove?) that Martin Wickramasinghe’s overarching goal in his novels (and, to a lesser extent, short stories) was the depiction of a particular type of character. It’s significant that Viragaya (1956) preceded Kaliyugaya (1957). Aravinda Jayasena in the former novel “exerts” himself on the character of Tissa in the latter. This is open to debate, but the way I see it, Wickramasinghe’s novels, especially after Gamperaliya, were all character-driven, almost all of them focusing on the kind of character epitomised by both Aravinda and Tissa.

Viragaya, considered Wickramasinghe’s greatest, was published at a time of deep cultural change. 1956 was the year of “Sinhala Only”, of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s rise to power, and of a revival of Buddhism (with the 2500th Sambuddatva Jayanthi). It is from this point that we should approach Aravinda Jayasena.

Aravinda is not your typical protagonist. Measured against the other characters of Wickramasinghe’s novels I examined before, he is an entirely different kettle of fish. The closest to a likeminded figure in Wickramasinghe’s stories for him would be Tissa, but even here the comparison doesn’t quite seem true. Let me be frank here, hence: Aravinda Jayasena’s character is unique to Viragaya, its time, and Wickramasinghe’s entire career. Never again would such a person be featured in a Sinhala novel.

The story begins, as you will remember, not with Aravinda himself, but with a friend who discovers a diary of his. Sammy, Aravinda’s friend, is the narrator for a couple of chapters or so. The tone and mood of the story shift when Aravinda beings to “narrate” his story (by this time, he is dead). The novel ambles along a series of vignettes, reflecting on his childhood and his later life. To the conventional reader, these sketches may even appear too hazy, too “pointless”, to have a bearing on the larger story. It is to the author’s credit, however, that he keeps a fine balance between personal experience and social commentary. Through his life story, Wickramasinghe offers a deft critique of the society in which he is placed.

From the start, he is shown as a character that has no set purpose in life. His father is a vedamahattaya, but he abhors biology because he would have to perform surgeries and dissect animals. Instead, he takes to chemistry, a highly experimental but at time same time unprofitable field. He gives up his fiancĂ©e, Sarojini, to his friend Siridasa, lacking courage to elope with her. Like Tissa, he detaches himself from everything. This pits him against his sister, Menaka, who clearly wants him to “climb up”. When he has all but completely given up on everything that she desires, she lets him go scornfully, refusing to look him up even on his deathbed.

Wickramasinghe almost always depicted the village, not as a paragon of virtue (unlike the more romantic stories of Piyadasa Sirisena), but as a flawed, frail place which still has some basic human goodness. His criticism of the village in this story proves this. It is only a simple village girl, Bathee, who looks after her. She is a virtual outcast, shunned as vulgar by practically everyone around her. His association with her gives rise to gossip, believed by almost everyone, except his closest friends, Sarojini included.

The first and foremost point about Aravinda is this, hence: even though he is presented as a Bodhisattva-like figure, he too is flawed. Although the story never lets us know for sure, it’s hinted that Bathee is the only character to whom he is drawn, though not in a romantic sense. He finds it difficult to let her go, and when a simple villager (Jinadasa) begins flirting with her, he is overwhelmed with jealousy. He lets her go, finally and with much effort, and even buys a car for Jinadasa to earn a living as a driver. Being the simpleminded person he is, he disregards the gossip around him.

Aravinda’s character is as difficult to define as it is to draw up. We are never sure what his next move is. He is naive at certain points in the story, so much so that we feel that his diary vignettes reflect his simple-mindedness a little too much. This is only partly true, however. He is the perfect rebel, because he doesn’t flaunt how much he is at odds with a society that expects him to behave “like a man”. He is quiet and restrained in how he looks after Bathee as a child: she calls him “father”, and he neither encourages nor discourages her.

It’s also notable that his outlook on life and the world at large is shaped by his attitude towards the three women who entangle in his life: Bathee, Menaka, and Sarojini. Each of them symbolises a different kind of woman: Bathee the vulgar but honest, Menaka the ambitious and sharp-tongued, and Sarojini the quiet and reflective. Sarojini is the more reserved and restrained of the three, while Bathee, though emotion-ridden and wild-eyed, is essentially the kind-hearted girl within.

It’s significant that for the greater part of Viragaya, Aravinda is in contact with her. She is the last fetter to break through for him to achieve a peaceful existence (and death). She is the last bond to detach from, after he gives up Sarojini to Siridasa and leaves Menaka after a disagreement. When he finally does detach himself, however, he falls ill. In his death, he achieves something of an apotheosis. This is why I have always felt that if there were a character in Western literature that could be compared with him, it would have to be Jesus Christ.

Still, this doesn’t remove the Buddhist “aspect” of the story. “Aravinda” means “lotus” in Sanskrit. Buddhism is filled with symbolism and symbols, and the lotus flower is used as an analogy for the samsaric voyage: just as the flower grows out of mud, so should man move out of samsara and attain nibbana. Wickramasinghe never lets us know whether Aravinda lets go of his bonds to such a degree that he attains it; nonetheless, he assures us, by the final chapter, that his character has tried to such a level that we can be sure his samsaric voyage will end someday, soon. On this note, Wickramasinghe ends the richest work of fiction a Sinhala author could write.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, December 7 2014