Friday, February 27, 2015

Notes on a writer and national icon

Books are loved. They are read in more ways than one. Complexity of form, rhetorical device, allusion, syntax, and wordplay are made for study. But what matters is the story. That is why we are all narrators. Why we take to what captures heart more than "form" or "structure".

I was thinking about books I've read and treasured in my childhood. There were the authors: Sybil Wettasinghe, Richmal Crompton, Aesop. There were the titles: Just William, Tintin, Kuda Hora, Harry Potter. They came to memory at once, so much so that I felt something was missing. I had neglected something. It had been absented from memory. Didn't take much time to remember.

we had to study Amba Yahaluwo in Grade Seven. The story caught hard. We weren't as yet old enough to appreciate the deeper nuances of that classic. Back then, understandably enough, we examined it for what we thought it was: a first-rate story. Remembering it brought back memories. It also brought back memories of the man who wrote it. T. B. Ilangaratne.

He wasn't a novelist. He wasn't a writer. He was much more. In his stories, his characters, and his endings, there is a moment of triumph for its heroes. We all devoured that moment. Young and blissfully unaware of how books are read in different ways, we willingly let go of the deeper subtexts of his works. An unforgivable crime perhaps, but back then we were not taught to study a work of art as an undergraduate would.

Not that Ilangaratne deserves to be read like this, however. He isn't meant to in the first place. Why?

Because his stories all spoke to the heart. Nearly every story he wrote involved children. Children "reside" in every one of us. So when he wrote about them, their tribulations, joys, and sorrows, he was true to life. He had an uncanny ability to strike the right note, whatever chapter or sequence it was in his story. And this wasn't all.

We weren't ready to distill anything political from a work of art back then, given that we were small. It took time, understandably, to realise just how "political" and "committed" this remarkable writer could be in whatever he wrote. And what was beautiful in this was the way he used his political vision, so full of sympathy to the downtrodden, to spin stories revolving around children. In this, he was perhaps far ahead of his time. Remarkable, given how extraordinarily simple his writings were.

The 1960 Cabinet. Ilangaratne is seated
second from the left
Not that this means he included anything and everything political in his works. He didn't go overboard. He maintained a balance between narrative and social commentary, although it was hard to see where and when he would go beyond the narrator's role to act as commentator. And in Amba Yahaluwo, his masterpiece, he kept this balance so admirably that it was difficult to see anything political about it.

As we grew up and matured, however, it was equally difficult to not see how he had reflected Marx's dialectic view of history in his characters: with Sunil ("Sudu Appo", the son) for socialism, Maha Kumarihamy (his grandmother) for feudalism, and Nelum Bandara (his father and the head of his family) for the eventual transition from the one to the other. Bandara's downfall at the end of the story, Kumarihamy's fall from grace and arrogance, and Sunil's growing friendship with Nimal all reflect the gradual erosion of feudal values and the embrace of humanism. Back when I first read it this wouldn't have made sense to me, a point I realise only now.

Ilangaratne felt and lived what he wrote. Like some of the children in his books, he had risen through class hierarchies by effort and had come to appreciate the meaning of "equality". For him, Marxism wasn't something to parrot or gain political mileage from. Injustice wasn't a slogan. The humanist in him saw these words for what they really meant: symbols of a flawed society. To pick and choose, to pursue self-interest while advocating reform wasn't his aim. His aim was to inform, to educate, believing in an eventual transition. Children, he would have known, felt this the most. Which is why we remember not just his stories, but their characters too.

He had a political life, naturally. Contesting firstly as an independent candidate from Kandy, he went onto become one of our finest and indeed most honest Labour Ministers. He helped create the Provident Fund. The People's Bank was his brainchild. His association with Bala Tampoe and other notable trade unionists helped steer the economy, back when negotiating employment terms didn't mean kowtowing to the employer.

He lost his seat in 1977. Not surprising, considering that the SLFP had seen its biggest electoral loss that year. Nearly a decade later, when its fortunes seemed to flounder badly and he had grown frustrated, he made a choice. He joined a breakaway faction called the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP), led by Vijaya Kumaratunga and the Old Left.


What happened next was inevitable. Almost overnight, Ilangaratne lost his spark. Kumaratunga was killed. The SLMP lost the 1988 election, with its leader Ossie Abeygunasekara joining the UNP later. Kumaratunga's widow joined the SLFP, winning the 1994 election. The Old Left, predictably enough, stuck with her. And through this, Ilangaratne became an orphan. With his reputation besmirched by a campaign leveled against him (which alleged that he owned a hotel in Switzerland), he died, in S. L. Gunasekara's words, a "virtual pauper". Sadly.

Politicians rarely become writers. When they do, there's that political spark in their works that, for better or for worse, define them. Had he lived, Ilangaratne would have written more. Much more. His political zeal would have worn off. His stories would have been marked by an intensity of feeling, acknowledging that while his vision of childhood innocence and humanism was commendable, they entailed values which could not survive. Not for long. Inevitable, considering how the world changed. Even in his time.

I can only guess, though. I am no seer. In any case, Ilangaratne lived a life. He dissected childhood and opened it for us. We read him as children do. As we matured and came to understand political realities, we appreciated him. As we ambled along life and realised the limits of those realities, we appreciated him more. That's rare for a writer, I admit. Commendable too. Always.