Monday, May 1, 2017

Thank you for all those words, Mr Siriwardena

Before I got to read Regi Siriwardena, I thought the world of Thomas Babington Macaulay. When I was in school, for some reason, I was made to understand that the more adjectives and adverbs I put into my sentences, the more beautiful and acclaim-worthy my essays would be. This was compounded by my first forays into serious literature – Austen, Gaskell, Keats, Wordsworth, and Leroux – all of whom would later be singlehandedly derided as provincial or overblown by critics of the 20th century. Macaulay’s writing though, back then at least, was to me the ideal.

I first discovered Regi Siriwardena while I was studying for my law degree in Colombo. When law school was over everyday I’d jaunt off to the Public Library to sample, not the serious literature I’d devoured before, but the prose and poetry of those who’d studied here, in our Universities. Regi’s name cropped up at once, and soon enough I was studying his political essays and arts pieces with a careful eye. I read his commentaries, seasoned and yet honest as they were, on a wide range of topics, from the breakup of the Soviet Union to the aesthetic and political worth of Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Dadayama. To say the least, I was enthralled. And impressed.

Unlike Macaulay and all those brown sahibs in the colonies (which included us) who sought to imitate him, Regi had the courage of his convictions to write what he believed in without resorting to frill. This led to two advantages. Firstly, he got to his point without beating around the bush. Secondly, he was so austere that he made you empathise with his beliefs without leaving you with the feeling that he had embellished them. Macaulay, even with his fecund imagination, could never have been his equal here.

For such a lean and spare prose stylist, Regi’s background was manifestly frugal. He was born on May 15, 1922 to a middle-class family in Ratmalana. His father was an avid lover of Macaulay. His mother spoke no English, only Sinhala. He taught him Dickens, Keats, and Wordsworth. She taught him fables, parables, and allegories from our folk culture. In later years, while Regi did openly admit his deficiencies in his mother-tongue (an embarrassment, as I myself have painfully come to realise), he nevertheless used what little he knew to question tradition: a quality he inherited from the leftist and vernacular sympathies of the mother.

He was schooled firstly at S. Thomas’ College in Mount Lavinia. His novel Among My Souvenirs recaptures S. Thomas’ as “Bethlehem College” and depicts it as everything a colonial school during those heydays of "God, King, and Country" would have stood for, with its at times overt class hierarchies and stratifications. He was obviously not at home with them, indeed he was disgusted by them, which is why he was happy when he was shifted to the more plebeian, cosmopolitan, and leftward Ananda College. His novel recaptures Ananda as “Sariputta College”, incidentally.

We don’t know how far Ananda took him to leftist politics. We do know, however, that upon entering University College, he was entranced by Doric de Souza so much that he took to Trotskyism. Sri Lanka by then had formed what would become the most powerful Trotskyite party in the world, the Lanka Sama Samaja Pakshaya (LSSP). Both de Souza and E. F. C. Ludowyk initiated him to that party, right before the Second World War during which he was an active member, saw through the ideological splits that would cripple it much later, and was disillusioned enough to leave. Like Anil Moonesinghe and T. B. Ilangaratne, he was too much the eclectic to suffer the ideological boundaries of whatever movement he joined.

After leaving University College, he ended up as an English teacher at Ananda and Royal. Esmond Wickremesinghe then invited him to join Lake House, getting him in as a journalist and later to the editorial staff. This was during the Red Scare days of John Kotelawala’s premiership, so naturally Lake House had become more anti-Communist and Conservative. Esmond had been a firm leftist as a young undergraduate, but as with all such revolutionaries, his radical streak could not survive the fact that he was wedded to privilege. Regi, on the other hand, repulsed by the rightwing tilt of his employers, tendered his resignation and left to become his own man.

His career from that point on bifurcated. On the one hand, he was a creative artiste. On the other hand, he was an academic and activist. With respect to the latter, he founded the English Department of the University of Kelaniya, had a hand in formulating the English language syllabus with the election of the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and (of all things) included in our English literature syllabus Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (despite stiff opposition from our English Departments). Later he would become part of the NGO intelligentsia that swept the country in the late seventies, especially through the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES).

As an artiste, he was as prodigious. Forget the scripts he wrote. Forget the poems, short stories, and plays he wrote. Forget the reviews he wrote. Think of what brought them together: his ability to repudiate sacred cows, sift away inessential details, and in the process praise what deserved praise and admonish what deserved admonishment. I know of critics, for instance, who’d have unconditionally adulated a film like Shelton Payagala’s Malata Noena Bambaru (the first Sinhala film to depict homosexual love). But then reflect a little on what Regi wrote.

“The great majority of the audience of Malata Noena Bambaru will come to the film with the assumption in their minds that homosexuality, depraved and evil, and they will go back with these assumptions fully confirmed. The ageing homosexual’s relationship with the young man is from the beginning presented as morbid, gloomy and guilt-ridden, though he is rich, free from social constraints, and not shown as in any way suffering from ostracism or moral condemnation.”

What Regi disliked in a work of art – be it a film, play, or even song – was any tendency in it  towards slick, stylised aestheticism, or a mismatch between intention (however laudable) and artistic achievement. In Malata Noena Bambaru the theme or subject-matter – homosexual love – is not aligned with the wider narrative in the sense that the director (and Shelton, to be fair by him, was a daring artist for his time) seemed so entranced by the weight of controversy that he couldn’t depict it as anything other than a quirk of a sexually frustrated aristocrat, who was less a homosexual than a pederast.

To a considerable extent, this explains why Regi was initially encouraged by but later opposed to the plays of Ediriweera Sarachchandra. “A Breath of Fresh Air” was what he called Pabavati, while the less optimistic “Vessantara, Morality and Melodrama” was the title of his review of Vessantara, Sarachchandra’s last work. He didn’t spare even his contemporaries: that Nidhanaya was a superior film didn’t prevent him from critiquing Ahasin Polawata (both directed by Lester James Peries). His review of the latter, incidentally, brings me back to his take on Shelton’s film: constrained as it is with a set of individuals displaying their egoisms and quirks, there was virtually no relevance in Ahasin Polawata outside its (narrow) milieu.

When I think of Regi’s prose in these essays today – unstilted, unsullied, to an extent predictable – I am reminded on another critic who couldn’t possibly have been any more different to him. Pauline Kael. That is why there is no other critic who can be contrasted with him more strikingly than her, which brings me to my point: the man’s mode of criticism, which won to his side both friend and foe, was free of the opinionated biases that coloured much of Kael’s essays.

Kael was one of those writers who voiced what she wrote. Regi, on the other hand, never let his voice taint his words. I am not entirely sure, had Regi gone abroad (with his pen that is), whether he would have been the more popular writer, but I do know that no one would prefer the writings of a person whose prejudices (at times vitriol) showed to those of a person whose prose didn’t betray them. Because we in Sri Lanka are facing a lamentable dearth of good critics, perhaps he (or his legacy) could show us a way forward.

Next month, if he were alive, Regi Siriwardena would have been 95. He was 82 when he passed away. His books (especially Among My Souvenirs) deserve more than a passing reference, so review them I shall. Eventually. Until then though, I shall be content in saying: thank you, Mr Siriwardena. Thank you for all those words.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, April 30 2017