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The dichotomy between Sri Lankan Tamil and Sinhalese Literature

Full Text of my speech at the session on Tamil - Sinhala Literature Translation.


Good Evening Everyone.

First of all thanks to Poopathy uncle for inviting me to share this view with you all. As he often does, earlier this week, once he has run out of all the possible speakers, he finally reached out to me to give this speech. Thanks for the opportunity uncle.

So let me commence with a disclaimer here. Attempting to provide a holistic perspective on two organically divided literature spectrum would always be a challenge. Doing that without the help of a proper literature review is an insult to such attempt. Moreover, preparing all these in a matter of few days is more sinful and this wouldn’t pass a simple pub test. Hence my proclamation follows; The views and opinions expressed in this piece are purely mine. These are solely my continuous accumulation of perceptions, often influenced by the books, social media, friends and narratives I encountered over the time and of course, with my conscience, I stand by everything I am going to say today.


As we all know, the tiny island of Sri Lanka has often outstretched its leaps on many disciplines. It is rich in history, culture, trade, Indian and European invasions, tea, ethnic conflict, civil war, religious extremism, terrorism, political immaturity, social inequality, hatred, violence, killings and above all, cricket. Ironically great literature thrive in such environments. Many of the celebrated classical literature were written out of social agonies. It could be Albert Camus’ Plaque, Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ or J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’. So its not surprising to see many writers from that part of the world followed the same suit. The result has been staggering over the recent time. From right across the country and around the world, Sri Lankan literature have been produced in all three languages by all kind of people. Tamils, Muslims, Sinhalese, Indians, westerners and perhaps Chinese too. Just like how the country’s conflict and geo politics getting played out, the literature too is not an exception. Its been touched and at times abused by the whole world.

But then, not all of us from that country get to enjoy them.

Its like the Ceylon Tea I used to drink during my childhood. I was never able to taste the greatness of Ceylon tea back then in Jaffna. All we got was a cheap tea dust. And for some puzzling reason, it was vanilla flavoured. Then we added too much Anchor milk and sugar to kill its taste even further. Until I had a proper Ceylon Tea in a Singaporean restaurant in my mid twenties, I never experienced the true taste of it. Then, only in my mid thirties, I was able to visit a Sri Lankan Tea estate, thanks to my in-laws who were living in Badulla. While people around the world, from Norway to New Zealand, from China to California, been able to enjoy the true Ceylon tea and tour the estates and factories, an adult who lived just a couple of hundred kilometres away from them was kept wondering how would it taste and how would a real tea leaf look like.

This is the true state of Sri Lanka’s literature too.

I am, and want to consider myself an ardent book worm. I got into the reading very early in my childhood, thanks to my mother’s guidance and in part, her selfishness. I was a war kid. We were under constant bombarding and displacements throughout the eighties and nineties. So in order to keep me within her eyesight, my mother would borrow so many books from Jaffna Municipal Library and give them to me. She would start with children books like Ambulimama and Kokulam. Once I finished all of them, she was forced to move into big bundled Tamil historical fictions and Crime Thrillers. After that she started giving me English books which she had no idea of. I still remember, George Elliot’s “Mill on the Floss” was one of them. Then I started stealing the adult books which my mum wouldn’t let me read otherwise. The habit never ceased there from. I continued to read books. I read Tamil literature, both Sri Lankan and Indian. Then got into English literature. Then I got hooked into Russian, French and South American literature all through their English translations. I was literally living around the neighbourhoods of St Petersburg, wandering near South Spain, the farms of Eastern cape, Australian outbacks, fishermen banks in Santiago and 200 BC South Indian kingdoms. But unfortunately, and at times pathetically, I could never imagine the lives and lands of Sinhalese people who were just living few hundred kilometres from my hometown. For me, they are different mythological aliens. They are scary. They are culturally divided, politically arrogant, religiously extreme, and they speak a language which I don’t understand. Worst of all, they celebrate the killings of Tamils. This was the impression I have had throughout my childhood.

I couldn’t comprehend the fact that, majority of the men and women of Sinhalese community, let alone the Tamils and of course the rest of the world, are ignorant, simple and living a life contends to their everyday needs. I couldn’t comprehend the fact that, majority of the men and women of Sinhalese community live the same life of ours. They rise in the morning, doing their rituals of cooking, going to offices and paddy fields, sending kids to school, pray to their god, feed and then breed. This is the common phenomenon of the entire world. The most of the people live a very simple life. The daily news paper headlines of the country do not represent them. The politics don’t represent them. Religions don’t represent them. The corrupt government and religious institutions don’t represent them. Its true that. the very ignorant nature of these people paved the way to these greedy institutions, no doubt. But they don’t really represent those people.

What does, or rather should represent them is their literature. Literature can shed some light on the everyday lives of the people, their struggle and their true inner emotions. Literature can go beyond the peripherals of the people’s language and religious divides, and showcase their inner workings. A true literature can remove the stereotypes and prejudices and tell a life like it is. I don’t pretend even for a moment, that our communities don’t have their differences. On the contrary, they miserably do. The distrust between the societies, the hatred towards each other, their bitter past, the jubilance over their own breed, they all do exist.

But literature can reveal that they are all very unreal. The concept of nationality, country, religion, race, caste and “us verses them” are all illusions. The mankind created them to setup their individual survivals. The mankind’s natural greediness kept them in tact. In another day, in another circumstance, mankind can easily alienate its own breed, its own associates for its own survival. Literature can explore these themes methodically. Popular news mediums and social media bubbles can never eradicate these, but a true literature can. A true literature can address the differences in both holistic and minuscule scale. A true literature can challenge the status quo. A true literature can stand for nothing but the true humanity irrespective of the illusionary race, religion, country and other stuff. I did casually mention ‘Other stuff’, because they all are just stuffs. They were all once “other stuff” now become important stuff.

Martin Wikramasinghe’s “Madal Doova” is one of such literature. It could be a very simple, coming of age story of a Sinhalese boy from Southern Sri Lanka in 19th century. But then, it could easily be my story too. I could easily be that Upali, or Jinna. I have seen many Punchi Mahattayas throughout my life. A lazy idle man, suspicious of fraud, but then under the constant encouragement and love, he could become a wise and active person. Through the eyes of Upali, Jinna and Podi Gamarala, I have seen the typical village lifestyle of Southern Sri Lanka and to my astonishment, it isn’t that much different from what I have seen, and for a short time lived in Vanni too.

I was able to read Madal Doova, thanks to my English Literature teacher in Jaffna. Her name is Mrs Shanmuganathan. Mrs Shanmuganathan was a very rare breed. She loved English literature, she wrote poetry for the only English monthly publishing in Jaffna by then. She taught us literature with so much passion. When rest of the Jaffna were teaching Charles Dicken’s "Oliver Twist” and R.K. Nayaran’s “Swami and Friends” as the text book fictions, Mrs Shanmuganathan took “Madal Doova”. I remember she saying,

“This is one of those books which will ever get stuck in your memories”.

So it did. Even though we were displaced from Jaffna, before our class could get to the end of the novel, I still managed to finish it alone and was able to critically analyse the text for the o-level exams. As my teacher said, the book got stuck in my memories and wouldn’t go away ever. Twenty years later, my wife and I would present “Madal Doova” as a gift to the people who attended our wedding.

“Madal Doova” was translated into many languages. It was translated into Tamil by Suntharam Saumiyan. Suntharam Saumian has done many other translations too, including ‘Viraahaya’ and ‘Palama yatta’. S. Pathmanathan, also known as So.Pa has also done some translations. And so did Madulgiriya. But unfortunately most of these translations did not reach to readers like me. Those books were never discussed in readers' forums. They were not celebrated much. The news about their releases, the suggestions and endorsements were not available to a person like me. We get to know about the books getting released in Chennai, in Madurai, in Erode. We know the writers from Nagarkovil to Pandicheri. We would even go to Kerala and know about M.D.Vasutheva Nair. We would know about Anita Nair or Aravind Adiga. But we wouldn’t know Kunasekara Kunasoma and Kulasena Ponseka. That is a dire state of that country’s literature. Although not known by much, at least, Kunasekara and Kulasena were translated into Tamil. But how about the contemporary and post modern Sinhalese writers? Literally none of them have been translated. Simone Nawagattegama, Eric Ilayaparachchi and Sunetra Rajakarunanayake are notable Sinhalese contemporaries and unfortunately they have not been translated into Tamil. We could only read Sunetra’s Nandithaya, thanks to the English translation of it. But in Tamil, none got translated.

This stirs up another controversial can worms of discussion here. Why don’t we see many contemporary Sinhalese and Tamil literature translations of late? For the few which are getting done, what is the thought process behind the choice of the literature.

Lets get to the first question. Why don’t we see many translations of late, especially in an era where publishing become easier and affordable, number of writers and materials grown exponentially, and arguably the book sales are higher even though the readership been fallen, why don’t we see may translations?

The obvious reason for not having many translations of late is the dichotomy between the two language communities. As the universe expands itself, do does the gap between the galaxies and stars. We, Sri Lankan communities are no different. Al though we used to live in a tiny 65000 square meters land, the divide between the three major communities are historically evident and the status quo continues to stay put. So over the time, especially during and after the civil war, the number of bilingual persons who have the literary capacity to translate contemporaries have vastly declined. People don’t speak each others’ language. Their love and obsession towards their own language or other wise the common language English has surpassed the need to learn Tamil or Sinhala. At best, some of our Tamil generation Y and Z can speak Sinhala but not read or write. Our Sinhala counterparts can not even do that. If possible, we don’t speak to each other, and when necessary we try in English. Fortunately our muslim generation like Fahima Jahan and Rishan Sherif are able to read and write both in Tamil and Sinhalese. They are very able literary personalities. But I am afraid, with the recent terrorist attacks and aftermath hatred spread around the country would alienate the people even further. As the modern world grows with full of hate, misogyny and spite, Sri Lanka, which was already onboard, is snowballing with such respects sadly.

With the lack of translators available, the challenge and onus are hugely on the very few people like Madulgiriya Wijeratna to bring the best and sensible literature from Tamil to Sinhalese and vice versa. I highly regard and acknowledge the efforts of the people like Madulgiriya. They have been doing an unbelievable work in this domain and we cannot thank them enough. But their thought process behind the choices of books have become very questionable in the recent past. What made them picking those books? How many books they have come across and turned down before choosing to go ahead with the ones they did. I cannot come to terms that the works of Shoba Shakthi, Gowripalan, Sayanthan and Maruthoorkoththan have been left behind while Thamizhini’s Koorvaazhin Nizhal and Noel Nadesan’s books have been rushed to translations soon after they got originally published in Tamil. I am afraid, the genre and the politics of the literature been carried out to the Sinhalese communities are going to paint a single sided, so opinionated view point due to the strong stereotyped nature of such works. I also want to go on record to say, with a lot of sadness that, writers who have the most networking and social skills are able to get endorsements and promotions and their work doesn’t necessarily always deserve the praise it receives. Eventually, the translators, whose only associations are with such writers, get to pick those writers’ books, or the books they recommend, which usually serve their own political and personal interests.

Well, we can’t really blame those writers and the translators who are concerned here. In the end, its their individual effort and wish. They do this work in their private capacity and they are not obligated to answer anybody.

So how do we address this problem? How do we ensure the credible, authentic, ever lasting literature of both the languages been translated to each other? How do I get to read Simone and Eric? How do Sinhalese get to read Gowripalan, Maruthoorkoththan and Puthuvai Rathnathurai? How do we feel the pain of a person from Puthukudiyiruppu village in Sinhala? Or person from Paduvankarai or rural Kurunagela? However the differences would be, how do I find out what and why an ordinary sinhalese person feels the way he or she does? How do we despise the politics, race, religion, propaganda and directly live a life of an Upali or Singamalai?

I think we desperately need a credible publishing house with a proper editorial processes. The publishing house should have a fully funded editorial team full of people doing paid jobs. They should be able to read the manuscripts, critically analyse and engage closely with the literary magazines. They should be able to defend and justify their picks. Government or more precisely the library networks can set this structure and employ people. I have no doubt that there are number of able, willing writers, or more importantly, readers, who will be throwing their hats to take up these positions. I have no doubt that the effort can be funded through government, private bodies as well as crowd funds. If Noolaham Foundation is able to digitally archive over 60,000 Tamil print books under such crowd sourced system, why can’t we do the publishing of new books with a similar system? As much as I wish, I don’t have the skill, ability and capacity to setup or facilitate such a system. But if some of you can make that initiative, I will be more than happy to lend my hand on fundings and any other support I could offer.


There was a crowd funded publishing house called “Ezhuna” with a strong editorial team, which was trying to do something similar. But with a lack of support and their small scale, they couldn’t sustain their effort for more than few publications. But among the few books they managed to release, one of them a the book called “Thalaippattra Thaainilam”. It is a Tamil translation of a book called “Maathroovak naththi maathroo boomiya” by the exile journalist Manjula Vediwardana. The translation was done by the duo Fahima Jahaan and Rishan Sherif. I want to quote a poetry from that book. The poetry was originally written in Sinhala. I read the poetry in Tamil. And here, in front of both Tamil and Sinhalese audience, I tried my best to translate it in English and present to you, ironically, so you all can understand.

He is a new Tamil

Yes, I am a true Sinhalese.
Yes, Sinhalese.
I am a Sinhalese.
Pure Sinhalese. 

I let the Tamil dream,
To be dreamt in Tamil.
Hence, I didn’t let my
Motherland to destroy.

I think in Sinhala too.
My poetry on the
last of the tamils eradicated from Sri Lanka
Is also in Sinhala. 

Since it is in Sinhala,
When I write my poetry,
There is blood in my hands.
The fountain sprayed from my pen is also blood.

I like to smile in Sinhala too. 
For the very reason, 
I couldn’t smile either.

While I am eating at Saiva hotel,
My friend who imagines capturing Mullaitivu,
Sending an Uzhunthu Vadai by email.

My friend! 
In some other places,
Life is not that bad at all.
Where is your refuge?
Is it in your motherland?
or Heart? 

A new poem is crawling in my mind.
That is also about a Tamil.
He is a new Tamil.
A Tamil who is laughing at Sinhalese. 

I wish him the all the best,
in Sinhala.


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