Contravention of Victorianism: Magam Soliya (මාගම් සෝලිය)

4/15/13

(Published in The Nation on 05th May 2013)

Almost five years back I wrote a review on a book called “Bodilima” (බෝදිලිමා) which was significantly different than what I had consumed as a Sinhala literature enthusiast. Its writer was Mohan Raj Madawala. Not only did I admire the bold decision of writing such a book, but harshly criticized the writer for joining a “popular culture” radio channel, as I learned later on. Though mass-media is a serious business, nowadays FM radio channels are based on different agenda. Soap operas (in our context “insurance operas” started by Nalan Mendis and Somaweera Senanayaka?) and their other elements have nothing to do with art. Of course, we all are sold to a market price today, I was particularly afraid that this acclaimed writer would not produce another literary piece due to the influence of the commercialization that comes bundled with popular culture. That’s my candid reason for criticism.

In my previous article, I called him “Sri Lankan Márquez” (referring to Gabriel García Márquez) which I don’t regret thus with his new novel, Magam Soliya. (මාගම් සෝලිය)  However, now it’s time to come out of that frame to have a fresh look at the new book.


Magam Soliya is a novel! In fact, it’s a new experience to read a novel of Madawala’s style. I glimpsed the book and had to reassure that I am going to read a novel of a very different style. If I put it in a nutshell, it’s quite heavy to mind as soon as started reading, but being forced to dig into it with interest.

As a novel

My way of enjoying his writing is, read a section and go deep in to the avenue opened through it. This gives me so many dimensions, symbolic means and emotions to start a dialogue with my own experience. When it comes to a novel, not like a short story, so many events with so many characters give me limitless spaces to surf. Definitely, it’s not guiding from one point and takes you to the end point which should be the climax by tradition. Of course writer tells a story to enjoy, but for me climax is everywhere.

For some crazy reason, I need this book to be a painting that’s hanging in a gallery. So that I am free to revisit and see what shakes me most. I can have different dialogues in different days.

Though the story is closely related to 1818 Uva-Wellassa uprising, it doesn’t give you the expected epic story. The historic event is only the canvas used to do this creation. Of course taking such a historic event has given enough room to give birth to a beautiful imagination. This imagination is not merely a fantasy, it’s a discussion propagated from past. Static nature of history becomes live with the imagination.

Natural evolution of art

One of the famous paintings of Picasso, Guernica, was meant to express the destruction occurred during the Spanish civil war. According to “evolution of art”, it's quite obvious, war of Afghanistan or Iraq will be expressed by a modern day artist in a different manner.  Guernica can’t be presented as an expression for current warfare. Of course both are wars, but not the same. Things become complicated by the time and artists enhance their framework and style to convey the upcoming realities. They usually struggle to express the current situation, not the past. Even if you look at Graffiti, you will see how they have become complex by the time. Will see how the frameworks are being enhanced by generations;

This is original painting;


This is a modified version by an artist who experienced the Iraq war;


The strangest part of Madawala’s exercise is, he is making a well-stretched contemporary framework made of his modern days life experience and applies back to an atmosphere which is about two centuries old. This is really exciting and challenging. What could be the philosophy of Madawala in this regards? Probably, wisdom (ප්රඥාව) given to him through the aftermath of political, social and cultural changes of last two centuries might have tempted him to look in to the historical events happened around 1818 in far different angle.  

Contrasting

Style used to write this novel seems not predefined. It is justifiable to say he is using magic realism genre, yet he hasn’t become a slave of it. He is confident of what he is creating in readers mind. I have never seen a Sinhala novelist who enjoys such a freedom in expressing. Through the book, he enlightened me of the length one can go with ordinary characters. Characters themselves are pretty normal, yet the way they are being handled is simply wonderful. It reminds me of a fluent painter using different brush strokes to make different textures using same basic colours. He uses “contrast” like a modern architect. This becomes writer’s passive mechanism of controlling the degree of emphasis. Ironically, reader gets an effortless flow. This free motion of characters ultimately contributes to the context of the story which shows the underlying discipline of the writer. Please consider below section;

“ගැහැණු දරුවා සිහින් කෙසග වුවත් පිරිමි දරුවා පුෂ්ටිමත් විය. එසේම සපුමලී සිනාසෙන විට හීන් සුරඹා ඇඬුවේය. හීන් සුරඹා නිදාගන්න විට සපුමලී ඇහැරී සිටියේය. සපුමලී වම් ඇලයට හැරෙන විට හීන් සුරඹා දකුණු ඇලයට හැරුනේය. හීන් සුරඹා උඩ බලාගෙන කෑ ගහන විට සපුමලී බිම බලාගෙන නිශ්ශබ්දව සිටියාය.”

Also I realise the “contrast” in between different sexual relationships explained in the story. Sexual relationship in between Walli (වල්ලි) and Podi Nilame (පොඩි නිලමේ) is an aggressive encounter. On the other hand, relationship in between Manika (මැණිකා) and Bindu (බිංදු) is more likely an act of healing or merely a meditation.

Usage of sexuality

Also I believe, when the writer discusses about the sexuality, he flies over the boundaries of civilization and recreates it as an incomparable ultimate phenomenon of nature. It’s the lifeline of mankind. Please read the below sections that drags me to this thought;

“...තමාද තම දරුවා මෙන්ම ඇගේ කුස තුලින් ඊට පෙර දවසක ඒ තිඹිරි ගෙදරදීම උත්පත්තිය ලබන්නට ඇතැයි ඔහුට සිතුනේය. පුදුමයකට මෙන් ඒ සිතිවිල්ල ඔහුට පුදුම ආශ්වාදයක් ගෙන ආවේය.“

Writer is unifying the mankind through sex; it’s beyond our traditional view point.

“මැනිකාත් බිංදුත් අතර වූ මේ සමාගමය, ඔවුන්ගේ සිරුරු අභිබවා ඔවුන්ගේ හැඟීම් අභිබවා ඔවුන්ගේ ගැහැණු පිරිමි බවත්, වයසත් අභිබවා ඉහලට විහිදුනු ආශ්චර්යමත් නිකලෙස් සමාගමයක් වුනේය.“

Though it is controversial, see how writer is trying to link spiritual journey of a man with sexuality.

“සැබැවින්ම ඔහු මෙතෙක් භාවනානුයෝගී ධ්යානයෙන් ලඟා වූ සමාධි සුවය සහ ඒ විශ්වීය ශක්තිය, ආදරයේ දිව්යමය ප්රතික්රියාවක් හරහා සිදුවූ ලිංගික රමණය තුලින්ද ළඟා කර ගනිමින් සිටියේය.”

Ideology

Now we will look into this piece of literature by ideological mean. Entire story is mainly lying within the space of suppression made by the political atmosphere of British administration and its consequences. Story is also emphasising the acts of human nature that transforms to a major change. We know how the Kandian kingdom was affected by controversies that created as root level acts led to major events such as tragedy of Ahalepola (ඇහැලේපොල).

Some of the abstract concepts used in the book are very powerful. Power of man is centralised within his male sexual organ and that symbolise the importance of self-confidence and personality. That asset is only gained through the breast milk of a noble woman. Isn’t it a beautiful and powerful concept?

Though Abiththa Unnanse (ඇබිත්ත උන්නාන්සේ) is the main character, I see an exceptional beauty and meaning through Podina’s (පොඩිනා) character. Though she hasn’t slept with any man throughout her life, she’s blessed with magical milk in her breast. That is due to her commitment as a self-appointed village midwife who has been the livewire for countless births. Nothing beats the need of a birth in nature. It is the decision making factor of existence. Doesn’t she deserve the magical milk in her breast? Even the biggest empire (Great Britain) of the world can’t beat the power of her milk.

If not for the Wellasse people, this book could have been respectfully forwarded to the midwives of entire country who gave birth to the nation for generations, yet been unseen and unnoticed!

One of the other symbolic characters I like is Sedara (සේදරා). He becomes an ideal victim of tactical war of British administration. His assets are being tactically looted. He becomes a slave of alcohol. First he behaves like a hero, but he becomes lifeless when real war erupts. Soldiers don’t kill him; he was just left because it was obvious he is not going be a threat by any mean. Even today invaders prefer lifeless people than dead people!

“..සේදරා සිටියේ පරඩලක් ගානට කෙට්ටු වී අඳුරගන්න බැරුවය. ඉස්සර අඩුම තරමේ අරක්කු බෝතලයක්වත් බී දඩ මස් ගාත් තුන හතරකට වග කියූ කාලයේ ගෙදර උලුවස්සකින් හැරෙන්නවත් බැරි තරමට උස මහත් වී සිටි සේදරා සොල්දාදුවන් කටින් හුලං පිම්ඹ විට ඈතට විසිවී බිම ඇදගෙන වැටුණේය.”

Culture was the primary target of colonialism. These encounters are invisible yet more destructive. Today, aboriginal people in Australia could provide living proofs for typical end result of such a master plan. Once I peeped in to a public bar in Northern Queensland and saw a lot of aboriginal people, likely to have reached the fate of Sedara! Community with oldest cultural heritage of entire world has become rootless in their own land by the sake of modern civilization!!

I don’t expect to see the character of Abdul (අබ්දුල්). Though his role means a lot to the story, it is presented in a very traditional manner. Abdul’s character can be easily copied in to a book like “Sudu Sewanali” (සුදු සෙවනැලි) of Piyadasa Welikannage, without many modifications. When creating the character Abdul, writer seems to have missed his style he used to compile all other characters. It’s a raw character. As I heard, due to religious constrains, usually Muslim merchants didn’t interfere with alcohol business (රේන්ද කර්මාන්තය) that much which also should have been considered. 

Authenticity

One of the other major hurdles of writing such a book focusing a historical event is building the assurance of authenticity. Though, I keep insisting that writer is recreating his imagination, I am also urging that canvas which is being used, is the real historical event. For this, writer has definitely studied the social, cultural and political facts of that era thoroughly. Words which are being used assure it. I like the dialogues that take me back to history. Check below phrases;

“තව ඩිංගිත්තක් අපට ඕන”

“මේ තමයි පුතේ උඹේ අප්පුච්චා”

“ඒයි ඉලන්දාරියා මෙහෙ වර..”

Most of all, writer utilises his influence of folk stories and history to impress the timing of the story and the culture which is surrounded. Bindu’s character reminds me of some folk stories about the propagation of King Rajasinghe II who was one of the heroic kings of the Kandiyan kingdom.
Please read below section;

“..බිංදු හිටි පියවරින් අහසට පැන වටේට කැරකී අතින් සහ පයින් පහර දුන්නේය.”

If you are familiar with heroic Sinhala folk stories of 15th to 18th centuries, you may realise our kind of a martial art is explained here. This also reminds me of folk stories of dynasty of Galagoda Disawe (ගලගොඩ දිසාව) who were ruling Uwa as Mahadisawa (මහ දිසාව) for generations in Kandian kingdom.

Reflection

In summary, Magam Soliya is a research; result yet to be revealed by readers. Madawala is taking an immense challenge by presenting such a book to Sinhala reading community considering the fact that appreciation of literature hasn’t been taken seriously by current education system.

This book is addressing a historical event through a different style which is a new experience for the reader.  I feel that the writer uses magic realism like style to contravene Victorianism which has been fossilised in reader’s mindset. As most historians reveal Victorian tradition has made us slaves without chains; probably the biggest emotional barrier for our personality. Even the context focuses on character we need to have in us to face colonialism or today’s hegemony.

He is walking through the shrubs and dust of history to grasp unnoticed elements with utmost care which will be used to light the wisdom of future. He is experimenting and getting equipped with potent tools.

Within the reviews;

 
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