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Life Is My Mentor
By Indu Bandara
2010-11-03
The author of “Theravada Man”, “Monsoon and Potholes”, and “Sinhala Only”, Manuka Wijesinghe talks about her work and what inspires her, as well as what she feels might be lacking in the Sri Lankan creative scene. Also a participant at the Galle Literary Festival 2011, she explains what her trilogy is all about and the story behind her stories.

Tell us about work.
I have been working on a trilogy the last fifteen years or more. The idea of a trilogy came to my head only during the writing of the second book, “Theravada Man”, and I just completed the final part, which is the middle part dealing with Ceylon since Independence and ending with the mutation leading to the ‘72 Republic. Basically my books are extremely political, extremely sarcastic, and full of humour. I believe we Lankans have a ‘lightness of being’, which is not found in many cultures, certainly not in India hence I tend to prioritize that.The first book, “Theravada Man”, is set in the absolute backwaters of Wayamba during colonialism and begins around the 1920s and ends with the Second World War. It is the tale of a pious Theravada ‘iskolemahathtaya’ who on contemplating a tingling desire for a woman (which he tries to substantiate in marriage), is suddenly thrown into a world he did not know existed. It is the world known as the Greater Dharma. In involves the world beyond the rational Theravada piety and its ethics. It is a family tale of a marriage, which is not easy with a pious Theravadin who is strict, pedantic and lacking the trivial that gives life the joy of human existence.

The next book, with the subjective title “Sinhala Only”, begins with Svabhasha and the end of the war and independence. It deals with the rising of Sinhala only militantism and ends with the JVP insurrection of 1971. It deals with the mistakes made by our politicians whose sacrificial lambs are the nation’s youth.

“Monsoons and Potholes” the last of the trilogy, which has been selling since the last five or six years, begins in the 1963 and ends with the ‘83 riots. It’s an urban book where the protagonist is a young girl, born in ‘63 who relates the political idiocies with the characteristic humor of urban irreverence and irrelevance.

Basically the three books, though they have a strong political strand, the protagonists are different and the viewpoints are different. In the last book the protagonist is a missionary school educated girl after Sinhala only. In the second book the protagonists have a varying background. One is an Anglican, the other is the iskolemahathtaya’s son, and then there is a Jaffna Tamil and Colombo Tamil.

My books deal with the pluralistic culture, a tolerant society, heaps and heaps of humour and the absurdity of politics. With its myopia or deliberate megalomania begins the demise of civil society, that probably would function perfectly normally if they would not interfere.

What was the hardest part of writing your books?
The hardest part of writing is that of functioning outside the book. I tend to carry my characters around with me all the time, no matter what I am doing and since I have another profession and commitments other than writing (which I do for joy more than anything else), it is sometimes hard to concentrate on other dimensions when a book is waiting to be written. It consumes a lot of time and since I do not have so much time, I have been disciplined in the last fifteen or more years waking nearly daily at about 4 or 5 am and keeping a disciplined routine.What has been your greatest challenge as a writer? How have you overcome this?
I do not know if I have a challenge like that. I do not categorize myself as a writer. Writing to me is like women who remove their ear studs and wear glittery dangly earrings when they go out. It is an ornament which I rejoice in.

What made you start writing? Did you always want to be a writer?
NO. God knows how I started. I was always an avid reader and I think when my first child was born I needed some compensatory mechanism for not losing myself in the eternal lamentations of motherhood. I saw it as a quotidianal task but was surrounded with women who made a PhD thesis out of it. I guess I started writing in order to not sink into the same well. And needless to say, I married a man who thought I should sink in milk bottles and diapers and I revolted.

You are taking part in the Galle Literary Festival 2011. Why do you think this festival is important and how does it contribute to Sri Lankan society and the Arts?
I think the festival in extremely important for we do not have a (creative) reading or writing culture in the country. We tend to love impersonating others, rather than searching out our own worth, and finally we are an island cut away from the trends of societal buzz. Hence I believe the festival succeeds in opening us to other currents and for a short sojourn in our geography, taking from us the frog in the well mentality. I think this is a perfect opportunity of the uniting of languages, ethnicities and cultures and like I said earlier, we have linguistic nationalism more than any other kind of nationalism in the country. A festival like this is good for the agglutination of the people and making is (islanders) realize that we are more similar than dissimilar (due to geography for history has been created by those who had an interest in hegenony).Who are your favourite authors (Sri Lankan in particular), and why?
Ameena Hussein and Shyam Selvadurai. I love their styles, their simplicity and their clarity. They write in a way I just cannot, and I enjoy reading their books for that reason. I am burdened with a million things, their literature on the other hand give priority to the marvel of human creation; language.

What books are you reading now?
Oh god, I read about three books simultaneously. The three books right now are ‘The Age of Faith’ by Will Durant, ‘History of the Bible’ by Karen Armstrong and a biography of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan populist leader.If you were not a writer, what might you be doing?
I am an alternative medical practitioner. I work with acupuncture, homeopathy, pranic healing and hypnosis.

Who do you consider a mentor? What inspires you to keep writing?
Life is my mentor. I rejoice in it. Every time I take one step and fall, I get up and walk three steps. But the person who made me appreciate the written word was one of my professors at University. She taught Spanish and she took me into the world of magical realism whose gods are the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And, Marquez is undoubtedly my all time favorite in fiction

What advice would you give to young people pursuing a career similar to yours?
Don’t give up. Trust yourself. Be honest with yourself. There is a lot of jealousy and introspection in the world. Listen, take what you have to, and leave the rest and progress. Write, write and write. Talent is the small detail, and the rest is just hard work. If you have a dream pursue it, don’t expect anyone else to give it to you.

This interview first appeared in The Colombo Spirit http://www.spirit.lk/cathome.php?nid=20101103135031&cid=7&aid=2&scid=20

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