An Introduction to Sri Lankan Literature

Sri Lanka, which boasts a 92% rate of literacy—the highest in South Asia and among the highest in Asia—has a long storytelling tradition. What is perhaps special about literature in this country is the extent to which the oral tradition has complemented a vast body of literature spanning many genres in written form. Given the powerful impetus that Buddhism had and has on scholarship and literature in Sri Lanka, both prose and verse in the country have drawn heavily from Buddhist parables. Even in the oral tradition, complex philosophical concepts and ideas are illustrated using stories from the Buddha’s life as well as the jathaka stories, i.e. narratives of the past lives of Siddhartha Gauthama.

For these reasons, perhaps, Sri Lanka is blessed with a rich repository of narratives and narrative styles in the written and oral traditions as well as a population that is culturally ready to receive such narratives; it was not the preserve of “writers” and “scholars.” There are numerous examples where “literature” (especially in verse form), is depicted as an integral part of communication and debate, embedded in rituals where the focus was on dance or exorcism, with all vocations, particularly agriculture, and even used to comment on social, cultural, religious, ideological, economic, and political issues.

Naturally, earlier works in the Sri Lankan canon have been significantly influenced by the styles prevalent in the rest of the Indian subcontinent, but alongside these there has developed a considerable volume of authentically “local” literary works reflecting on kings and significant historical events as well as the lives of ordinary folk. This archive of work holds innumerable potential for a very personal encounter with Sri Lankan literature.

Tamil literature is similarly inspired by works from centuries past, but has the added advantage of being able to draw from the literary traditions of the South of India where the language is spoken too. The literary history of Tamil writers in Sri Lanka is far less voluminous than that of their Sinhala counterparts, due partly to a fractured historical presence on the island and the absence of an equivalent temple-based system of education, but the oral traditions cannot be said to be any less rich.

In more recent times, events and processes whose human impact has been more immediate, including the three-decade-long armed conflict that rent the island, have found expression in literary works in both languages. The post-Independence period has been marked in literature and civic life by nationalistic despair, euphoria, cataclysmic political and social upheaval, and by resilience. Nonetheless, insurrections, armed conflict, devastation by tsunami, floods and drought, diseases like Dengue that verge on epidemics, the constitutional denial of democracy, and other governance ills have not stopped writing and reading in Sri Lanka. Indeed, both have thrived as a response to these issues. Tens of thousands of book-lovers flock to the annual International Book Fair in Colombo, arriving in the commercial capital from all parts of the country. And, in recent years, there has been a resurgence of small publishing companies.

Consider the fact that a tiny English-speaking population submits over fifty manuscripts every year for the prestigious Gratiaen Award (for English literature) and one can get some idea of the volume of writing in the indigenous languages of Sinhala and Tamil. The fact that there is a thriving market for translations (from English into those languages) is also indicative of the thirst for literature in Sri Lanka. Books sell, in short, and so writers write. What is perhaps lamentable is the often poor quality of translations from Sinhala and Tamil into English and other languages and of course the small number of good translations, when they do occur.

The authors featured as well as the translators are well-known writers among the post-Independence literary voices of the nation; their contribution to the literary canon is widely recognized within the country. Through their work we offer here a slice that gives a hint of the flavor of Sri Lankan writing, rather than represent the full flush of its depth and substance.

Simon Navagaththegama’s The Hunter is a book that has been read in Marxian, Freudian, and Buddhist terms and its amenability to multiple interpretations speaks of its intricate crafting. It is a simple plot, focusing on the relationship between a hunter and the Buddhist monk or bikkhu whom he attends in a jungle retreat. The sparse dialogue is compensated for by the subtle descriptions of the hunter’s engagement with the surrounding jungle and its creatures.

Ariyawansa Ranaweera has an eye for the simple, those things we see but rarely let our eyes dwell upon or find interesting enough to merit further reflection. His forte is an ability to pick the ordinary and spin simple reflection into it in a way that conjures images and invites meditation. In “At the Supermarket,” the poet observes both the ingredients used in the most humble of Sri Lankan cuisine— the flower of the plantain tree and the seed of the jak tree—and the rich who purchase these items; it is a sleight of hand that celebrates village life while making a comment on the wealthy for whom the elements of that life are mere acquisitions.

The context for Kalaivaathy Kaleel’s story, “Rizana,” is socio-economic. Rizana was an underage girl whose birth certificate was altered to “qualify” her for a job in Saudi Arabia as a domestic worker, and who was accused of murdering an infant. The case was controversial and, despite international outrage, she was sentenced to death and executed. Rizana’s case spawned much debate on a number of social and political issues pertaining to poverty, foreign employment, corruption, and the efficiency or lack thereof of diplomatic missions. There was also much discussion on the “religious” prerogatives of Saudi/Islamic laws.

These selections, though short, provide a brief but wide-ranging glimpse into the complexity of the religious and social underpinnings of Sri Lankan literature.

Ru Freeman
Malinda Seneviratne

© Ru Freeman and Malinda Seneviratne