From Martin Wickramasinghe’s Gamperaliya (1944), the first modern Sinhala novel, to the poetry of Puthuvai Ratnathurai, the official bard of the LTTE, who was among the thousands who disappeared after the end of the civil war in 2009, a new anthology on Sri Lankan literature, edited by writer Shyam Selvadurai, draws a long arc.
Many Roads Through Paradise includes stories of ordinary affections and obsessions, as well as those that presciently signal the cleavages between Sinhala and Tamil people that would lead to a bitter, violent conflict. In his marvelously evocative introduction, Selvadurai writes about growing up in an English-speaking Sinhala-Tamil home in Colombo, immersed in an Enid Blyton world, as the country changed around him — and finally about how he discovered his country’s literature while in exile in Canada, via a detour through Indian writing in English. He charts his personal story against that of Sri Lanka’s, where anger against the colonial language led to the Sinhala Only Act in 1956, which edged out English from schools and offices. The language policies of the 1950s, he says, “resulted in three solitudes across which there are hardly any connections”. The war only sharpened the divide. The anthology, says Selvadurai, is an attempt to start a conversation among the three literatures of the country in the post-war period. Excerpts from an email interview:
In what period were the pieces in the anthology written? And what made you pick that timeframe?
They are all post-independence. I picked this timeframe because nothing very interesting was written in the colonial period. There was the beginning of a flowering of a great tradition in Sinhala and Tamil writing in the 1920s and 1930s but it only came to full bloom post-independence. There is a very interesting amount of writing in pre-colonial times but I felt it was stretching things too much. I didn’t want the anthology to be a door-stopper.
The only really hard thing was whittling down from a very long list to this short list. The manuscript I submitted to my editor at Penguin India was twice the length of the current book.
Sri Lankan literature is in three languages, Sinhala, Tamil and English. How is the language you write in perceived in the country? Are the three strains of literature in conversation with each other?
I write in English which is perceived as the language of privilege and mobility in Sri Lanka. There is a lot of finger pointing at the old English-speaking elite, but really, they are a dying breed now, overtaken by a new Sinhala-speaking elite. Yet, this new elite and their children also learn English and educate their children in English because it is the language of globalisation. The three strains are not much in conversation with each other.
Could you talk about how you have grouped the pieces, which is not by language — but the trajectory of class conflict, displacement and the civil war?