Whenever I hear the name of Dr WA Abeysinghe my mind goes back to the time I worked in Anuradhapura way back in the late 70s. On certain days when I come back from my circuits along the Vilachchiya Road I would go to the sacred city and sit on the sand terrace in front of the seated Buddha in the Mahameghavana and relax. In the evening light as the cool breeze soothes my tired limbs I keep on looking at those serene eyes, half-closed in meditative concentration and I enter into a sort of reverie which makes me forget my day’s fatigue. The kindness, compassion and love that radiate from those eyes have unfailingly enthralled me and taken me to a world of peace and tranquillity devoid of the strains and stresses of daily life. Not being a poet I had to be content with the experience and leave it at that. My feelings or, to be more precise, the non-feelings have been captured by Dr Abeysinghe in his immortal lines adavanvu denetin galana – meth mudita karuna dhara superbly rendered by maestro Amaradeva.
One might ask why I began in this tenor to write about a man who is a writer, poet, critic, translator and a lawyer. The reason is that I fervently believe the sensibility displayed in those lines is a certain quality of the mind and it adorns whatever the person who is gifted with it, touches. His work, whether original writing or translation has always been meaningful and relevant and his comments on social and political affairs have captured the imagination of the perceptive reader.
Dr Abeysinghe is one of those persons whom I would call an outsider. His criticism whether it be of society, religion, literature or politics falls outside the usual repetitive utterances of the so-called intellectuals. In fact, throughout his career he has criticised our university system which he refers to as something irrelevant to a society that needs to be awakened of a deep slumber. Not that he had been insensitive or ruthless in his views but a thread of sincerity runs through all his thinking, refreshingly out of the ordinary. A university is meaningless if it only imparts information; it must impart universal knowledge that illumines the mind of the student without burdening him. Basically, he argues, having no role models in universities affect not only the education that is imparted but also the modelling of character of the young generation who are future leaders.
Some time ago I myself had a similar experience when I got the chance to chat with a university professor. He told me of a story that set me thinking. His department had bought some new computers and distributed among the lecturers which were kept in the common room. One day as the professor entered the room he saw a group of young lecturers crowded around a computer. He felt glad that the computer is been put into good use and the lecturers were interested in gathering some new information on a subject. When he went near he found to his amazement that they were watching the latest models of automobiles offered by a car sales outlet!
He is against the present political party system and argues that only mass movements can bring in social change. The older political parties had policies and were governed by them. But today what is found is a mixed group of individuals trying to enter Parliament for personal gains. He exposes the hypocrisy, fraud and vacuity of men in politics and religion. No politician should have personal agendas but if he is worth his salt he must be enthused by an inner force which will ultimately bring in social progress and enlightenment. It is a tall order no doubt but what could a politician without such vision possibly achieve?
Of all his writings on literature what I would like to call his magnum opus is his study of the writings of Martin Wickremasinghe, running into three volumes. This is an objective study, not the deification of an individual, and it shows how Wickremasinghe’s writings formed the basis of modern realistic literature. The Sinhala novel began with mere storytelling and then it was used to convey a social message. However much the message was worthy and socially relevant the novel lacked the fundamental framework of an aesthetic work. Wickremasinghe was the first critic to point this out not only by preaching but also writing several novels which are all time classics in Sinhalese fiction.
Abeysinghe points out how Wickremasinghe did much spade work to rescue the novel from blatant eroticism having come under the influence of the Japanese novel. He says that certain works of an erotic nature were indeed rejected by the readers because they came into conflict with cultural ethos of the nation. This is why readers rejected Yali Upannemi and Hevanella and accepted Gamperaliya, Charumukha and Varadatta.
Abeysinhge wonders whether the State had given due recognition to Martin Wickremasinghe. Here he cites an experience he had in India. He had gone there to participate in a conference of poets and while on a flight from Bhopal to Delhi, he was given a brochure on Mysore. It highlighted three facts on Mysore; that it was famous for betel leaves, for jasmine and that it was the province where R.K. Narayan lived.
Apart from his original writing he has done immense service to the Sinhala readership by the translation of works of international literature. He has translated into Sinhala several English, Russian and Indian literary works by such diverse writers as Mikhail Sholokhov, Abdul Ilayid Dadou, Anton Chekhov, and Walter De La Mare, Lily Promet and even the Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer. In fact, has also contributed to children’s literature both in Sinhala and English.
Of late I suspect that some feelings of ennui have enveloped him. Was it that he felt his attempts in awakening a people in slumber have had little effect? Or is it that his ideas were too advanced for a readership lost and caught in the humdrum of living forced by competition and global lifestyles? In fact, his daughter Dipachandi prefacing a collection of his articles entitled Satyam Shivam Sundaram, which incidentally epitomizes his ideas, observes that she was compelled to put out the publication because her father seemed somewhat bored and aloof. Whatever the reason, she had, no doubt, done a great service to the Sinhalese reader.
To mark fifty years of his service to Sri Lankan literature an exhibition including his writings, manuscripts and photographs depicting various stages of his life is scheduled to be held on 12th and 13th of June at the Kuliyapitiya Town Hall sponsored by the Abeysinghe Abhinandana Mitra Sansadaya. A symposium on his literary contribution will follow the exhibition.
To conclude this essay I would like to quote from a review of Satyam Shivam Sundaram by Dr Usvatte-archchi. “It tells us the painful story of a man who has tried to understand the nature of political and social phenomenon during the last half century and more in the light of his wide reading and deep thinking. It is an exercise that all of us must undertake to garner the strength to face the constant struggles to live as a free people.”