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Giraya By Punyakante Wijenaike Analysis Essay

Life and times through letters :Scrutinising complex human emotions

Published on May 23, 2011   ·   No Comments


The foremost writer in English fiction in Sri Lanka, Punyakante Wijenaike offers a multifaceted personality embodying noble qualities of kindheartedness, pleasant disposition and above all a gracious lady to her finger tips. With her extraordinary power of imagination she has grown a bed of flowers in an otherwise, desolate meadow of Sri Lankan writings in English.

Thus born literary roses like “The Waiting Earth”, ” Giraya”,” A way of life”, “Yukthi and other stories”, “Amulet”, “To follow the Sun”. The fragrance of her writing pervades the literary landscape inspiring new generations of writers to come.

Her corpus of writing explores a wide range of issues and complex human emotions in a lucid and down -to- earth diction which, over the years, has become her signature. My first literary encounter with her is “The Waiting Earth” with its memorable picture on the cover, taken from the bravura “Sagara Jalaya Madi Handuva Oba Handa” by Sumitra Peiries, that explores the issue of landless peasantry who are longing to own a plot of land to be passed on to their children as inheritance.

In “Giraya” and “Amulet”, Punyakante, for the first time, brought themes of homosexuality and incest which above all indicate that the writer is sensitive to the upheavals in society. She has amply demonstrated through her creative writings that she understood the roots of the nation and codified them in a deep-rooted manner.


Q: From earlier on, you have been dealing with myriads of themes associated with village life. Although you were born and bred in the city, you have skilfully portrayed many facets of village life, first in your short stories and later in your novels. In fact, your first novel Waiting Earth, deals with the issue of landlessness.

How do you look at the main character of Waiting Earth, Podi Singho who represents the landless masses of the village?

A: Although I was born and bred in the city of Colombo I was in touch with a lot of villagers who worked in our ancestral home and to whose stories I was a patient listener. I also carried a vivid imagination even as a child and could invent stories of my own. The main character of Podi Singho, the landless farmer, may have sprung from observing the superintendants of father’s many estates who worked on his lands without owning any land of their own.

The Story was inspired by the people of that period. I came to know that such people did exist because my father and grandfather had land and people were working on them. I also came to know women who were silent and patient carrying heavy burdens without complaints. Women worked there on the land and perhaps, even in our home. Today, we rarely do find such people and may be in a way that is a kind of advancement in Sri Lanka.

The earth

Q: The second major character of Waiting Earth is Sellohamy, the wife of Podi Singho who indirectly represents the earth. How far, do you think, Sellohamy, portrays the archetype traditional Sri Lankan woman?

A: Sellohamy of The Waiting Earth , was based on a real Sellohamy who worked in our household, always patient, simple and bearing up with a lot of trials. To me she represented Mother Earth herself.

Q: If you consider Sellohamy from a feminist perspective, how far Sri Lankan woman has changed her traditional role as a patient wife and mother?

A: Today you may still find a Sellohamy, but the majority of women hi Sri Lanka have changed from their traditional role of humility and is no longer willing to be a part of the background in a home. Today more roads, television and newspapers which they are able to read now, not to mention the hand-phone, have turned the average village housewife into a different person.


Q: Giraya is one of your best known novels, which was made into a teledrama by Dr.Lester James Peries. In Giraya, you deal with the issue of homosexuality apart from portraying the power play among the characters in a traditional mansion or Walauwwa. The power wielded by the main female butler Lucia Hami is represented by the nut-cracker.

How did you conceive the life like character of Lucia Hami?

A: In my childhood home there was a woman (my ayah) reflecting the character of Lucia Hamy who used to terrorise me but without the giraya. The giraya was a general arecanut slicer used by grandmother and all the women slicing arecanut to chew along with then- betel. Those days, even in city homes, the elite chewed betel. Also it was used in exorcism ceremonies by my grandmother, to cut limes and drop them in water thus exorcising the power of the evil eye.

Q: Perhaps, Giraya which was made into a teledrama made you a household name not only among English readers but also among Sri Lankans throughout the country. What inspired you to pen the novel? And you have, for the first time, mentioned about homosexual relationship in the novel Giraya and did you think about this aspect when you wrote the novel or did it find its way into the plot quite unintentionally?

A: What inspired me to write the novel was when I came across a giraya very different from the usual hum-drum black metal object, in the Colombo museum. This nut-cracker lay in the form of a woman with her legs spread wide open and hands clasped in constant prayer. Also it was made out of shining brass which shone like gold. At once, I was inspired by this instrument that this must have belonged to a very special elite household maybe with something to hide. The subject of homo- sexuality may have crept into the plot because I knew such a person living in a similar background. But Adelaine herself represented the giraya with the legs spread out.


Q: The principal character of the novel is Lal who apparently has been brought up by Lucia Hamy. Even after the marriage, Lal does not change his social behaviour and is portrayed as rather a mysterious character. Do you think that Lal is a product of the society in which he grew up?

A: Yes, Lai is a product of the household he grew up, not society. Over-powered by women of his home he turned towards making love with his own sex. That is also the reason he feared to get close to his own wife who came from a different background.

As for the homosexual part in it, I did not invent It was in my own backdrop. Giraya is the only novel that did not need research. I think most of the material came from my own background.

That is the Walauwa, a kind of house I lived. It was in Colombo. Giraya was also there but not in this shape. It was an ordinary one. It was used very often for arecanut slicing for my grandmother and my mother as well use for cutting lime for “Asvaha” and other rituals. So that it is something I knew from my own background and mystic elements came naturally because my grandmother was superstitious and they did a lot of those ceremonies.

The homosexual part came from some one I knew. He was that way inclined. The story was imagination.


Q: Amulet is a novel which deals with the issue of incest which is quite prevalent in Sri Lanka within the closets of traditional family. The principal character of the novel Senani had an incestuous relationship with his sister. Looking back on, how do you analyse the behaviour of Senani against his newly married wife Shyamali who ultimately unravels the mystery?

A: Amulet – in the old Kandyan kingdom brothers used to share one wife. But today’s men sometimes abuse their daughters if the wife is not available or live with another woman.

In Senani’s case he was compelled by his old ayah to have sex with his own sister at the age of five in a bathtub. Also the Amulet put round his wife’s neck by her parents acted as an obstacle to free sex. To quote: ‘There it lay, an obstacle between her breasts, staring me in the face. I could not caress her nipples because of this metal object of protection.

Why didn’t she sense this and remove it when we made love? She is completely ignorant of the needs of a man. Because she lets this Amulet stand between us I start physically attacking the most sensitive part of her body. Once, in a rage, I threw the Amulet over her shoulder and battered her breasts…

Q: Apart from the issue of incest, the novel Amulet quite candidly portrays the plight of women in the pre-independent Sri Lanka whose fate is bounded by harsh regime of traditions. How do you compare and contrast Shyamali’s character with contemporary Sri Lankan woman?

Harsh regime

A: .In pre-independent Sri Lanka, young girls were kept strictly under a harsh regime of parental care backed by British Victorian, colonial influence in the city and by our own inherited restrictions in the countryside. Today it is rare to find a woman with Shyamali’s character as most young girls after the Advanced Level examination either enter university or take up employment.

Q: In Coming to terms, you have deviated from your favoured themes of village life and focused on changing urban socio-economic landscape. The central theme of the novel is the changing social ethos and perception of marriage, sex and premarital sex. It is a controversial area that contemporary Sri Lankan writers dare to enter into. In the light of fast changing ethos and perceptions, how do you compare and contrast the principal character in the novel with contemporary youth?

A: Yes, In ‘Coming to terms’ , I have deviated from the village to the city.

The theme is on the changing social structure of our lives. It also, maybe the only story that end happily! To quote : Revathi is the daughter of a humble schoolmaster living in a single storeyed house named the Gurugedare which stands next to a mansion with forbidding gates named Mahagedare in which live Bandula. In the first house the language used is Sinhala and the mother of the house does her own housework and cooking wheras in the mansion lives Evelyn Nona, mother of Bandula who speaks in English. Revathi and Bandula’s relationship starts with throwing and skipping the mango seed outside the iron gate of Mahagedare . Eventually they over-look class and background and get married.


Q: As a writer, you have been sensitive to the protracted conflict which claimed thousands of lives. Your novels such as The Enemy within and When the Guns fall silent, deal with the conflict. As a creative writer how do you perceive different kinds of conflicts?

A: My novels he Enemy within and When the Guns fall silent deals as you have said, with conflict of war.

All I can say in reply is that a creative and sensitive writer should be able to handle any kind of conflict, as example of above Coming to terms is also another form of conflict Both end with peace.

Q: ‘That Deep Silence’ , the collection of short stories and poems is a book with moving short stories. The title story ‘That Deep Silence’, for instance codifying the erosion of cardinal values which make Asian family a unique and strong entity. How do you analyse the present generation admiring material prosperity and financial gains against sentimental values?

A: The title story of my collection of short stories is That Deep Silence. The family unit in Asia which includes Sri Lanka, as you say, was once s strong united entity where younger family members looked after elders as they grew old and feeble.

Today, unfortunately, commercialism and the pressing need to look after your immediate family which consists of father, mother and offspring makes the young put prosperity and financial gains before their old parents. Many ‘homes’ have sprung up where one could leave an old parent to be looked after by strangers for sum of money.

‘I will hang old family pictures round the wall of your new room,’ daughter tells old mother. ‘Soon you will begin to feel at home. The other old ladies living here will make you feel at home.’

QUOTING: ‘A deep silence fell over me. The same silence which came when she broke our old home so that she could build a condominium from which she could make money.

This silence will continue to hold me and sustain me through my new life ahead…

Q: Traditional place in a house for grandparents has gradually been diminished and instead ‘homes for the Elders’ and paying homes for the elders have come up along with high rising apartments. How do you view this erosion of long held societal values and the collapse of leisurely life style of the bygone era and emerging of hectic commercial lifestyle which its entire purpose is earning money?

Social values

A: As said long held social values and the leisurely life of a bygone era is over.

Like global warming we have to come to terms with it.

Q: “The Third Woman” was a collection of short stories that you penned in 1963 by and large reflecting the life in Sri Lankan villages. Even at the time, mentioning of a ‘third marriage’ or man having three women in a conservative society would have been a radical departure from the widely held norms of society. How do you consider ‘The Third Woman ‘in your literary career and does it mark a milestone in your career?

A: The Third Woman does mark a milestone in my life, as well as my career, because it was my first publication in book form in 1963.

Q: ‘The Rebel ‘a collection of short stories written in 1979 and was based on the JVP insurrection. In retrospect, how did the 1971 insurrection influence you as a writer?

The Rebel in 1979 on the JVP insurrection influenced me a great deal. Together with a writer friend I went to interview some of the students who were involved in the rebellion. But they would not talk with us.

I felt its impact only when we underwent same kind of terror like in the recent past in Colombo over bombs. There were no bombs then but there were shortages of food and drugs in hospitals because my own daughter had to enter hospital and we had to bring drugs down from abroad. JVP insurgents would patrol outside the hospital prevent workers from coming to work.

There was a threat of water being cut in Colombo. I was not aware this insurgency was to take place but the strange thing I remembered was Mrs. Sybil Wettasinghe and I went to interview just a day before it started. Girl students answered questions quite normally. Then we learnt they were also into this.

Q: “A way of life “which you wrote in 1987, is an important work in terms of its literary value and In terms of recollecting your life. As a mature writer who has witnessed the changes that the country has been going through since the independence, how do you perceive your life? What is the philosophy which guides the course of your life?

A: A way of life reveals my past. Apart from literary value it shows me how I became what I am today. How it made me live in a world of fantasy, refusing to face reality.

I know the changes because my family was involved in politics before independence. I remembered we were under Colonial rule. I went to school managed by sisters from abroad.

I felt having this resentment deep inside me that everything we had to eat, was imported just from abroad; tinned foods, toys. I felt a kind of a rebellion in the way we were living. But life has changed. Today I think we have a better balance between our own way of living and the West. I have gone through a lot of changes, good and bad. We have lived with our back to the wall but I have never had the desire to leave the country unless I was compelled to.

Political unheavals

Q: “Yukthi” (Justice) which came in 1991, is also a collection of short stories where you have been influenced by political upheaval culminating in the signing of the now defunct Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement. The main story is woven around navy officer who attacked the visiting Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. How do you view the entire episode and subsequent events which changed the course of the country?

A: Yokthi which means justice is based on the story of the naval rating who was brave enough to stand up for his principles when he aimed a blow at the visiting Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi. To me he represented the feelings of a whole country which, most politicians, are unaware of most of the time.

I viewed the episode of the naval rating’s unfortunate act with great interest. I followed all the newspaper articles. I felt moved by his feelings as if I too felt myself his feeling of injustice. He was a man who had fought against our enemy and almost sacrificed his life. Suddenly there are some changes being introduced into the country.

Unlike most people in Colombo I felt I had a feeling of sympathy with this naval rating who I felt had a reason to act in this manner.

That he must have felt injustice that after having fought for the country, here the foreign intervention was being brought and it was insult for him to be a guard of honour for the Prime Minister who had come to divide this country.

I wrote the story in the form of a court room where he is being judged. He was kind of standing up for the country. That was the chief story in the book.

But later on, I came across newspaper cutting of his own story and I was amazed to find it was very close to what I have imagined.

 Read More: http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2011/05/22/mon20.asp

By Rajiva Wijesinha –

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha MP

Earlier this year Punyakante Wijenaike published what she suggests would be her last book. I was immensely sad as I read it, for I remembered reading her first book, half a century ago. That was ‘The Third Woman’, a collection of short stories that I devoured. That was in Kurunagala, I remember, at the old house in which my grandmother had been born. The place, where a cow was brought in to be milked each morning, with the old tennis court going to seed at the front under a massive mara tree, the paddy fields stretching out at the back to infinite distances, suited that extraordinary book with its brilliant evocations of rural life.

I was just 9 then, and perhaps I did not understand everything, given the subtle sexual motivations of many of her protagonists. But I could appreciate the power of the stories, and the emotions of her characters, the mother-in-law seeing power pass from her, the elderly spinster with a lodger visited by a mysterious man who turned out to be her dead husband, and the character of the title, a young woman who married someone who had two wives already, who had got on very well, but were in turn murdered by the new entrant into the fold.

A few years later she wrote ‘Giraya’, still perhaps the most impressive work by a Sri Lankan writer living in this country. It is a compelling story of a feudal household falling to pieces, with a brilliant narrative voice, the poor girl married to the son of the house, who turns out to be homosexual and not in fact the son of his putative father. The mother is the strongest character in the book, her power symbolized by the giraya, wielded for her usually by an old and devoted servant. She was played superbly by Trilicia Gunawardena in the teledrama, though sadly Rupavahini left out the hints of lesbianism in the relationship of the two old women.

I did not know Punyakante then, but we became good friends when I became involved in the English Association of Sri Lanka and then worked in the British Council. One of my projects was to popularize Sri Lankan writing in English, and I think this would not have happened, had I not had magnificient support from my bosses at the British Council who encouraged regular programmes featuring the writers in the at least monthly special programmes I conducted, in addition to the weekly film and the quarterly tours we got out from London.

Punyakante went from strength to strength in those years. She produced an autobiography which made me understand to some extent at least how this child of a privileged background had come to empathize so successfully with people from backgrounds so very different from her own. She was the child of Justin Kotelawala, and grew up in the mansion that is now the Ministry of Higher Education, in a corner of which, in the mid-nineties, I ran the pre-University General English Language Training programme. She had a younger brother, Lalith, who became a financial moghul, and later caused misery to so many, when his Ceylinco group collapsed.

Though I believe Punyakante always got on well with her brother, the book reveals the trauma caused to a quiet girl by the arrival when she was growing up of a male sibling who immediately became the centre of attention. I suspect her understanding of loneliness and the anguish of outsiders owes much to this early experience.

By the time I knew her, she was a widow, her husband having died in 1975, as she movingly describes in the title story of her last book. The marriage seems to have been an extraordinarily happy one, which seems odd given the tension rid marriages of her three great novels, ‘Giraya’, ‘The Waiting Earth’ and ‘Amulet’, the last winning the Gratiaen Award for 1994. That was embarrassing, for the previous year, the first in which the award was given, we had asked her to be one of the judges. The next year ‘Amulet’ had strong competition, for the best of our other writers, Jean Arasanayagam and Anne Ranasinghe, both entered, but on balance ‘Amulet’ was the most impressive entry that year, and the charge of an insider job was mean and unwarranted.

But Punyakante had suffered the viciousness of our critics before. In the seventies she had been attacked by two university academics who could not understand her subtle characterization. They romanticized the passive wife of ‘The Waiting Earth’, as part of what I termed the ‘Village Well’ syndrome of our then academics who wanted rural romanticism. They treated James Gunawardena with similar contumely, and completely failed to highlight the brilliance of his social analysis in ‘The Awakening of Dr Kirthi and other stories’, which highlighted the malaise in our public system when perhaps the rot could have been stemmed.

Unlike James who, understandably but sadly, was embittered by this experience, Punyakante continued her tranquil self. She would regularly contribute short stories to the ‘New Lankan Review’ that I started in 1983, and also later to ‘Channels’, when we set up the English Writers Cooperative with British Council assistance in 1989. Her range expanded, and she dealt eloquently with terrorism, an old man forced to carry explosives in a handcart, youngsters forced into terrorism, soldiers looking positively with Tamils without being blinded by terrorist activity.

Her approach is free of sectarianism, and her natural sympathy for youngsters crossing chasms to be together informs these writings too. Unusually, some of these stories end happily, though in cases dealing with social barriers she is more pessimistic. The latest book contains several examples of this, but also deals with couples growing old together. One of the stories is strange and depressing, but the other has an unexpected but appropriate happy ending.

That is the last story in the book, and I would like to think Punyakante ends her writing career on a note of optimism. But I would also like to note another story, in which, as twice before, she deals with monks in a temple, wondering how to cope with the pressures of the world outside. This one is slight, but raises illuminatingly of how religion needs to adjust to changing social needs. This needs to be done sympathetically however, with understanding of how old practices die hard.

That theme was explored beautifully in what I used to think was her best short story, ‘Retreat’. But that was run close, if not superseded, by a beautiful study of a young monk, tempted by the free and intimate life of monkeys. The manner in which the Chief Priest sought to understand and guide him is a model for all those dealing with attitudes different from their own.

In the end what stands out in Punyakante’s work is empathy, keen understanding of what makes people act the way they do, and sympathy for their failings and needs. There can be no greater legacy for a writer.

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