Diedrich Knickerbocker

One day in the year 1809, a missing person advertisement appeared in several New York newspapers seeking information of a historian named Diedrich Knickerbocker. A hotel placed an advertisement that if Mr. Knickerbocker did not turn up to settle his bill, the hotel owner would be compelled to publish a manuscript left behind by this person.

On December 6th, 1809, the manuscript was published subsequently as "'A history of New York' by Diedrich Knickerbocker", which became an immediate success, riding on the public interest created by the missing person advertisement. It was probably one of the earliest hoax started by an author to draw attention to his books. And it was done by the person later acclaimed as "the father of American Literature", Washington Irving.

From then on Knickerbocker became a nickname for Manhattan residents, and the term knickerbockers for the baggy knee-length pantaloons worn by Diedrich. A term used more often, also introduced by Irving was "The almighty dollar" in 'Rip Van Winkle' to illustrate commercialism and its effects. He wrote, "...In a word, the almighty dollar, that great object of universal devotion throughout our land...".

In 1838 then President of the United States, Martin Van Buren, had offered Washington Irving the position as Secretary of the Navy in his cabinet. Irving wrote back, declining the offer, where he had stated, ..."I shrink from the harsh cares and turmoil of public and political life.....feel I am too sensitive to endure the bitter personal hostility, and the slanders and misrepresentations of the press...". He had also declined to run for Congress and for Mayor of New York.

Austin McC. Fox, in the introduction to 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and other selections from Washington Irving' (1962), says, "It is as hard to assess Irving the writer as it is to assess Irving the man, for there seems to be about six faces to Irving the writer".

First is the "Informal Essayist", the observer of things and places in his travels, and his talents as an artist is reflected in his prose descriptions, and even one of his books was titled 'The Sketch Book'. Then he was a "Political and Social Satirist", as we find in 'The History of New York'.

Next he is also "The Chronicler of the West", which shows the pride he had in his country, seen in his 'A tour of the Prairies', 'Adventures of Captain Bounneville' and 'Astoria, Anecdotes of an enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains'. Irving was also a "Biographer and Historian", who wrote 'Life of Washington', 'Conquest of Granada' and 'Life and voyages of Columbus'.

"The Gothic Writer" in Irving is seen in his "humorous, tongue-in-cheek, eye-winking way" in 'The Spectre Bridegroom' and 'The Adventure of the German Student'.

'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow', 'Rip Van Winkle' and the 'Guest from Gibbet Island' are some of his writings where "the Folklorist" comes out. Most of them are based on legends he had heard. About Spanish legends he had written, "They have so much that is high minded, and chivalrous, and quaint, and picturesque, and at times, half comic about them"

Washington Irving was engaged to marry Matilda Hoffmann, who died on April 26, 1809 at the age of 17. Irving never became engaged, or married anyone, and remained true to her memory, after that tragic love.

In response to an inquiry about why he had never married, Irving wrote to Mrs. Forster, saying: "For years I could not talk on the subject of this hopeless regret; I could not even mention her name; but her image was continually before me, and I dreamt of her incessantly."

Washington Irving died on 28 November 1859. He seemed to foretell his death, as he said before going to bed: "Well, I must arrange my pillows for another weary night! If this could only end!". Now he rests in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, a place he immortalized in his book along with the Dutch church in Tarrytown.

He had written, "age is a matter of feeling, not of years". It can be said about Washington Irving himself and about his writings.

In 2007, the Great Writer was rediscovered, by Andrew Burstein the historian, in his book, 'The Original Knickerbocker: The life of Washington Irving', to capture the role he played in politics and culture through a 21st century perspective. Irving was also a lawyer who travelled the world and knew eight presidents during his lifetime, between the revolutionary war and the Civil war, as mentioned by Abbey Gruen in the New York Times (April 15, 2007).

Most of his books are available for free reading online, including in Kindle and e-pub formats, and give us too an opportunity to re-discover, and for our younger generation to discover, this great writer and through him to learn about life in the New World more than a century ago, and about mankind in general who appear not to have changed much over the past one million years. As illustrated by these words from 'Astoria'. "The tables in the great banqueting room groaned under the weight of game of all kinds; of venison from the woods, and fish from the lakes, with hunters' delicacies, such as buffalos' tongues, and beaver tails, and various luxuries from Montreal..."

Astoria says it all, how the wonderful natural resources of Canada and the life and culture of the inhabitants, were destroyed in the name of civilization and progress, to satisfy the inherent greed of mankind.

And Man continues to be the destroyer of all he beholds.

Feb. 15, 2012, 3:56 a.m. » Tagged: knickerbocker , washington irving

Kuveni and the Yaksa


Opening of the Vilpattu sanctuary has brought the Kuveni legend back to us, and we find even a place called 'Kuveni Nuwara' near Tabbova.

Despite the myth of the Mahavamsa, most of us believe that Kuveni was real, just as much as Ravana was real. We believe they lived in our country long ago. A leading authority of our culture and our language, Dr. Harischandra Wijayatunga, has published a new book about Kuveni, 'Yakku saha Kuveniya, the betrayal by Kuveni and the annihilation of the Yaksa'.

Bertrand Russell once said, "As a rule, the invaders were less civilized than the people whom they conquered" (The Prospects of Industrial Civilization, P. 46). That is the thought that came to my mind as I read Dr. Wijayatunga's comments about the decline of the Yaksa which happened from the time of the arrival of Vijaya and his group.

Kuveni and her people of the Yaksa society were comparatively highly civilized than some ethnic groups on the mainland. Dr. Wijayatunga commences his introduction by identifying the Yaksa as a group with their own cultural identity, widespread throughout the island. They were engaged in agriculture and international trade. At the time of the first visit of the Buddha to Mahiyangana, the Yaksa had an annual festival. There is evidence that they had a good knowledge of mathematics, iron smelting, ship building and navigation, textile manufacture and also music and arts.

He quotes from the Kohomba Yakkama or Kohomba Kankariya, that Kuveni was the daughter of the Yaksa king Bimba and queen Chandrika. A political organization with a king as the head of state means a highly advanced society of that period. The city of Bimba has been identified as a place where the present day Bimba Raja Maha Viharaya is located.

Tammanna was a busy sea port, which was managed by princess Kuveni. She would have been familiar with the import export trade, cargo handling and also able to communicate with the foreign traders. She was able to recognize Vijaya as a Kshatriya prince. She would have met many traders belonging to the Vaishya clan. Cotton textiles would have been one export commodity, which too had been manufactured near the port, under Kuveni's supervision. The Yaksa would have been a peaceful people, to be able to carry on international trade, not at all the cannibalistic barbarians that come to our mind with the word Yaksa.

If the story of the imprisonment of the 700 men who came with Vijaya is accepted, then Tammanna had a prison which could accommodate 700 prisoners and also a judicial system in place, argues Dr. Wijayatunga.

The origin of the name Tammanna, according to Dr. Wijayatunga could have been from the tree 'Tammanna', (Mischodon zeylanicus Thwaites, family Euphorbiaceae). The term 'Tambapanni' could be a mistranslation into Pali. The plant, endemic to Sri Lanka and South India, is also known as 'Damana' in Sinhala and 'Thampanai' in Tamil, because it is believed to provide protection from serpents.

One interesting fact mentioned in this book is that the two children of Kuveni and Vijaya were named Jeevahatte and Dipella, (quoting from Vamsattapakasini). Sisapathi is the name given to Kuveni's assistant in the Mahavamsa. The name means one who lowers the head in subjugation, which could have been intended to humiliate her and Kuveni. Kuveni is also referred to as a bitch, or that she changed herself into a bitch when she met Vijaya. This could be a legend that was started by her own people in anger and disgust about her treachery in helping a foreign invader to destroy their culture and civilization.

Wijayatunga quotes from 'Hela Maha Yakkama' by G. Ranganath, that Kuveni insisted on Vijaya to swear seven times that he would make her his wife, because she knew a Kshatriya could not be trusted, unlike the Yaksha who were a most honourable people who always kept their word. But Vijaya did not keep his word, once he gained control of the country. The first ever freedom struggle in this country would then have been started by the Yaksa in Sri Lanka, after this, but unfortunately, most of their leaders had been murdered and their wealth plundered, which resulted in the failure of their struggle.

There is a myth that the Veddas are descendants of Kuveni and her people. Since a tribe of Veddas had been living in Lanka alongside the Yaksa, Naga and the Pulinda, the Vedda clan was not founded by Jeevahatta and Dipella (or Disala). Dr. Wijayatunga calls the Veddas the true 'Bhumiputra' of this country, who have retained their identity till now, while we are unable to trace the descendants of the Yaksa and Naga today.

In his book 'Kuveni nam Vu Yak Landa', A. Suddhahami presents a similar view that our chroniclers used derogatory names for the rightful countrymen of Lanka. He says, the name Kuveni or Kuvanna could have been created by our chroniclers by adding the prefix 'Ku', to 'vanna' or 'veni' to mean ugly or of a lower caste. In the same manner the brothers of Kuveni were named 'Kudahedaya', 'Mahahedaya' and 'Datpoottuva'. He also argues that if Kuveni was an evil creature with supernatural powers, she would not have left Vijaya's home with her two children so meekly.

We may not be able to find archaeological evidence to confirm the story of Vijaya and Kuveni, but we already know of civilized settlements around the country, at least one thousand years before the arrival of Vijaya. We have found human settlements, burial sites, iron smelting sites and ritual sites, which someday could be identified as belonging to the Yaksa or Naga people who lived here long before the Aryan language speaking tribes moved in.

Feb. 8, 2012, 12:35 p.m.

Independence of language

Independence of Language

True independence can be achieved only when we become “language independent”. In order to escape from Linguistic Colonialism we should aim to build new bridges for a trilingual Sri Lanka

Man can be truly "Independent" only when he has Independence in communicating with all mankind. We would have enjoyed this independence millions of years ago, when our ancestors first developed the capability of speech as a means of communication.

We lost this capability sometime along the ladder of evolution, as man started spreading out from Central Africa to every corner of the world. Perhaps it was a cruel joke played upon man by nature, or an experiment which went wrong, as Homo sapiens was trapped in a 'Tower of Babel' where they could not understand each other. It happened only to man, because all other animals appear to be communicating in a common voice among their kind. A dog anywhere on earth barks in the same way, and so does a lark when it sings.

When each tribe, clan or ethnic group developed a different language for their own use, and identified themselves by the language, they began to talk of a 'Mother Tongue'. When one such group became a 'majority' in a geographical region and considered the region belonged to them, then all other smaller groups using other languages became 'minorities' and that is when everybody lost their independence of communication, both the majority and the minorities. Everybody who did not use our own language become strangers, outsiders, foreigners to us. A native of one country became a foreigner the moment he stepped into a country where his own language was not understood. When people of different language groups gathered in one place, they remained as far apart as when they had been geographically.

For man to achieve true independence in communication, he has to develop a Universal Language, a language common to all human beings, all over the world. It is not just a distant dream, but a vision we could make a reality in the near future, by making use of all the electronic technology now available. It could be a computer generated language, to be read and understood by people all over the world, making instant communication with everyone, by phone, by text messages, by electronic mail, or video. The first step could be the simultaneous translation of such communications.

This universal language would not need a written script, the computers can use their own language independent systems, because by this time man would be in his tertiary orality, where he would not, and need not be able to read and write.

As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, even today. The necessity is here, because of the easy and spontaneous global communication systems available, but with the frustrating handicap of all the different languages in use globally, in our 'Global Village'.

There are 6900 different languages listed around the world. 800 different languages used in New York. In our neighbouring India, 398 listed live languages, with newspapers published in 87 languages and 58 languages taught in schools around the country.

In our country we are fortunate that we have only two languages to contend with. We teach only three languages in schools and read news papers in three languages. Yet unfortunately only ten percent of the Sinhala community can speak Tamil while only thirty percent of the Tamil community can speak in Sinhala. Once we had a link language, which is today understood only by fifteen percent of the Sri Lankans. So we do not have a language common to all of us, and we do not have a link language either. We do not have the freedom for communication with people in our own country.

India is more fortunate, more independent in a way, because they use English as their link language, giving freedom of movement and communication to a man from Tamil Nadu traveling to Delhi, or a man from Kolkata moving to Mumbai. The rapid development of Hinglish is making it far easier, though people who still want to cling on to a 'Mother Tongue' keep on complaining. Hinglish has become a national language in India, crossing across all language, social and economic barriers, establishing itself in almost all electronic mass media, films, advertising, and even into official records.

There is also a fallacy backed by a few misguided or politically opportunistic people that a person can be proficient only in his mother tongue. They carry this argument further by saying people should do their creative writing in their mother tongue only, that a successful poem can be written only in one's mother tongue. But this has been disproved in our country, first by Ven. S. Mahinda himi, who was born in Sikkim, who probably used Tibetan as his mother tongue, but became more proficient in Sinhala than most Sinhalese of his era. In India R. K. Narayan did not write in his mother tongue.

Merger of two or more languages is not a new phenomenon in India. Before Hinglish it was Khar Boli, the language used around Delhi which later developed into modern day Hindi and Urdu. Long before that it was the Indo-Aryan which gave rise to all North Indian languages. But when the British "granted" independence to India, they left a multi-headed monster in the form of a partition. The further separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan was mainly on the language issue of Bengali when Urdu was forced on the Bengali people.

In our country, we created our own monster, when British educated politicians who used Sinhala only to address their servants pushed for a Sinhala only policy. We have been able to destroy the monster, and now it is up to all Sri Lankans to ensure that such a monster never raises its head again.

Even though we have a huge language gap, there is much we can learn from our past. We need not go back to the proto-languages which have been used by pre-historic man in our country, but we can begin with the arrival of Vijaya 2600 years ago. When he fetched a Pandya bride from Madhura who was accompanied by one hundred maidens and a thousand families, they had to overcome the language barriers, or Vijaya would not have been able to talk to his wife. A compromise language would have developed, which could be understood by those who used the so-called Aryan languages and the non-Aryan languages and also with the indigenous people. There would have been 'Mutual Intelligibility', not just between dialects, but among different languages too.

This intermingling had continued down the ages, with more Sinhala Kings importing their brides from South India, more mercenaries coming in to fight for our kings, and more invading armies, settling down in this country. We come across references of Tamil merchant guilds in Anuradhapura, of a Tamil monk at Abhayagiri Vihara, of Demala Adikari and land grants for Tamils. Then we hear of the Gold Plate inscription found at Vallipuram, mentioning building of a vihara at Badakara Atana, written in Brahmi Script 1900 years ago, and the Tamil slab inscription written about one thousand years ago describing the donations to God Siva at the shrine named Vijayaraja Isvaram in Kantalai. Either most people were able to read and write both Tamil and Sinhala, or at least understand what was spoken.

In Sri Lanka, there would have been our own Lingua Franca, like the original Lingua Franca used throughout the Mediterranean, which was a mixed language of Italian, Turkish, French, Greek, Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish. What we need today is a 'Lingua Franca' of Sinhala, Tamil and English, not just Singlish or Tamilish, but perhaps Tamisinglish!

Building new bridges for a Tri-lingual Sri Lanka has been launched, which has to be successful, because we are on familiar ground and aiming at an easily achievable target. Today among the Tamil Hindu and the Sinhala Buddhist, the language is the only barrier which has to be dismantled. In our culture, our music, our dress and most of our food habits we have much in common. In our religious beliefs and practices we are very much closer, due to the absorption of Buddhism into Hinduism in India and the absorption of Hinduism into Buddhism in Sri Lanka, as described by John Clifford Holt, about the Hindu Buddha and the Buddhist Vishnu (The Buddhist Vishnu: religious transformation, politics and Culture, Coulumbia University Press, 2004)

Holt quoted Martin Wickramasinghe. "The readaptation of foreign elements is a sign of the originality and the virility of a given culture", Wickramasinghe had written as far back as 1952, in 'Aspects of Sinhalese Culture'. It is more relevant today, when we think of independence of language.

Today Kataragama is one of the most popular places of worship for most Sinhala Buddhists, and on any weekend we find more Sinhala Buddhists at Kataragama, than Tamil Hindus, even though God Kataragama is believed to be of South Indian origin, and known as God Skanda, Lord Murugesu, Subramanya, Kandasamy, Kadiradeva, Katiravel and Kartikeya.

The Sacred Bodhi Tree at Anuradhapura is another common place of worship, because Ficus Religiosa had been venerated as one of the most sacred trees in India for over 5000 years, and one of the best rallying points for Sinhala-Tamil cultural unity could be under the shade of the Sri Maha Bodhi, on our voyage towards total independence.

We received political independence in 1947, but we have still not escaped the Linguistic Colonialism, and we are still dependent on the Colonial language. Even though Indians believe they are more independent than all other commonwealth countries, English is still a much stronger master over all Indian languages. We need English because it is the only international language familiar to us, but it should be for us to use as we wish, and not allow the language to use us. Let us use English to build a bridge between our languages, instead of letting it ride on our backs.

Trilingualism in India is a complex issue. Hindi and English are the common languages, while the regional language varies from state to state. For us in Sri Lanka, it is much simpler, with only Sinhala, Tamil and English.

Independence in language does no mean that every ethnic group with their own language should have political and economic independence, as it is happening around the world, which would only mean that instead of a 'global village' we would end up having around 9000 small villages in a global Babelian tower.

True independence could be achieved only when we become language independent, like already we have language independent computer applications, and cross-platform and multi-platform software. Scientists are discovering that among humans, numerical reasoning and language are functionally and neuroanatomically independent, that grammatical and mathematical syntax are independent. This brings us closer to a language independent communication system.

Today we have word processors and printers which can handle many languages, and machine translation capability. If a machine designed and developed by man can handle many languages simultaneously, then man should be better able to do it, to become multilingual. Or we could develop a global Lingua Franca, till someday we could have our global language.

Looking forward to the day when our children would be able to live in a post-Babelian world, and be truly free and truly independent.

Feb. 4, 2012, 12:53 a.m. » Tagged: language

Sacred Couplets - Thrukural

Sacred Couplets

daya dissanayake

The painting was on the wall in the house of the Kurukkal of Maviddapuram kovil. A painting which had survived the ravages of the war, because the Kurukkal family held it as a precious and sacred object. It was a portrait of the poet Thiruvalluvar.

The 1330 couplets written 2000 years ago did not have a name. It has been known through the ages only as the 'Thiru Kural' (Sacred Couplets), and we do not know the name of the genius who wrote it, so we call him Thiru Valluvar (the respected weaver). The time and place of his birth is not known, but we accept it to be in the district of Kanyakumari and that he died in Mylapore in Chennai.

He is one of the earliest Tamil poets, of South Indian origin. That is all we know. That is more than enough. The place of birth is not important. A poet does not belong to a country or a race. He belongs to all mankind. The time of birth is not important, because he belongs to all time.

Valluvar has been accepted as his name, with the honorific "Tiru" which means "Shri". Valluvan is a name associated with weavers, and it could be that the poet belonged to a weaver family, and Valluvan became Valluvar out of respect for him. Tiru Valluvar would have lived sometime between the 2nd century B.C. and 8th century A.D. There is no historical or archaeological evidence to confirm the date, or even his place of birth, as it is with most ancient philosophers and poets.

Most people believe that all 1330 couplets in the Thirukural were written by Thiruvalluvar himself, though some have raised the possibility that there could have been later additions.

However, all five commentators who had studied the Kural during the 12th and 13th centuries have presented an almost identical text, with only some variations in the arrangements. Originally the work was known as 'Muppal' meaning divisions, because it is divided into three themes, Aram (Virtue) the moral value of human life, Porul (Wealth) socio-economic values, and Inbam (Love) psychological values.

All through history, later scholars have often tried to identify the influence of other great men, when they study great works of great men. It has happened to the Kural too. Western scholars have tried to find the influence of St. Thomas in Valluvar's writings, because St. Thomas had arrived in India a few years after the crucifixion. North Indian scholars have tried to find the influence of Manu and Kautilya, and also of Buddha and Mahavira. Some are even trying to claim that he was a Jain.

He would have been aware of the works of Manu and Kautilya, and known of the teachings of the Buddha and Mahavira, and also of Jesus if he had lived after the beginning of the Christian era. That does not mean that he would have borrowed his ideas from others. Anyway all knowledge is universal and is available for anyone who pursues it. The same thoughts, the same realization could be reached by anyone, if correctly pursued. There can be no new discoveries or new ideas which had not been stated by anyone else previously.

The Kural has been translated into many languages, by many writers. Probably the first translation into a foreign language was done by Fr. Constanzo Beschi S.J. into Latin during the 17th century. An English translation was done by Rev. Dr. G. U. Pope, Rev. W. H. Drew, Rev. John Lazarus and Mr. F. W. Ellis and was published in 1886. Since then it has been translated into 60 languages. A Sinhala translation was done by Ms. Misihami Gorokgoda in 1964.

Translation is a tricky subject and when a Tamil poem written 2000 years ago has to be translated into English by writers born and grew up in England, learned and believing in the Christian faith, grasping the original Tamil idea and putting it across in a language which does not have the correct words for them, would have been really tricky. Since the original translation several translations into English have been done by Tamil scholars, among them the translation by Maharishi Shuddhananda Bharatiar and another by Prof. P. S. Sundaram.

Thiruvalluvar Day falls on the day after Pongal and is a public holiday in Tamil Nadu. This year it fell on 16th January. Unfortunately it is developing into another political, commercial and insensitive function with people sending text messages to each other wishing 'Happy Thiruvalluvar Day', while we find in the Kural, "Virtue alone is happiness" (4.39).

A 41 m (133 feet) high statue has been built in honour of Thiruvalluvar, at the Southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent in the town of Kanyakumari, which is probably the tallest statue ever built in memory of a poet. When Valluvar wrote the second Muppal, the Porul, about good governance, he would never have expected political leaders to garland his statue, on a day named for him.

It is about time for all of us to read The Kural with an open mind, ignoring his place of birth, his religious and political beliefs. Valluvar describes our world, and mankind. His writing concerns all of us and is equally applicable to all of us, whatever our race or creed may be. Like all religious leaders and philosophers he belongs to all of us. He deserves our respect and the best way to honour him is to study his message and try to learn from it to lead a life useful and peaceful.

Feb. 1, 2012, 12:52 a.m. » Tagged: Tamil Poets , Thiruvalluvar , Thrukural

Creative Placemaking. Colombo

Another side of Urban Arts

The Independence Square has been converted into one good example of Urban Arts or Creative Placemaking, as I wrote about a few weeks ago. Enjoying the luxury of a few minutes at the new-look Independence Square however reminded me of the inequality in our society and that even the Urban Arts was only for those who can afford it.

A proud father of a young child, brought out a toy electric car from the boot of his brand new SUV. His son began to drive it along a pathway, steering his way through the people on their morning walks.

There were a few elderly men who walked in little groups, making lively conversation, enjoying a well earned retirement, because people both in public and private employment really worked hard to earn their wages. There were older couples, assisting each other on their slow walks, some of them with the help of walking sticks.

Young children were running around, screaming in joy, playing with their parents or grandparents, others were riding their brand new bicycles with guard wheels, wearing helmets.

One little girl was gazing at the statue of D. S. Senanayake, too young to understand who he was or what he was doing here, and then her attention was drawn towards the lions (were they lions?), at the base of the statue.

A young woman in a track suit and shoes, which would have cost more than one month's salary of most of our wage earners, was walking round and round along the foot paths, as if her life depended on it.

They all seemed happy about the new look Independence Square, really appreciating the Creative Placemaking that had changed the landscape to a work of art.

However like all art forms today it could be appreciated and enjoyed only by a few fortunate people in the city, who could arrive by car, who had the leisure to spend time here on a weekday morning, and who never would shed a drop of sweat at home or at work.

Even among those who travelled by car, there were many who just swept by, only appreciating the new traffic arrangements and thankful for the smooth flow, which would help them reach their office or business place a little earlier, and some of them even thankful for the small mercies like the little fuel they would save.

Some of them would make plans to bring their children here, on a Sunday morning, knowing that the evenings would be too crowded.

There were other people walking along Independence Avenue, who were not wearing track suits or walking shoes. They were dressed in their normal office attire, and they were hurrying to reach their office before the red line on the attendance register. They were sweating, from the long ride on a bus or train and the long walk from the bus halt.

They were not aware of the wonders of the Urban Arts, and they did not have the time or the leisure to appreciate the changes, and they did not need the exercise. Their day to day chores were more than enough to burn all the excess fat and calories. Their minds would be on the children on their way to school, about the payments they have to make for the school van, the tuition mudalali. and the landowner. Some of them would have wished that they too could bring their children here, to play, to walk around, to enjoy the peace and the cool breeze.

Another wonderful example of Creative Placemaking in Sri Lanka is the new scenic surroundings of the Diyawanna oya, with opportunities for boating, rowing and for leisurely strolls in the early morning or evening. And the vista is also a soothing relaxation for the frustrated motorists and bus passengers, who sometimes have to crawl at a pace slower than that of a snail, during traffic jams.

Among all these people, how many would realize, or take a moment to think about how this wonder had been made possible? A few years ago it would have been unthinkable to be able to enjoy such free movement, even at the Independence Square, a claymore mine could go off. One would look with suspicion at every parked vehicle. One would have to stop every few hundred meters at a check-point.

The office workers would be sighing with relief as they got off the bus or the train that a bomb had not gone off, and be anxious till their children returned home and they themselves reached home in the evening.

And how many, even among those who realized and appreciated the peace prevailing in the city and the whole country, would notice the toil and the sweat of our war heros who contributed their time and effort to make this landscape possible, and who toils today to maintain it.

And how many would realize and appreciate their good fortune to be able to spend their time here, because their parents or grandparents would have toiled and sweated, so they could be here today? And the society which gave them the opportunity to earn their wealth and power.

Those who come here to enjoy the artistic creativity, should make their own contribution too, for its maintenance, by not littering, by not damaging the plants or the walkways, by being thoughtful of all the others who have to use the place.

And how many would realize that they too should contribute to reduce the inequality in our society, that they too should ensure that inequality did not breed further inequality, and that everyone should have an equal opportunity to relax and enjoy the Urban Arts and the Creative Placemaking that we see around our city today.

Jan. 25, 2012, 12:36 a.m. » Tagged: creative placemaking , urban arts

Mahagama Sekera

A Halo for Sekara

36 years ago on the January 14th, one of the greatest "artists" in our country passed away. I use the term artist not because he was just a painter, but because he created music by his paintings, paintings by his poems and lyrics, symphonies by his novels, short stories, children's books and translations.

'A Halo for Mahagama Sekera' was held at the Mahagama Sekera Vidyalaya, opposite the "Thun man handiya" in Radawana. It was organized by the students following the Media and Mass Communication course at the Sri Lanka Press Council.

One memorable speech was made by Mr. W. A. D. Gunadasa, who recalled how the memorial for Mahagama Sekera built at the Radawana junction had been later demolished to establish a volleyball court. Mr. Gunadasa, the retired railway employee, who had met Sekera every morning on their way to office, lamented this vandalism. Every morning, when they met, Sekera would tell him about his latest literary efforts, and complain that he was unable to have them published. And Gunadasa would encourage him, that someday his efforts would bear fruit. Little would Mr. Gunadasa himself realize then, how prophetic his words were.

The destruction or distortion of the name of such a great person is far worse than destroying a memorial. This was "achieved" by the Postal authorities, who released a stamp in commemoration of Mahagama Sekera, but baptizing him as "Shantha Kumara" Mahagama Sekera. Later the stamp was released by blacking out the words 'Shantha Kumara". This stamp must be a bonanza for stamp collectors! But even such humiliations would not touch a great man in any way, because great men are far above such trifles.

Mr. Gunadasa need not grieve about the destruction of the memorial. Mahagama Sekera would never need any additional monuments in his memory, because his creative works themselves stand as the greatest monuments for generations to come.

The halo created on January 14th, at the Mahagama Sekera Vidyalaya consisted of several rings. One ring was lightened by Dr. Pranith Abayasundara, who described the great works, 'Nomiyemi', 'Prabuddha', 'Sakvalihini', and how these works, introduced to him by his late father, and later on by his teachers, had influenced his thinking and his life. Mahagama Sekera had been a teacher only for a short period, but he had moulded the lives of many Sri Lankans, all through his life, and one of them illumined the second ring. It was Karundasa Sooriarachchi, the editor of Silumina, the reputed journalist, columnist and novelist. He recalled how a lecture given by Mahagama Sekera, when he was studying for his A/Levels in science subjects, had changed his life. This was when he got a liking for poetry and literature, finally paving the way for him to end up as the editor of a prestigious newspaper. Then we should also be grateful to Sekera for this influence on Sooriarachchi, because if not for his visit to their school that day, our readers would have been deprived of novels like 'Ratu Idda' and 'Andakara Tharakava'.

Prof. Sunanda Mahendra, created the third halo, reminiscing about his association with Sekera, at the SLBC, about his good fortune to have been able to listen to Sekera reciting his 'Nomiyemi', 'Prabuddha' and 'Thunmanhandiya', and how Sekera designed a cover for one of his books, with just a burnt match-stick.

Kumara Kaviraj from Kivulakele in Kottikachchi, launched his book 'A letter to Sekara from his village', on this occasion, a letter written today because Sekera is still with us.

Another silent admirer was K. G. Jinasena, who has collected many of Sekera's early writings and publications about Sekera, of which he had made several copies to be presented at the 'Ras Walalla'. He has also published the only collection of short stories written by Sekera, under the title 'Peethara Saha Thawat Ketikatha'.

It is never too late to introduce Mahagama Sekera to readers beyond our shores. We could begin with translations into Tamil and English as the first step. There are many young people in our country who are fluent in Tamil and Sinhala, who could render good translations of Sekera's writings, without distorting or harming the original thoughts and rhythm. For this program one of the students, M. S. Suja M Muneer, had translated a poem from Nomiemi into Tamil, and we should encourage him to continue his efforts. By translating into Tamil, his books could reach over 77 million tamil speaking readers around the world.

For a creative genius to make use of all his skills and creative powers, the time, place and his surroundings too play a major role. Had Sekera lived in the United States or England, he could probably have outshone many of the writers held in very high esteem the world over. Had he lived in Sweden or had his books been translated in Swedish, he could have been nominated for the Nobel and won it too.

By translation in to English, Sekera could reach over 500 million readers, and also the children of the Sri Lankan diaspora, who are unable to read Sinhala. By publishing his works in E-book format he could be read by the young generations on their i-Pods, Kindles, Nooks and even their android phones, not only in English, but in Sinhala too.

In between the speeches, the students from the Press Council, entertained the audience with selected songs, written by Sekara. They once again reminded us that Sekera, true to his words in 'Nomiyemi' is not dead. He lives among us today, and will live among our children and their children.

One more reason for continuing to publish and translate Mahagama Sekera is because of his own vision, as written by him in his introduction to Prabuddha -

"On a day in the future

When the world becomes a better place

I'm convinced

You will appreciate this more"

Jan. 18, 2012, 1:43 a.m.

Mark Twain

'Two Fathoms Deep' Samuel Clemens

While readers are on waiting lists for the print edition I had the good fortune to download the 'Autobiography of Mark Twain' onto my Kindle and start reading. It cost me only $ 4.99. If and when the printed edition comes to Sri Lanka, it would cost a few thousand rupees. That is what I meant last week, that the e-book is the future. Anyway for readers who have waited for one hundred years to read this book, a few more weeks or even months would not be too long.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens has written his autobiography in the same style he wrote his other creative work, and even those who knew him then, or have studied his life and works may not be able to know if he is telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or if Clemens is laughing himself to death in his grave. He called it the autobiography of "Mark Twain", so we would be reading the character he had created within himself. May be we should consider it a 'Biography of Mark Twain' written by Samuel Clemens.

Mark Twain, as we know him, came to life in 1863, picking up the Mississippi river term meaning 'Two fathoms deep', from his brief spell working on the Mississippi as a steamboat pilot.

According to Julie Bosman in the New York Times, the $35, 500,000 word, 736 page, 2 kg book is been turned out at the rate of 30,000 copies a week, and still unable to meet the demand around the country, even though the publisher had initially planned to print only 7,500 copies. Already 275,000 copies had been sold. And this is only the first volume, with two more volumes to come.

"My works are like water. The works of the great masters are like wine. But everyone drinks water", was what he said then.

In the introduction he had written that his autobiography "would live a couple of thousand years, without any effort, and would then take a fresh start and live for the rest of the time".

Mark Twain had made many attempts to write an autobiography, but it was only in 1906 that he had begun to dictate it to his stenographer. He had laid down a condition that it should not be published till one hundred years after his death, even though he himself had published parts of the biography in the North American Review during his life time.

As quoted in the introduction to the autobiography, in a 1889 interview, Twain had said "a man cannot tell the whole truth about himself, even if convinced that what he wrote would never be seen by others", and again "A book that is not to be published for a century gives the writer a freedom which he could secure in no other way." In 1905 he had written, "We suppress an unpopular opinion because we cannot afford the bitter job of putting it forth....None of us likes to be hated, none of us likes to be shunned"

In 'The Guradian', Sarah Churchwell captioned her column about the autobiography "Mark Twain: not an American but the American", quoting from one of Twain's own notebooks. Then went on to remind us of what Hemingway had said in 'Green Hills of Africa', "All American literature comes from one book...called Huckleberry Finn". Churchwell says that Mark Twain was so famous, that letters addressed to him "Mark Twain, God knows where", and "Mark Twain. Somewhere (try Satan) found their way to him and that the White House had forwarded one letter addressed to "Mark Twain, c/o President Roosevelt". Twain himself had written once, "My address is simply New York City - I have no other that is permanent and not transient"

When 'Huckleberry Finn' was published in 1885 and was banned by the library in Concord, Massachusetts, Mark twain had said that the banning was worth the sale of 25,000 copies just by the free publicity alone, and that "for a library to ban a book makes it necessary for many people to buy the book because they could not borrow it for free".

Samuel Clemens died on April 21, 1910, but there were false rumors of his death on several occasions. Once when he was in London, it had been reported in America that he was dead. When the 'Evening Sun' reporter had asked for comment, Mark Twain had replied "Say the report is greatly exaggerated". There are many versions of this story, but this is what the authorized biography has recorded. 100 years later, the question is how much of his life has been exaggerated by him. Incidentally another death that was "greatly exaggerated" was that of Steve Jobs in 2008, on August 27th, 4.27 p.m., by Bloomberg, and immediately retracted. ( )

Today, President William Howard Taft's words on hearing of Mark Twain's death has been proven once again. "Mark Twain gave pleasure - real intellectual enjoyment - to millions, and his works will continue to give pleasure to millions yet to come...".

As reported by Russel Smith, Mark Twain had tried to shoot himself in 1866, and years later he had said, "Many time I have been sorry I did not succeed, but I was never ashamed of having tried". Yet if he had succeeded, then we would not have been able to read all his great works and his biography. Perhaps destiny did not let him die because his wit and creativity was badly needed by mankind.

If we collected all of Mark Twain quotes, it could fill another volume like his autobiography. To end this note with one such quote, "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to."

Jan. 15, 2012, 1:15 p.m. » Tagged: Mark Twain

Poetic Licence and Religious Tolerance

Poetic License and Religious Tolerance

Among all religions, the tolerance displayed by the Christian Church regarding the poetic license used by writers, artists and film makers about the Gospels and Jesus Christ stands out as an example to all other religious institutions. More research has been done, more books have been written about the life and times of Jesus, than about any other being on earth. "Re-writing the Gospels has become a literary genre in its own right", as mentioned in a review of Philip Pullman's new novel in The Independent.

One of the most recent such books is 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ', published in 2010. Pullman narrates the story of two brothers, the moral and godly Jesus and his brother Christ who tries to establish a powerful church on the foundation that Jesus builds. ABC news said of the book, "a far more direct exploration of the foundations of Christianity and the church as well as an examination of the fascination and power of storytelling". The archbishop of Canterbury, Most Rev. Rown Williams had said that the Jesus character "a voice of genuine spiritual authority"

D. H. Lawrence wrote the short novel 'The Escaped Cock' in two parts in 1927 and 1928, but it was published as 'The man Who Died'. It is about a man who returns from the dead.

Lawrence describes, "Strength came from somewhere, from revulsion; there was a crash and a wave of light, and the dead man was crouching in his lair, facing the animal onrush of light. Yet it was hardly dawn. And the strange, piercing keenness of daybreak's sharp breath was on him. It meant full awakening." and then, "He was alone; and having died, was even beyond loneliness." Then to the peasant "'Don't be afraid,' said the man in the shroud. 'I am not dead. They took me down too soon. So I have risen up. Yet if they discover me, they will do it all over again...'", and again, "my mission is over, and my teaching is finished, and death has saved me from my own salvation. Oh, Madeleine, I want to take my single way in life, which is my portion. My public life is over, the life of my self-importance. Now I can wait on life, and say nothing, and have no one betray me."

Lawrence the poet was at his best when he writes, "Plum blossom blew from the trees, the time of the narcissus was past, anemones lit up the ground and were gone, the perfume of bean-field was in the air. All changed, the blossom of the universe changed its petals and swung round to look another way. The spring was fulfilled, a contact was established, the man and the woman were fulfilled of one another, and departure was in the air."

Dan Brown shot into the limelight with his bestseller 'Da Vinci Code' in 2003, which was probably influenced by the tales of the Merovingian clan of France, who are said to be the descendants of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, and by Laurence Gardner's 1996 book 'Bloodline of the Holy Grail', which was an outcome of 'Holy Blood and Holy Grail' by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln in 1982. From 2004 to 2009, 'Da Vinci Code' had sold 80 million copies, even though it had been severely criticized by many. Salman Rushdie called it "a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name", Aaron Sorkin in New York Times, "Dan Brown's best selling primer on how not to write an English Sentence"

Alex Burns has called 'Holy Blood and Holy Grail' a powerful example of investigative journalism, meme-spliced with religious conspiracy theory. They investigated the mystery of the small church in Rennes-le-Chateau and the parchments found there with reference to 'Dagobert II king' who was a Merovingian king, and who was traced back to the heirs of Magdalene who had married into the family of Visigoths.

'The Last Temptation of Christ' was published by the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis in 1953, and developed into a film by Martin Scorsese in 1988. Though it was banned in several countries, it too became immensely popular.

'The Shack' by William P. Young in 2007 narrates the story of a Trinity of a young child, an African-American woman and a Middle-Eastern labourer named Jesus.

Aziz Kashmiri,wrote 'Christ in Kashmir' in 1973 to claim that Christ survived the crucifixion and lived till he was 120 years in Kashmir, where he was buried in the Rozabal shrine in Srinagar believed to be of the Sufi saint, Yuz Asaf. Then Suzanne Olson, an American writer, who claimed to be the 59th descendant of Jesus, wanted to exhume the tomb to get a DNA test done, to prove her ancestry.

There are so many novels, historical research publications, religious studies, about Christianity and Jesus Christ, and here is mentioned only the tip of the iceberg.

Such writings always would draw criticism and even threats from a few religious zealots, but in reality most of these literary creations would encourage readers to go back to the Gospels, to re-think about what is written, and to learn and understand their religion and their faith.

The founders of all world religions are far above the ordinary human beings, and they are beyond the reach of any criticism, ridicule or even slander. Other mortals should not take umbrage of any stories or paintings or films as insults, as heretic creations influenced by other religions or anti-religious movements or by the devil himself.

Truth always prevails, and cannot be distorted or destroyed, and during this season let us all learn to be tolerant of all frailties of the poor, misguided and gullible human beings.

Jan. 4, 2012, 5:46 a.m.