Gunadasa Amarasekera: The dentist — philosopher rooted in Sinhala soil

guna.jpg (15423 bytes)by Malinda Seneviratne
Some people are controversial. Some fall victim to the invective that arises out of controversy. Some, very few, smile and go about their work regardless. I suspect that such people are able to weather the storms they unleash or provoke because they have resolved to commit themselves to perceive the eternal verities of life and as such are not perturbed by praise or blame. Some people demonstrate this quality in their work. In others it is present in all their life activity. They are rare.

The first time I encountered Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera was in the early seventies, when my parents took me to the Dental Institute to get a tooth extracted. Or was it a filling? I can’t remember. I do recall a smiling face. And just the other day, it occurred to me that the warmth written in that smile had not changed. We chatted for hours about his life, his extensive writings, literature, politics, the changes this country, and the ferment in its cultural ethos, challenged as it is by the seemingly inexorable intrusion of western ideological drives in their patently violent forms.

He was born in 1929 and grew up in a remote village called Yatalamatta, some 15 miles inland of Galle. His father was a vedamahattaya and his mother the headmistress of a school. Gunadasa was a sickly child and whereas his older brother and younger sister had been sent to the missionary school in Baddegama, he had been kept at home until he was 12 or so on account of the epileptic fits he had been regularly afflicted with.

Gunadasa maintains that this was a blessing in disguise because it allowed him to familiarise himself with Sinhala literature. His father had been an ardent admirer of Anagarika Dharmapala, and being well versed in both Sanskrit and Pali and given to reciting the classical epics such as the Selalihini Sandesaya. In fact he had written a poem dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi in Sanskrit. Apparently the principle of Vidyodaya, Rev. Baddegama Piyarathana, was his father’s brother. He also remembers listening to his mother reading from the Kusa Jathakaya in school. The intellectual climate in the household had also been enhanced by newspapers such as Sarasavi Sandares which were regularly purchased.

As such there was already a culture of learning and appreciation of literature that the young Gunadasa was enveloped in. This was complemented by the inevitable immersion in the cultural ethos of the village life.

At 12, Gunadasa had been sent to Baddegama so that he could be educated in English. He had stayed with his aunt’s family, who were Christian. "That was my first encounter with the West, and I remember instinctively rebelling, for instance, arguing the worth of ayurvedic medicine."

He went to Nalanda during the war years. "There was a certain ‘awakening’ among the Sinhala educated people. We had W. A. Silva’s novels, the Colombo poets and of course Gamperaliya came out in 1944. It was also at this time that the free education movement began. People like Kannangara and Malalasekera were unreservedly ridiculed. The Catholics, the Christians and the English educated elite rebelled against these trends."

According to him "1956" didn’t just happen. It was preceded by long struggles and many factors, including the existence of people like his father whose sensibilities were deeply rooted in the strong foundation of our culture.

It was while at Nalanda that he first showed signs of becoming a writer. To begin with he was influenced by teachers like W. S. Perera, or "Siri Aiya" as the poet was better known, Karunaratne Abeysekera and Ridgeway Tillekeratne. He also closely associated with the Colombo poets during this time.

"It was around this time that D. B. Dhanapala started the Lankadeepa, thus challenging the Lake House monopoly, and more than that encouraging the local traditions and writers. In 1952 the Times Group had organised a short-story competition, sponsored by the New York Herald Tribune. Gunadasa had submitted a story titled "Soma" which had won first prize. Soma, along with the winner in the English category, "A culture of hate" by A. Felician Fernando, were later published in a collection titled "World Prize Stories".

This had naturally given the young author some exposure and M. D. Gunasena had come forward to publish a collection of short stories titled Rathu Rosa Mal just before he joined the university. He had studied science at Nalanda although the school was not noted for its strength in these subjects and had been selected to the Dental School at Peradeniya. His studies in dentistry did not prevent him from experimenting with the Sinhala language and its creative potentials. While in the university he published a collection of Sinhala free verse titled Bhava Geetha.

"Even at that time, I was looking for a ‘native’ form based on our folk poetry and its particular structural forms such as the pasmath viritha. Bhava Geetha was followed by Amalbiso, Guruluvatha and Avarjana. Karumakkarayo and the short story collection Jeevana Suwanda, also came out around the same time."

The sheer volume of his work during this time, considering also the fact that he was following a strenuous programme in dentistry, clearly speaks to the man’s discipline as well as the intellectual and creative ferment within him. Gunadasa explained that the above mentioned works belonged to what he calls the "first phase," i.e. when he was relatively free from the influence of the Western traditions. They also worked around immediate themes such as university life, adulthood and its associated problems.

Later he was to be heavily influenced by Western authors such as D. H. Lawrence and Arthur Miller and possibly explains his flirtations with eroticism. It was during this "second phase" (which he says was "imitative") that he wrote the novels Yali Upannemi and Depa Noladdo.

It is perhaps not possible to talk about this period of the writer's life without mentioning Peradeniya University and everything it stood for. "There was a general culture of looking to the West." Although Gunadasa remains sympathetic to the socialist ideal, he claimed that he was not too enamoured with the Marxists: "Instinctively I felt something alien in their approach, it was probably the cultural factor." Or perhaps the absence of it in the way that Marxists then and now explicate their canon.

Gunadasa marks Martin Wickramasinghe’s critique of the Peradeniya novel as the beginning of the "second phase" of his journey with the pen. "Martin Wickramasinghe charged that those who belonged to the Peradeniya school were mere imitators and that they were looking through foreign lenses. And so arose the controversy between him and Sarachchandra. Initially I took up a position that was oppositional to Wickramasinghe, but later I reexamined my views. I came to realise that the tendency in Peradeniya was to take man out of his cultural context. They were looking for universal human values."

Perhaps it was a product of the maturing process. Gunadasa himself admits that self-criticism is part and parcel of the writer’s world since he is constantly questioning things. For him a writer is primarily an intellectual. "For a serious writer, writing is not an end, but a means to an end, it is a living process. He has to come to terms with what he perceives, writing is but a by-product of the process."

He left for his post graduate studies in 1967. Gunadasa claimed that by this time his views had undergone radical change and he was intent on trying to place people in the social and cultural context. He wrote Gandabba Apadanaya just before he left. This marked his "third phase".

England had been an eye-opener. "I realised how alien they were and how radically different we were to them. During this time I came out with Ektemen Polovata, Katha Pahak, and Premaye Sathya Kathava.

Gunadasa laments that our reading public, society in general and the intelligentsia have stopped growing. He offered that this is probably due to the fact that once the flaws of blind aping of the West surfaced, it petrified people and prevented them from coming up with something of their own.

"My novels are hardly discussed. I am not saying that they are excellent works, but I do believe that they are worthy of comment and discussion."

It is also in this "third phase" that Gunadasa ventured out of literature to the political and ideological spheres in a more direct way. Abuddassa Yugayak and Ganadura Mediyama Dakinemi Arunalu, this is clearly evident, the latter becoming a veritable handbook of those who found answers to some of their burning questions with regard to civilisation and the social-political crisis they were undergoing in the Jathika Chinthanaya school.

"I found that literature alone was not enough and that something had to be said in a more direct form. In 1980 I wrote Anagarika Dharmapala Marxvadiyek da?" I remember Dr. Nalin de Silva writing a harsh review of the book. But he later told me that that was the book that changed him and took him away from Marxism."

I ventured that literature is able to implant ideas in a deeper way within a person’s sensibilities as opposed to ideological theses, and he said "A writer is someone who experiences discontent. His mind is a prism, it can express itself academically, through fiction, essays or any number of ways. Take Martin Wickramasinghe for example. There is no argument that he is a colossus among the Sinhala writers of the 20th century. But he did not stick to fiction. Through his novels and his essays he was searching for one thing, the Sinhala Lakuna, the Sinhala mark or identity.

"But I do see your point. If our politicians were poets things would have been much better. Look at Mao, and even Lenin, who saw the political and philosophical worth of Chekov’s Ward Six.

"Marxism in Sri Lanka was conspicuously non-creative. It became a substitute for thinking. Our Marxists have made absolutely no contribution of significance to the debates within Marxism. Here it was nothing but fuel for dull minds and mediocrity."

It was time to move on to Jathika Chinthanaya and his long association with the much maligned, controversial and in many ways invaluable Dr. Nalin de Silva.

"As I said earlier, the seeds of ’56 were planted by Anagarika Dharmapala. He helped create the intelligentsia in the village. In fact I believe that the future of this country is still in the hands of the educated rural youth. Rural peoples are culturally rooted and disciplined. What happened was that we got a full blast of colonialism and neo-colonialism. Challenging this cultural imperialism will have to be based on civilisation and nationalism. The West does not have the answers. They are fundamentally rooted in analytical philosophy which is but an expression of philosophical poverty. I think Wittgenstein was right when he said that ‘It’s just language’.

"This is why, the post-modernists can’t go beyond a critique. At least the Marxists tried to go beyond what existed. They failed because they are philosophically tied to the same modernist principles."

Discussing Jathika Chintanaya, I asked him if it was correct to say that the very demand for a definition of the idea is indicative of the modernist affliction and fascination with neat equation and categorisation. He agreed. "It is a concept. There is nothing to ‘discover’ here. We just articulated it, but it is also present in the work of Dharmapala and Munidasa. It is something that is evident everywhere, it’s flavour is understood in the flesh if we move from the Western fixation on ‘having’ to the idea of ‘being’."

He explained that some of the leading lights of the Frankfurt School, those who pioneered Western Marxism in the USA, like Eric Fromm and Max Horkheimer seem to have understood this. "In his essay To have or to be, Fromm claims that the Western world was never Christian outside of the period between the 13th and 16th centuries. They moved from paganism to the industrial revolution where reason degenerated into manipulative intelligence and individualism to selfishness, resulting in a quick return to the original paganism."

Gunadasa observed how in the 50 plus years since Independence, we blundered because we wanted to follow the pagan ethic of "wanting to have". "We moved from Marxist Socialism to extreme capitalism. Why? Because we were rudderless, so to speak. Whatever success that the Marxists enjoyed was because of Buddhism, and its socialist orientation."

"The interesting thing is that renowned theorists like Huntington have now understood that history did not end as Fukiyama claimed, with the world moving towards a uniform set of values, but that what was paramount was the civilisational collectives and drives. Jathika Chinthanaya translates roughly as ‘civilisational consciousness’. I first wrote about it in the Divaina. Nalin of course gave it a solid philosophical foundation. In fact he was our first postmodernist.

There are two categories of people in terms of the reaction to the idea. The first don’t understand it in philosophical terms and you can’t blame them. After all they have been subjected to three centuries of cultural imperialism and as such are handicapped by history. The second category includes those who will fully refuse to acknowledge its logical worth. They find it dangerous because it speaks of a national ideology which is a threat to Western imperialism of which they are but pawns and part beneficiaries."

Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera is a quiet optimist. Unlike Nalin, he is less interested in the overtly political, and believes that his forte lies in the use of the word. And this he has used to good effect. The series of historical novels that started with Gamanaka Mula, quite apart from their literary worth, are eminently sociological works that trace the evolution of the so-called Sinhala middle-class. We have already been treated to Gamdorin Eliyata, Inimage Ihalata, Vankagiriyaka, Yali Maga Vetha and Duru Rataka Dukata Kiriyaka. They are said to be biographical but clearly go beyond tracing the intellectual journeys of a single man, remarkable though he may be.

It is certainly beyond my task to offer a full literary criticism of the collected works of Gunadasa Amarasekera. All I can say is that his books are read by the intellectually curious and those who enjoy books for their sheer literary value. The value of the man, is, I believe beyond calculation. I remember an essay in his Ganaduru Mediyama Dakinemi Arunalu, where he takes to task those who characterise people like him as "deshiya buddhimatun" or indigenous intellectuals. He asks "What does one call those other, non-deshiya intellectuals? The point is this, if one is not deshiya, by definition one cannot be an intellectual."

At 71, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera is long retired from his dental practice. His mind, however, is clearly still at work. I found him to be equipped with up to date knowledge and deep understanding of both the current debates in academic circles as well as a comprehensive understanding of both local and international political currents.

He is currently working on a sequel to his thought-provoking Gal Pilimaya Saha Bol Pilimaya, which he says will probably be out in two to three months. The tentative title is Pilima Lovin Piyavi Lovata. In addition he is working on the last two parts of the series he started with Gamanaka Mula.

I can’t resist saying, "we are fortunate". And also quote my friend Piyasiri, "One man is not a front". But then again, this "front" is and will remain as invisible as the ranks that made up "1956" possible. Hopefully this time around, they will rise outside the crass frames of power politics. In any event, when such change occurs, there is no doubt in my mind, he will rank high among those whose lives made it possible to imagine and create a new kind of living, closer to that which is at the core of who we are, our cultural sensibility.