3 | 2017
Indian Birth and Western Rebirths of the Jātaka Tales

The editors would like to thank the following institutions:

  • The Regional Council of Île de France.
  • The Embassy of India.
  • The Research Commission of the University of Paris 13, Sorbonne Paris Cité.
  • The Faculty of Law, Social and Political Sciences and the Centre forStudies and Research in Administrative and Political Sciences (CERAP), University of Paris 13, Sorbonne Paris Cité.
  • The Centre for Research on English Studies (CREA) of the University of Paris West Nanterre and the Centre for Research on Space/Writing (CREE) of the University of Paris West Nanterre.
  • The Team of Interdisciplinary Research on Cultural Areas (ERIAC) of the University of Rouen Normandy.
  • and the Society for Activities and Research on the Indian world (SARI).

for their generous support for this project.

Couverture de
  • Michel Naumann, Ludmila Volná et Geetha Ganapathy-Doré  Introduction

Rewritings of the Jātaka Tales in Colonial and Postcolonial Texts

A Fictional Evaluation of Buddhism in Postcolonial Sri Lanka: Manuka Wijesinghe’s Trilogy

Geetha Ganapathy-Doré


The prolonged ethnic conflict (1983-2009) in Sri Lanka had highlighted the tension between the Sinhala speaking Buddhist majority and the Tamil speaking Hindu minority in postcolonial Sri Lanka. Writers like Michael Ondaatje and Shyam Selvathurai do deal with Sri Lankan politics but through the prism of human rights. The Srilankan born German resident poet, playright, dancer and actress, Manuka Wijesinghe offers a rather bold and satirical evaluation of Buddhism in Sri Lankan politics in the guise of fiction. Her autobiographical novel Monsoons and Potholes (2006) scrutinizes the Sri Lankan « obsession with Buddhism » during the 1970/80s. Theravada Man (2009), centering on the “Iskolemahattaya”, a school principal and his wife and school teacher, the “Iskolehamine”, orchestrates a subtle confrontation of tribal knowledge, Buddhist learning and Western education in a feminist perspective. Manuka Wijesinghe’s hybrid narrative published in 2014, Sinhala Only refers to the 1956 Act that replaced English as the official language of Sri Lanka and explores the misconceptions of identity caused by this public policy. Wijesinge looks upon it as a « great diversion » masterminded by the Sri Lankan political elite. This conscious manipulation of religion and language for political ends resulted in violence, symbolic and real. This article deals with Wijesinghe’s critical examination of the relevance of Buddhism, her deconstruction of the process of nation building by a focus on educational reforms and her mixing of different literary forms and narrative resources (Jātakas, mythology, epics, tribal customs and stories of the Muslim minority) to defend cultural diversity as the only path to non-violence in contemporary Sri Lanka.

Texte intégral

1Sri Lanka was placed in the map of English literature by authors like John Milton, Leonard Woolf, Aldous Huxley and Arthur C. Clarke. The galaxy of postcolonial Sri Lankan writing in English1 shines with bright stars like Michael Ondaatje, Romesh Gunesekera, Shyam Selvadurai, Carl Muller, Punyakante Wijenaike,Yasmine Gunaratne, Chandani Lokuge, Minoli Salgado and Ameena Hussein to name only a few. The prolonged ethnic conflict (1983-2009)2 in Sri Lanka had highlighted the tension between the Sinhala-speaking Buddhist majority and the Tamil-speaking Hindu minority in the country. While writers like Michael Ondaatje or Jean Arasanayagam do deal with Sri Lankan politics but through the prism of human rights, the Srilankan born German resident poet, playwright, dancer and actress, practitioner of alternative medicines and mother of two children, Manuka Wijesinghe, offers a rather bold and satirical evaluation of Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the guise of fiction. The fact that all her three novels have been published in Colombo, « in the former margins of the Empire »3 as Isabel Alonso-Breta puts it, has perhaps made her less visible than her counterparts published by international houses. According to Ruvani Runasinha,

the location and politics of publishing has had considerable impact on Sri Lankan anglophone writing. Favouring authors published abroad and marginalizing the distinctive perspectives of local writers lead to contrasting culturally located reader-responses4.

2This article deals with Wijesinghe’s critical examination of the relevance of Buddhism in postcolonial Sri Lanka, her deconstruction of the process of nation building by a focus on educational reforms and her mixing of different literary forms and narrative resources (Jātakas, myths, Sanskrit and Tamil epics, Pāli chronicles such as the Mahavamsa and the Kulavamsa, tribal customs and stories of the Muslim minority) to defend cultural diversity as the only path to non-violence in contemporary Sri Lanka. Rather than attempting a book by book analysis, it takes a transversal approach to identify Manuka Wijesinghe’s intended purpose and textual strategies.

3The literary interest for Buddhism in the subcontinent had earlier been kindled by Pankaj Mishra’s An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World (2005) which mixes biography, travel, history and philosophy to assess the impact of Buddhism in a world that had tumbled into the ghastly violence of 2001 terror attacks and Amita Kanekar’s historical fiction Spoke in the Wheel: A Novel About the Buddha (2005) which is partly based on Monk UPāli’s factual account of the life of Buddha commissioned by Emperor Ashoka5 and retraces the birth, spread and transformation of the Dhamma movement.

4Manuka Wijesinghe’s autobiographical coming of age novel Monsoons and Potholes6 scrutinizes the Sri Lankan « obsession with Buddhism » during the 1970/80s. Theravada Man (2009)7 centers on the « Iskolemahaththaya », a school principal who is a stickler for the Thervada ethics despite his British training, his wife and school teacher, the « Iskolehamine » and Alstonia Scholaris, a village idiot who calls himself the « last of the Nagas » and helps the family. It orchestrates a subtle confrontation between tribal knowledge and Buddhist learning on the one hand and between the Eastern way of living and Western education on the other in a feminist perspective. The setting is Ceylon from the 1920s to the Second World War. The novel is divided into three books and interspersed with two burlesque pieces of theatre where episodes from the history of Sri Lanka are altered and staged to suit the political needs of the current day sponsors.

5Sinhala Only8, Manuka Wijesinghe’s hybrid narrative published in 2014 refers to the Act passed in 1956 and implemented in 1961 that replaced English by Sinhala as the official language of Sri Lanka9 and explores the misconceptions of identity caused by this public policy. Wijesinge looks upon this political blunder as a « diversion » (SO, 420) masterminded by the Sri Lankan political elite to mask the fact that they were enriching themselves at the expense of the poor and illiterate and getting their children educated abroad to foster dynastic democracy. The postcolonial regime of Sri Lanka is described through the metaphor of the cart in this novel which is again divided into three books (the first book covers the period between 1815 to 1948; the second from 1948 to 1960 and the third 1961-1978 with flashbacks to Sri Lanka’s ancient past)10. When the carter dies, bulls take over. In other words, when politicians become self-seeking, they swerve from democracy and open the door to the eruption of violence inherent in the established order of race, class, caste, language and gender hierarchy. The readers’ attention is especially drawn towards one significant event through the reproduction of a black and white photograph and some signatures: the signing of the Kandyan Convention on the 10th of March 1815 between the British and the Chiefs of the Kandyan monarchy which ended the regime of Sri Vikrama Rajasinha of South Indian Nayakar ancestry by deporting the king to Vellore in India. The island thus fell under the sway of Britain. The Kandyan Convention epitomizes the millennial and complex history of the intertwined but troubled relations between Sri Lanka and India. Manuka Wijessinge seems to suggest that the founding myth of the modern nation just as the founding myth of ancient Lanka is one of betrayal.

6If Manuka Wijsinghe’s experiments with language11 cross-pollinating her text with Sinhala and Tamil verses and Singlish syntax remind us of Arundhati Roy’s tropicalized English, her engagement with subcontinental history and her irreverence set her up as the G. V. Desani or Salman Rushdie of Sri Lanka. Indeed Sinhala Only reads like the Sri Lankan counterpart to Shashi Tharoor’s postmodern parody The Great Indian Novel in so far as it recasts political leaders from both India and Sri Lanka as comic characters in a masquerade. If Rushdie quotes Nehru’s tryst with destiny speech in Midnight’s Children, Wijesinghe embeds S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s « I am a midwife caught between two worlds » in Sinhala Only (197). While clocks joined palms to greet Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children, a stopped clock at the hospital renders confused the recording of Manuka’s time of birth, i.e., the beginning of her personal history in Monsoons and Potholes (12-13). Her concocted time of birth is clearly an allegory of the new nation which finds it difficult to assume the weight of its ancient past marked by Ravana’s defeat, Sinhabahu’s and Kuveni’s respective betrayals. No wonder Manuka, the young first person narrator of Monsoons and Potholes, flippantly reinterprets the sacrifice of his own head by King Sirisangabo in the Jātaka Tales as a case of the head being too heavy for his neck (168), while in the original story the king sacrifices his head to prevent other people from being killed mistakenly as the king to get the reward from his enemy Gotabhaya who had usurped the throne.

The Sri Lankan Brand of Buddhism

7In all the three books, we get a properly dosed introduction to Buddhism. The author’s purpose is double, i.e., teach Buddhism to the uninitiated and impart the true spirit of Buddha’s teaching to the initiated in Sri Lanka. The story of Buddha’s birth by impregnation of his mother by an elephant, his royal life, his abandonment of wife and child, his enlightenment and his teachings, the triple gems (Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha), the three characteristics of existence (anicca, dukka and anatta)12, the four truths (dukka, samudayam, niroda, magga)13, the five objects of desire (sensory desire, ill will, torpor, worry, doubt), the seven factors of enlightenment (mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, relaxation, concentration, equanimity), the eightfold path (right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness, right concentration) and concepts such as karma, dharma, maya, ahimsa, nirvana, poya and sil14 are recalled as well as the belief that Gautama Buddha is to be followed by another Buddha, Buddha Maitreya, whose arrival is awaited. Indeed there are twenty five manifestations of the Buddha in the Theravada school. The several names of the Buddha such as Gautama, Siddhartha, Shakyamuni, Thathagata are also evoked. The idea that the author mainly wants to get across is that Buddhism is « a philosophy of emancipation, not a creed of idle veneration » (TM, 59).

8Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka hails from the Theravada school, the school of elder monks, in the hinayana vehicle. The name Theravada is mentioned in the Dipavamsa, a 4th century chronicle on Sri Lanka. Theravada claims to be the oldest school, deriving its legitimacy from missionaries sent from India who were none other than Mahinda and Sangamitta, the son and daughter of Emperor Ashoka. Devanampiya Tissa (3rd century BC) was the first Sinhalese king to be converted to Buddhism by Mahinda. Buddha is supposed to have visited Sri Lanka three times. His footprint is found in Adam’s Peak near Nuwara Eliya and a relic of his tooth in Anuradhapura. Monsoons and Potholes debunks the myth by casting doubt on the authenticity of the footprint and the existence of the tooth in the golden casket. However, it describes Buddha’s third visit to Kelaniya to settle the dispute between Chulodara and his father-in-law Mahodara over a gem-studded throne15, with sufficient awe that preserves the sacredness of the story. But Manuka’s grandmother Acchi, the custodian of Buddhist tradition, denies it in a moment of anger, when Podiyan, their Hindu Tamil driver and loyal servant of many years, is killed by a Buddhist mob. To recover from the shock, young Manuka reads a Sri Lankan folk tale16 about how the king’s thieves using a sophisticated reasoning cause the death of the fat Muslim Thambi Ayah for a crime they committed (358) to show that Podiyan was but the scapegoat of a greedy policeman who killed him to steal his gold chain. Acchi manages to find a Buddhist priest to perform the last rites of the Tamil man and makes a trip to Benares to disperse his ashes in the Ganges. This crosscultural ritual uplifts Podiyan (means a little boy » in Tamil, a generic name for a boy servant in Sri Lanka) from his scapegoat status to that of a man while preserving Acchi’s own humanity.

9In Theravada Man Aryawathie tells her would-be husband the story of Magandhiya, the Brahmin woman who hated Buddha (from the Dhammpada atthakatha)17 preparing the reader for the harsh comment she would later make as a married woman, when her husband renounces worldly life in order to become an arahat18: « The Buddha’s philosophy is the philosophy to which men return when they tire of ambition, struggle, wealth, progress and success » (301). If women dare to challenge Buddhism, it is because they are aware of the scant regard paid to women in Buddhism. Manuka Wijesinghe alludes to the story of Vihara Mahadevi19, the daughter of King Kelanitissa who had to sacrifice her for his mistake of punishing an innocent monk by burning him alive in a cauldron of oil. When women were admitted to the Sangha, Buddha advised his disciple Ananda to ignore them and generally be watchful (TM, 60).

10As a child who went to the missionary school, Manuka Wijesinghe is haunted by the angels of Christianity. She deftly uses the child’s point of view to toy with the ideas of heaven and hell in Christianity and the absence of ghosts and paradise in Buddhism which believes in rebirth or release. During colonization, Buddhism was rediscovered by Colonel Henry Steel Olcott of the Theosophical society who moulded a religion made for retreat into a fashionable trend. Inspired by Olcott, Don David Hewavitarne, an Anglican converted to Buddhism, took the name of Anagarika Dharmapala and propagated a parochial form of Sinhala Buddhism. Manuka Wijesinghe sees him as Gandhi’s anti-thesis because he was responsible for the slow conversion of the tolerant rural Buddhist into a militant urban Buddhist by reterritorializing Ceylon as Aryan Sinhala homeland (SO, 58). Anagarika Dharmapala involved Buddhism in a power balance between Catholicism, Dutch Reformed Protestantism, Anglicanism, Hinduism, and Islam. It is this new brand of Sinhala Buddhism and its transgressions (the sangha practicing caste, monks drinking alcohol, having affairs, making profit in business, burning properties and killing Tamils) that Manuka Wijesinghe exposes and denounces in her three novels. After Anagarika Dharmapala, another monk figure and ideologue who draws her ire is the Buddharakkitha, the chief priest of the Kelaniya Raja Vihara, who was supposed to have ghost written The Revolt in the Temple. Manuka Wijesinghe traces the blueprint for a Sinhala Buddhist state to this book published under the authorship of Don Charles Wijewardane in 1953. She uses the trope of fossilization (P&T, 313) to denote the loss of compassion in Sri Lanka. She also reveals how the practitioners of rational Buddhism accommodate irrational practices of omens, astrology, numerology and animal sacrifice thus bearing witness to Sri Lanka’s cultural diversity. Though Manuka Wijesinghe regrets what she calls « the begging bowl syndrome » in politics (SO, 198) which has resulted in the « malnutrition of body and soul » (M&P, 76), she prefers to emphasize the general Sri Lankan belief in the Buddha as mediator and his middle path that has « no place for excess only for impermanence. » (SO, 58).

11The imprint of Buddhism in Manuka Wijesinghe’s writing is to be found in her engagement with names and her aphoristic style. Name relation is a key concept in Buddhist cognition. This is parodied in Monsoons and Potholes in the form of getting to know each other by one’s name in a class room. Here, as in Rushdie, the personal is never far from the political. Just as the country’s name changed from Taprabane to Sri Lanka passing through Ratnadeepa, Lanka, Eelam, Ceylon and Serendib, in the narrative, Manuka’s coming of age from an ugly black offspring into a self-aware Manuka involves the search for the meaning of her name. Her classmate distorts it by distorting her name as Makuna (bug). Her brother confirms that it is the name of a giant Australian bug (61). She is horrified. Her father does not remember the meaning of the name but just the fact that liked the sound of it when he saw it written as Maanuka in a suburb in Canberra. He tells her that an aboriginal name (65). This association with the primitive further unsettles the fashion conscious Manuka. It is at the end of the novel when she has become an accomplished young woman that we get to know that it is the name of a plant found in New Zealand. The novel records the change of names of schools, airport and fish, as if the change in the signifier would change the substance of the signified and give it new respectability and increased value.

12In all the three novels, there are pithy phrases recalling mantra like formulas. For example, « democracy was legalized deception » (SO, 202). Another striking imprint of Buddhism in all the novels is the habit of praying and the form of conversations constructed in the form of darka (debate), whether it is between adults or children. This innate passion for debate induced by Buddhism prompts Manuka Wijesinghe to propose a shorthand-theory of political science which rewrites Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations as a South Asian dilemma.

India, the land of Buddha’s birth, had given birth to an Islamic Pakistan… Burma could not decide whether to be Buddhist or militant. Thailand could not decide between sex and Buddhism. Cambodia could not choose between communism and Buddhism (M&P, 252).

An alternative and counternational history of the Island

13Though Manuka Wijesinghe holds that history is the consequence of geography, she pays more attention to the history of Sri Lanka than its insular geography. Her novels span the Island’s history from the presence of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer called the Balangoda Man and the arrival of Aryan child of the lion Vijaya, his betrayal of the Raksha Princess Kuveni to favour an Aryan bride brought from India, through the epic battle between Ravana and Rama over the abducted Sita, the interrelation between Sinhalese and Tamil kings and especially the xenophobia of Dutugamunu (meaning the disobedient Gamani) who fought against the Chola king Elara, to colonization by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, independence in 1948 without bloodshed and the significance of the flag. However the evaluation made by her brother on the eve of independence in the form of an essay entitled « My country » (M&P, 67-70) for a contest (a smooth nationalistic narrative) and her own exercise as a school girl (an reverential and multidirectional narrative) entitled « The Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka » (M&P, 149-51) give a gendered perspective on the evolution of postcolonial Sri Lanka caught in the crosscurrents of the cold war and non-alignment on the one hand and the Commonwealth on the other.

14How to build a modern and secular state out of a country that was being haunted by the memories of its Kandyan kings and tempted by the capitalist economy of desire, while living by the ethics of austerity is the conundrum that Sri Lankan elite had to answer. After coming to power, the United National Party disenfranchised the Indian Tamil plantation workers, a symptom of the minority complex suffered by the majority because of the presence of Tamils in Tamil Nadu lead by C. N. Annadurai of the D. M. K. party who were asking for a separate Tamil land. While Jinnah succeeded in his two-nation theory, the Soulbury constitutional commission dismissed the Ceylon Tamil Congress leader C. G. Ponnambalam’s claims for a separate territory based on the discriminatory treatment meted out to the Tamil minority by the Sinhalese majority by saying that the Tamils had no need for « non audemus jura nostra defendere »20 (SO, 50). Partititon was thus avoided in Ceylon and Don Stephen Senanayake, leader of the United National Party and the first prime minister of Ceylon accepted constitutional independence on 4th February 1948 with an emphasis laid on pluralism (SO, 50).

15Manuka Wijesinge offers a unique insight articulated from the middle-class citizen’s point of view into the postcolonial « age heralded by British educated Asian elitists needing a platform to enact their dramas » (SO, 51). Sinhala Only’s protagonist Mala is first educated in a vernacular Buddhist school before being sent to an English medium school. She is thus able to compare both the systems and be critical during her history classes at the university. The focus on Mala’s education enables the author to show how access to education and employment would become the crucial challenges facing the postcolonial nation. Don Stephen’s son Dudley Senanayake who replaced him after his accidental death was appreciated for the wrong reasons by the women of his country. Because he was unmarried, they fantasized that he was available to offer them a better life. But he had to resign following a leftist rebellion to protest against the rise in the price of rice. Sir John Kotelawala of the caretaker government who succeeded him did not please anybody by declaring both Sinhala and Tamil as official languages. He had antagonized the militant monks who supported S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and had to consult astrologers to plan early elections. In the absence of rational thinking, the multiparty ensemble called Mahajan Eksath Peramuna played on the emotional chords of Sinhala nationalism to take over power.

16Wijetunge’s reserves her scathing criticism for three Sinhalese politicians, i.e. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, his wife Sirima Bandaranaike and his successor Junius Richard Jeyawardene. S. W. R. D. got trained in Oxford but posed as a Ceylonese Gandhi. However, in Wijesinghe’s view, his conversion from Anglicanism to Buddhism exemplifies his sense of political opportunism. Besides, it was he who made Sinhala the official language of Ceylon (1956) as the majority of the population considered English to be the kaduva (socially dividing sword), founded the Sinhala Maha Sabha and even invented an Arya Sinhala National costume (SO, 70). He started nationalizing private industries.

D. S. propagated freedom from the English… SWRD propagated freedom for the Sinhalese. Chelvanayagam propagated freedom for the Tamils. The British were gone and the Sinhalese were free. Chelvanayagam propagated freedom from the Sinhalese. … Chelvanayagam said English. SWRD said Sinhalese. Then Chelvanayagam said Tamil. D. S. was dead. Chelvanayagam said Tamil, English, Sinhalese together. SWRD said not together. Sinhala only. (M&P, 93).

17S. W. R. D. signed the Chevla pact in 1957 to give a degree of autonomy to the Tamils, but had to tear it up in the face of opposition. The anti-Tamil riots of 1958 resulted in the death and displacement of Tamils. Later on, when he was trying to pass some legislation to pacify the Tamils, S. W. R. D. was shot dead by a Buddhist monk, Talduwe Somarama Thero « to protect the country, the race and the religion » (SN, 325). In official history, this fact is twisted and the assassin is presented as « a foolish man in Buddhist robes », indeed even as Somaraman the Tamil » (SO, 324). But investigation by Scotland yard would reveal that the chief incumbent of the Kelaniya Maptigama Buddharakkhita and his illegitimate lover Vimala (JRWD’s health minister) were the masterminds behind this murder, the first of many other political murders to follow in the course of Sri Lankan history. Manuka Wijesinghe gives us the less publicized fact that while in prison Somarama converted to Anglicanism to save national honour (SN, 341).

18Meanwhile, Sirimavo Bandaranaike had become head of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. She went on to become the world’s first woman Prime Minister in 1960 and spearheaded a policy of nationalization, minimization, and condensation (M&P, 96). Wijetunge sketches a satirical21 portrait of her as a « non-aligned socialist big mama » (SO, 374). It was she who implemented the Sinhala only policy in 1961 and exacerbated the discrimination of the Tamils. Wijtunga identifies this as a political maneuver that « defied modernity » (SO, 454) and questions the sincerity of Srimavo’s devotion to the memory of her late husband because the truth is that just before he died, she was seeking a divorce. Sirima’s linguistic nationalism provoked the mass migration of Burghers to Australia. By declaring « not solidarity with India but neutrality with China » during the Sino-Indian conflict (SO, 375), Sirima further estranged relations with India. The productivity and morale of the people reached an all-time low. A large number of Indian Tamils were repatriated to India in 1964. In 1965, the United National Party ousted Sirima and tried to replace nationalism by liberalism. However, Dudley Senanayake’s return to power with a slight majority obliged him to compromise with the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna. Sirima was thus able to get re-elected. She declared Ceylon a socialist republic and changed its name to Sri Lanka (1972)22. The republic pledged to give Buddhism the foremost place, to protect and foster it. Though Buddhism was not declared a state religion, performatively it was being made into one, according to Manuka Wijesinghe.

19Manuka Wijesinghe devotes quite a few pages in Sinhala Only to the 1971 Marxist uprising. Its leader Rohana Wijeveera had earlier been to Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University to get trained as a doctor but had to come back without a degree due to health problems. This firebrand youth who had Maoist sympathies was at loggerheads with the Tamil Communist leader Shanmugadasan who was defending Tamil plantation labourers' rights. When Wijeweera was thrown out of the Ceylon Communist Party founded the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) movement in 1967 to take up arms against the government. JVP’s five lectures (Indian imperialism, economic crisis, failure of the island’s communist and socialist parties, and the need for a sudden, violent seizure of power) seduced the Sinhala educated unemployed rural youth. Ironically, these very same people who had enabled Sirima to accede to power were suppressed by Sirima. Wijesinghe sees JVP as a victim of the cold war and exonerates it from the fault of instrumentalizing Buddhism.

20The policy of « standardization »23 introduced in 1971 had the effect of embittering the Tamil youth who were denied admission in universities. The primary place given to Buddhism in the country’s constitution paved the way for the demand of a separate Tamil Eelam. The Tamil Boys formed LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in 1976. Anti-Tamil riots broke out again in 1976. It is in this entangled situation that Jayewardene oversaw the new constitution instituting a presidential regime in 1978. It was a mockery of democracy (SO, 475). She pokes fun at J. R. Jayewardene for his Dharmishta posture. He was a prophet of free trade and minority rights, but deprived Sirima of her fundamental rights (M&P, 252). As the fictional Manuka’s father gets involved in the Mahaweli development project accelerated by J. R. Jayewardene in 1977, author Manuka is able to comment on how the national resettlement of Sinhalese peasants in Tamil majority areas especially in the Northern province became explosive. To give the true picture of the country, she gives an insider’s view of the funeral of the thirteen Sinhalese soldiers killed by LTTE and the resulting riots in 1983.

21The emergency rule established in 1983 was lifted only in 200124 prompting Manuka Wijesinghe to sum up the postcolonial history of Sri Lanka as « a journey to nowhere » (M&P, 369). She qualifies the country as « the neither here nor there republic » (M&P, 140), ironically borrowing the Buddhist meditative formula of neti-neti. The tragedy of Sri Lanka would thus be one of impossible location. The translational space of the interethnic and interreligious temple of Kataragama/Kathirgamam has been lost. In all the three novels, Manuka Wijesinghe evokes the godly figure of Karthikeya, the six-headed son of Shiva who kills the demon Padmasura and takes the Lankan lass Valli for a wife (M&P, 349; TM, 310; S0, 74 &169). In Monsoons and Potholes, Podiyan’s innocent retrieval of Lord Karthikeya’s garlands to decorate his employers’ Christmas tree will lead to his death because a golden chain comes entangled with the flower garlands and he becomes the unwitting owner of this stolen property which attracts the eyes of the Sinhala police man. Similarly, the incident of Kataragama’s Tamil seamstress being tortured and killed is reported as a newspaper heading in Sinhala Only (482). The intercommunal narrative of Kataragama is thus shown to be interrupted and destroyed.

22In 1946, Minister C. W. W. Kannangara had introduced free education in all the government institutions (Schools, government universities) in Sri Lanka. Wijesinghe regrets Kannagara’s emphasis on « Svabhasha » considering it « as the dam that stopped the flow of Ceylon’s intellectual river » (SO, 383). She attributes the failure of nation building to a lack of proper education in postcolonial Sri Lanka. On the one hand, there are different types of schools – traditional piravena schools which inculcate blind obedience, mission schools, substandard svabasha schools for tertiary education, the commonwealth system of education where the titles were those of the Commonwealth but not the course content and international schools. In fact, those who went to the free schools paid heavily for afterschool tuition classes (M&P, 276). The dream of the students who went to international schools was to pursue higher studies abroad, preferably in America, but Manuka’s brother ends up in an African University instead (M&P, 322). On the other, the language policy did not promote interaction between neighbours. Tamil and Sinhalese children could only go to their respective schools. Only the Muslims had a temporary choice. The syllabus paid more attention to European history than local history. Intellectuals like Paravitana could easily propagate Arya Sinhala ideology because families practice Buddhism by reciting Pāli texts which they do not understand or because questions were not permitted in Buddhist classes. Sankritization was used to bolster the prestige of the Sinhala language and invent a noble past, where as the Sinhala script was closer to Tamil than Pāli. Indeed to deconstruct the territorial, ethnic, linguistic and religious connotation of the Sinhala language, Scholaris gives a different etymology in Theravada Man:

Our Sinhala does not come from a lion. It comes from Sivu Elu. Sivu is four and Elu was the language spoken by the tribes who lived on this island. … The Buddha was not even born when they lived here. They were the Yakkas, Nagas, Devas and Rakshas. … They spoke Elu. And because four different kinds of people spoke Elu this country was called the Sivu Elu. Then it changed to Sivu Elu. Then … Sivu Hela … Sihala and finally Sinhala (TM, 170).

23A monk called Buddhaghosha translated the Dharma from Elu into Pāli and then burnt it (SO, 510), thus creating a language gap between the clergy and followers of Buddha in Sri Lanka. Manuka Wijesinghe also includes an alternative tale on the origin of Sinhala that changes the classical parricidal narrative (Sinhabahu killing his lion father) into an uxoricidal one. The island of Ratnadeepa was filled with male eating yakhinis, and a merchant from Simhakalpa called Simhala managed to outwit one of them and render the island fit for human habitation (TM, 166-167)25. Rushdie has seen in the linguistic struggle is « a reflection of other struggles taking place in the real world, between the cultures within themselves and the influences at work upon our societies »26. Wijesinghe writes « If neither Sinhala, nor Tamil, nor English could save our people from insanity, we may have to learn Esperanto » (M&P, 348). Manuka Wijesinghe’s way of offsetting colonial as well as ethnic prejudice is to introduce a Tamil character who practices natural medicine and uses Latin botanical names and heals patients whatever be their faith in Sinhala Only.

24Manuka Wijesinghe gives a counternational version of Sri Lankan history in Sinhala Only to subvert archeologist Senarat Paravitana’s official and fabricated history that tries to produce adherence to the Sinhala Buddhist nation by ignoring the role of the Tamils. She depicts scenes of intercommunal harmony in Sinhala Only (518) as Ambalavaner Sivanandan does in his novel When Memory Dies written from a Tamil point of view.

Diversity is Strength

25A passion for pluralism gushes forth from the hybrid prose of Manuka Wijesinghe who acknowledges that the most famous Buddhist epics are in Tamil. She borrows their textual strategy of mixing prose and poetry by inserting Sinhala and Tamils songs and two plays that parody Ediriweera Saratchandra’s state supported and soporific Sinhala plays like Maname. In her view, Saratchandra’s modern and pure theatre without moral virtue amounted to the intellectualization of the Sinhala Only policy (SO, 261). Martin Wickramasinghe’s realistic novel27 Viragaya does not seem to be an antidote (SO, 249) to this new genre of drama in her eyes. She tries to fight the supremacy of Aryan race and white colour by trying to make a hero of Ravana, the villain of the piece in the Indian epic Ramayana. She even invents an imaginary epic Ravayana.

26As Hendrik in Sinhala Only dares to remark, « it is not God who created Man, but Man who created God » (SO, 18). Considering Buddha as a historical figure and not as a monotheistic God could save Sri Lankan Buddhism from petrification. Amita Kanekar’s 2005 novel A Spoke in the Wheel attempted to do that in India. When Richard Fernando, the hero of Sinhala Only who had replaced the Pāli formula « Buddham saranam gacchami » (I go to the Buddha for refuge) by « Diversity is strength »in his attempt to renew Buddhism rather than simply revive it in Sri Lanka dies, he asks the Aryavamsa Sutra28 to be recited. This sutra is traditionally recited only when Buddhism was in a bad state (SO, 506). Manuka Wijesinghe identifies the danger of internal ossification as the main threat to Buddhism and advances the argument that « Buddhism has to be refurbished. It has to be tailored to fit a living society. It should cease calling human existence Dukka and begin calling it Sukha » (SO, 206). She, therefore, advocates a new Buddhism, « a Buddhism without Sinhala » (SO, 301). Time and again, she recalls the lightness of being that characterizes the collective psyche of Sri Lankans. More than anything, what finds grace in her eyes and transcends the failure of institutions is music. As a character with the telling name of Buddhi in Monsoons and Potholes remarks

Everything has failed. Politics has failed, religion has failed, medicine has failed, science has failed, humans have failed. But there is one thing above all that, which has not failed. … Music (361).

27Manuka Wijesinghe is indeed a postsecular writer who places her faith in art rather than in religion. The Buddhist ethics of tolerance and compassion are ironically embodied in Sinhala Only in the character of the migrant Sindhi merchant Jivtani. In this novel, Mala’s father Hendrik de Silva is a bridge builder. He refutes the story of the monkeys building a bridge to help Rama cross the ocean and invade Sri Lanka to sustain instead that the bridge was constructed by Ravana to facilitate the arrival of the pilgrims from India to the five Isvaran temples in Sri Lanka (SO, 89). Whatever the version of history, the aim of Manuka Wijesinghe’s trilogy is to build bridges between peoples, languages, cultures and religions rather than bury heroes. The gift of Richard Fernando’s daughter to Mala and Lewis by his wife and their adoption of the infant girl at the end of the novel is an attempt at building bridges between human hearts.


Alonso-Breto Isabel, « Eating One’s Way Through History: Food and Politics in Manuka Wijesinghe’s Monsoons and Potholes », Coolabah, 2011, vol. 5, p. 3-14

Alonso-Breto Isabel, « The Shift from Commonwealth to Postcolonial Literature: Patrick White’s “The Twitching Colonel” and Manuka Wijesinghe’s Theravada Man », in vanden Driesen Cynthia, Ashcroft Bill (éd.), Patrick White Centenary: The Legacy of a Prodigal Son, Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014, p. 302-318.

Coomaraswamy Radhika, de los Reyes Charmaine, « Rule by emergency: Sri Lanka’s postcolonial constitutional experience », ICON, 2004, vol. 2, no 2, p. 272-295, Available online: <http://icon.oxfordjournals.org/content/2/2/272.full.pdf>, Accessed on: 15 September 2016.

Desani G. V., All about H. Hatter, Delhi, Arnold Heinemann, 1948.

Huntington Samuel, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York, Simon and Shuster, 1996.

Kanekar Amita, A Spoke in the Wheel, New Delhi, Harper Collins, 2005.

Mishra Pankaj, An End to Suffering, The Buddha and the World, New York, Picador, 2004.

Parker Henry, Village folktales of Ceylon, London, Luzac & Co., 1910; vol. 3, story 251, Available online: <http://www.wisdomlib.org/south-asia/book/village-folk-tales-of-ceylon-volume-3/d/doc51984.html>, Accessed on: September 15, 2016.

Ranasinha Ruwani, « Sri Lankan Fiction in English 1994-2014 », in Tickell Alex (éd.), South Asian Fiction in English, London, Palgrave MacMillan, 2016, p. 79-100.

Roy Arundathi, The God of Small Things, New Delhi, IndiaInk, 1997.

Roy Arundathi, Imaginary Homelands, London, Granta Books, 1991.

Rushdie Salman, Midnight’s Children, London, Picador, 1982.

Salgado Minoli, Writing Sri Lanka: Literature, Resistance and the Politics of Place, London, Routledge, 2007.

Selvadurai Shyam, Many Roads Through Paradise: An Anthology of Sri Lankan Literature, New Delhi, Penguin, 2014.

Singh Iqbal, Gautama Buddha, New Delhi, OUP, 1994.

Sivanandan Ambalavaner, When Memory Dies, London, Arcadia Books, 1997.

Tharoor Shashi, The Great Indian Novel, New Delhi, Penguin Books, 1990.

Weiss Gordon, The Cage: The fight for Sri Lanka & the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, London, Bodley Head, 2011.

Wijesinghe Manuka, Monsoons and Potholes, Colombo, Perera Hussein Publishing House, 2008.

Wijesinghe Manuka, Theravada Man, Colombo, Bay Owl Press, 2009.

Wijesinghe Manuka, Sinhala Only, Colombo, Vijithyapa Publication, 2014.


1 See Shyam Selvadurai, Many Roads Through Paradise: An Anthology of Sri Lankan Literature, New Delhi, Penguin, 2014.

2 See Gordon Weiss, The Cage: The fight for Sri Lanka & the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, London, Bodley Head, 2011.

3 Quoted in p. 310 of Isabel Alonso-Breto’s article, « The Shift from Commonwealth to Postcolonial Literature: Patrick White’s “The Twitching Colonel” and Manuka Wijesinghe’s Theravada Man », in vanden Driesen Cynthia, Ashcroft Bill (éd.), Patrick White Centenary: The Legacy of a Prodigal Son, Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014, p. 302-318.

4 Ruwani Ranasinha, « Sri Lankan Fiction in English 1994-2014 », in Tickell Alex (éd.), South Asian Fiction in English, London, Palgrave MacMillan, 2016, p. 79. Monsoons and Potholes as well as Theravada Man are more convincing than Sinhala Only from the point of view of storytelling. Some passages in Sinhala Only are quite didactic.

5 Kanekar herself was inspired by the biography of Buddha written by Iqbal Singh, Gautama Buddha, New Delhi, OUP, 1994. The first complete biography of Buddha was written by Ashvagosha called Buddha Charita in the 2nd century AD.

6 Manuka Wijesinghe, Monsoons and Potholes, Colombo, Perera Hussein Publishing House, 2008. Abbreviated into M&P in the following pages.

7 Manuka Wijesinghe, Theravada Man, Colombo, Bay Owl Press, 2009. Abbreviated into TM in the following pages.

8 Manuka Wijesinghe, Sinhala Only, Colombo, Vijithyapa Publication, 2014. Abbreviated into SO in the following pages.

9 According to Chapter IV of the 1978 Constitution of Sri Lanka, the Sinhala and Tamil languages are both official and national languages of the country. English is recognized as a link language. Portuguese creole, Dutch, Arabic and Malay creole are languages spoken by other minorities in Sri Lanka.

10 Manuka Wijesinghe draws inspiration from the Mahabhrata myth of Krishna as the disinterested charioteer of Arjuna.

11 On hybridized Sri Lankan English, consult Minoli Salgado, Writing Sri Lanka: Literature, Resistance and the Politics of Place, London, Routledge, 2007, p. 26.

12 Sanskrit loan words in Pāli for approximately impermanence, suffering and absence of the self. In Monsoons and Potholes, several interpretations of the concept of Nirvana is given by Manuka’s grandfather (246): peace, The Absolute, the death of craving, beginning of detachment, extinction, the unborn, un-originated, unformed that opens up the possibility of escape from the born, created and formed. The meaning of Dukka is discussed by a Buddhist priest (287). More than suffering, it becomes a hold-all for human experience (dissatisfaction, inconclusiveness, incoherence). Child Manuka quips: « Nirvana was vegetarian. I wanted pastries » (82). Cf. Isabel Alonso-Breto, « Eating One’s Way Through History: Food and Politics in Manuka Wijesinghe’s Monsoons and Potholes », Coolabah, 2011, vol. 5, p. 3-14. The young girl perceives nirvana as « something like a black whole into which one disappears never to return » (86).

13 Sanskrit loan words in Pāli for approximately suffering, the origination of suffering, cessation of suffering, the path to liberation.

14 Sanskrit loan words in Pāli for approximately action, moral order, illusion, non-violence, extinction of suffering (bliss), day of fasting, good conduct.

15 The Naga kings offered the throne to the Buddha who in turn retuned it to them. It was enshrined in the Nagadeepa Stupa and worshipped as a sacred site of Buddhism.

16 Parker Henry, Village folktales of Ceylon, London, Luzac & Co., 1910; vol. 3, story 251, Available online: <http://www.wisdomlib.org/south-asia/book/village-folk-tales-of-ceylon-volume-3/d/doc51984.html>, Consulted: September 15, 2016. Parker notes that in The Indian Antiquary, vol. 20, p. 78, a Soūth-Indian variant was given by Naṭēśa Sāstrī.

17 The commentary on the Dhammapada containing stories similar to those of the Jātakas (5th century AD).

18 A person who has renounced the worldly roots that bind to progress on the path of enlightenment.

19 Scholaris offers a different version of the story of Viharama Mahradevi saying that she was Isvaridevi, a Naga princess from Kalyani (M&P, 201).

20 Latin for « We dare defend our rights. »

21 « The singularity of Wijesinghe’s fiction lies in her extraordinary ability for satire » remarks Isabel Alonso-Breto, « Eating One’s Way… », art. cit., p. 4.

22 Chapters entitled « Shri versus Shri » and « Thiru » in Sinhala Only highlight the linguistic tension in automobile number plates (252-256).

23 Selection of students to enter the university was made proportional to the number of participants who sat to the examination in Tamil, Sinhala or English. The qualifying mark for the Sinhalese was lower whatever language, though the government had presented the policy as an affirmative action to uplift geographically disadvantaged students irrespective of their ethnic origin. But the ultimate motive was to reduce the high number of Tamils, who, thanks to their Mission School education and knowledge of English, were able to get into universities more easily.

24 Radhika Coomaraswamy, de los Reyes Charmaine, « Rule by emergency: Sri Lanka’s postcolonial constitutional experience », ICON, 2004, vol. 2, no 2, p. 272-295, Available online: <http://icon.oxfordjournals.org/content/2/2/272.full.pdf>, Consulted: 15 September 2016.

25 This folktale is the reversal of Charles Perrault’s wife killing Bluebeard story. Yakkinis remind us of Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey.

26 Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children, London, Picador, 1982, p. 17.

27 Cf. Anupama Mohan’s article « The Paradoxes of Realism: Martin Wickramasinghe and The Jātakas in Sinhala Literature » in this volume.

28 The Ārya Sanghāta Sūtra is a discourse given by the Buddha that promises to transform all those who read it. In this Mayayana Scripture Buddha tells the listeners that he himself had heard the Sanghāta from a previous Buddha.

Pour citer ce document

Geetha Ganapathy-Doré, « A Fictional Evaluation of Buddhism in Postcolonial Sri Lanka: Manuka Wijesinghe’s Trilogy » dans « Indian Birth and Western Rebirths of the Jātaka Tales », « Lectures du monde anglophone », n° 3, 2017 Licence Creative Commons
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Quelques mots à propos de :  Geetha Ganapathy-Doré

University of Paris 13
Geetha Ganapathy-Doré is a Research Accredited Associate Professor of English at the Faculty of Law, Political and Social Sciences, University of Paris 13, Sorbonne Paris Cité. She is the author of The Postcolonial Indian Novel in English (2011). She has coedited several books among which On the Move, The Journey of Refugees in New Literatures in English (2012) and Heritage and Ruptures in Indian Literature, Culture and Cinema (2017), published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Comme la pluie qui tombe sur la terre rouge is the title of her translation of some ancient Tamil poems published by Po&Psy (2016). Her recent research revolves around India-EU relations, Human Rights issues and Postcolonial Cinema. She is the current President of SARI (Society for Activities and Research on the Indian world).