Wednesday, October 14, 2009

That Deep Silence by Punyakante Wijenaike

My grandmother says that one of her favorite books of all time is Giraya by Punyakante Wijenaike. To be honest, I am not one for these old time stories, so I haven’t read it and somehow don’t feel like reading it yet. Perhaps one day.
Wijenaike is a prolific writer. This is her sixteenth publication in her writing life. She has won many prestigious awards, among them the State Literary award; she has been a Commonwealth Prize winner and a Gratiaen Prize winner. When ones hears this about an author, there is a certain expectation that needs to be met. And it was with this expectation that I took That Deep Silence to read.
To be frank Wijenaike is not my kind of author. Her themes can be seen as hack and overdone to the hilt. But when reading this book, I felt it was seeped in sadness, nostalgia and mourning and it is that which I will talk about. There is pathos in Wijenaike’s writing. It is a remembrance of times past – when all was good and well. However, instead of Wijenaike conveying that by retelling the stories of the good old days, she dwells on the horror stories of today. It is her focusing on the negative of modern life that forces you to realize that the past was glorious. Perhaps that is her technique. For instance, there is very little to be happy about in this book. All is doom and gloom. Is this what the conflict has done to at least one literary creator? Possibly.
Most of Wijenaike’s characters are middle or lower class members of society – some of them used to belong to the landed gentry but have now been reduced to virtual poverty. There is a lack of feeling between children and parents, there is a lack of communication and camaraderie between husbands and wives, there is plenty of conflict, abandonment, abuse, and murder.
Her war stories are trite – a soldiers widow, a child soldier. They have all been done before, in much the same manner. There is nothing different or exceptional in these stories. There are stories of sexual repression, that may have been apt in another era, and a story that deals with homosexuality in an uncomfortable manner. I am not sure of it being that relevant in today’s world with that impact. The story of cancer is stereotypical. Some of the stories like Living for the Day, seem to be inspired from newspaper reports and most of her stories remind me of those you find in the papers, in the creative writing section.
Wijenaike’s poetry is more from the heart, than being well crafted. They seem to be semi ramblings again on the themes of loss, sadness, displacement, conflict, death. The poetry comes out as being a genuine concern for what is happening to the country as well as the society. And yet, in her poetry, she is able to break out of her depression and write about a butterfly, an ominous rain cloud, which is a welcome respite from the heavy atmosphere she has created.
The whole book is like one big cry for help. It is in a sense as if Wijenaike, who is more at home writing fiction like Giraya, has through her desperation on the state of the country written this straight from her heart. How good it is, depends on how the reader takes it. If it is taken in the spirit that I think it is written in – an inability to stand by and watch as the world of the writer collapses, then that’s fine. However, if the reader expects writing of an excellent quality and is thus disappointed and unable to see the message of the writer, then more’s the pity.
Wijenaike’s nicest story is No grass for my feet. An account of growing up in the 1930s and onwards. Perhaps it is based on her life. If that is so, I hope her next book is her autobiography. It will be a book worth reading but I hope she can drop her ‘all is misery’ style and write the account as it is – sadness, happiness, hope and despair. After all a life is not just one emotion, it has its fair share of all. What we must remember is that after sadness, joy does come. I hope Wijenaike remembers that too.


  1. Didnt like Giraya much,but then i was only 13 when i read it. Later on i read a book of hers called 'the waiting earth' which was rather insightful and dwelt on more positive aspects as well as her usual gloom.

  2. I read "waiting earth" when i was in school and i loved it.. to this day i still recommend it to people. great post

  3. I rather liked Amulet by her, but am somewhat tired of her recurring despots-in-walauwas idea.

  4. Summer, I find that there are a lot of Sri Lankan writers who used to write about walauwas etc but that they are now trying to break out of that narrow field.

  5. I love this writer! Her only work i've ever read is "to follow the sun", a short story collection. If anyone knows how to purchase that book (online and delivered in the US), please let me know.


  6. Giraya has more depth than just another story of a deteriorating walawwa, and its one of Punyakante's best

  7. I agree with the many comments on Giraya, since it is a complex relationship that she depicts in the novel that cannot be easily contained within a stereotypical category.