Understanding the philosophy of Gunadasa Amarasekara from Gamanaka Mula to Gamanaka Aga

“Gamanaka Aga” is the culmination of the long series of novels that Amarasekera authored as a saga of narrating the social history of Sri Lanka.

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File photo of Gunadasa Amarasekara [Photo Credit: brunch.lk]

The saga of the series of novels from “ Gamanaka Mula” to “Gamanaka Aga” authored by veteran Sinhalese author Gunadasa Amarasekara  unfolds the socio-political history of Sri Lanka and it certainly takes the reader’s mind to the most crucial junctures of the country such as the nationalist resurgence of 1956, the 1971 JVP insurrection and the military defeat of LTTE in 2009. Amarasekara’s attempt to unfold the post-colonial ups and downs of the social history of the island is akin to Martin Wickremasinghe’s literary trilogy ( Gamperaliya, Kaliyugaya, Yuganthaya, which traces many of the socio-political upheavals in the colonial Ceylon. However, the speciality of Amarasekara’s chain of fictions is rooted in its vivid emphasis on the development of the middle class in post-independent Sri Lanka, in which the protagonist “Piyadasa’s” character embodies all the anomalies, expectations and prejudices of the middle class of Sri Lanka. As Prof Vimal Dissanayake correctly pointed out “The progress and decline of the indigenous middle class, which constitutes a dominant theme of the chain of novels, is charged with deep sensitivity to the flow of history and density of social formations”. 

Emboldened by the socio-political and cultural trajectories that were witnessed as a writer and an activist, Gunadasa Amarasekara carves the character development of Piyadasa to represent the values he reveres. The third episode of this seminal series of fiction, “ Inimaga Dige Ihalata” portrays the socio-cultural changes that erupted after SWRD Bandaranaike came into power in 1956 and how those sanguine expectations of the ardent supporters of the 56 change began to decay as a result of the influx of  dirty party politics. At the same time, Amarasekara uses Ediriweera Sarachchandra as a character in his fictions to represent the influence of Peradeniya University in the emergence of local intelligentsia in Sri Lanka, which became one of the moot points in Amarasekara’s own criticism of the Peradeniya tradition as a school constituted of the western imitators.  Piyadasa’s love-hate relationship with Prof Sarachchandra in the novel series denotes the trajectories that led Piyadasa’s admiration of Sarathchandra into an antagonism based on ideological differences. In the third and fourth episodes of the novels, Piyadasa realizes the ethos espoused by Sarachchandra and Peradeniya were nothing more than illusionary values imposed by the West, which is purely alien to the local culture. This ideological discontent between the student and the mentor reaches its apogee in the sixth novel “ Duru Rataka, Duka Kiriyaka” as it shows how Piyadasa openly scorns Sarachchandra in a radio debate and later he regrets his own despicable manner. Amarasekara aptly captures this moment from a psychological point of view, which affirms the human tendency to deny their past by critiquing those who aspired him to mould it.  In that context, Piyadasa’s rift with his mown mentor symbolizes his intellectual shift into a different calibre and it denotes the system of ethos that Amarasekara adores in most the literary works.

The word “Jathika Chintanaya” is a double-edged sword in the political lexicon of Sri Lanka as it has been frequently misused by every Tom, Dick and Harry for achieving common political goals. But, the Chinatanya that resonated in the works of Amarasekara, which later provided an ideological impetus to the nationalist discourse differs from the populist label and its roots seemed to have derived from the Theravada Buddhist culture.

The ideological chasm between the native identity and the West can be seen in the way how Piyadasa’s encounters with many of the challenges as a doctoral student in the UK, where the protagonist realizes that the way of life, thought and attitude that pervaded the socio-cultural space in the East is a misfit in Europe as the latter essentially focuses on the personal liberty of the man, which epitomizes of one the supreme values that the Western civilization yearns to preserve. In this revelation, Amarasekara astutely shows the incompatibility of the Easterner in becoming a part of the Western civilization, in which he loses his identity as a hybrid. Through the character development of Piyadasa, Amarasekara vehemently critiques the efforts of local scholars to globalize the Sri Lankan identical values from the parameters of the West as an irrational endeavour, which ultimately resulted in distorting the authenticity of the Sri Lankan knowledge system. For instance, the protagonist Piyadasa, as a scholar in philosophy questions the way Sri Lanka’s renowned Buddhist scholar K.N Jayatillake depicted Buddhism as an empirical science based on logical positivism that he learned from Wittgenstein at Cambridge.  

Gamanaka Aga” is the culmination of the long series of novels that Amarasekera authored as a saga of narrating the social history of Sri Lanka. The final work was published in 2010 after the military defeat of LTTE and it creates a sense of melancholia as the protagonist Piyadasa returns to Sri Lanka. In his 80-year life journey, Piyadasa is overwhelmed by an array of discontent as he feels that the society that he longed to create has not become a reality within his life span. Perhaps, in other words, this personifies Amarasekara’s own compunction in the lost cause of “ Jathika Chintanaya” as it later became a contaminated term for populist politicians. In particular, the personal grief of Piyadasa after losing his wife and seeing many other personal tragedies shapes his character into a different form in the last novel. He wonders whether all his ambitions have come to nothing. He seems to however, derive a sense of solace from the fact the nation has survived for thousands of years, facing numerous challenges and that his life span is hardly adequate to base a judgement.  

The melancholia of Piyadasa at the end of his turbulent journey is not entirely a tragic one, because he was content by his efforts in building the nation, albeit it could not accomplish all his expectations. The ideology that Gunadasa Amarasekara devoted his life and pen to create may have not been a reality. It may have been a trumpet for political chicanery in manipulating the gullible voters in the island. Yet, the depth of his vision he carved from his novels continue to linger for many generations. It is in this light that, one needs to appreciate his philosophy from Gamanaka Mula to Gamanaka Aga.    

Punsara Amarasinghe

Dr. Punsara Amarasinghe is a lecturer at the Faculty of Law, General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University. His co-edited book “Thirty Years Looking Back: The Rule of Law, Human Rights and State Building in the Post-Soviet Space was published in 2022 .

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