Midweek Review
W. A. Silva and Valmiki Ramayana

by Premil Ratnayake
Epic novelist W. A. Silva belonged to the last of the romantic fictionist in the era just after Piyadasa Sirisena and just before Martin Wickramasinghe. Wellawattearachchi-lage Abraham Silva was not a Sinhala writer who had the traditional rural background so common among most Sinhala authors, and also, as it were, a compulsory qualification to be a Sinhala writer. He was an urbanite always immaculately dressed in European clothes, full suit, who lived and wrote at his large mansion "Silver Mere" in High Street, Wellawatte which was later re-named " W. A. Silva Mawatha."

He was neither Anglicised nor an Anglophile despite a marked tilt towards the English Language as is evident in his novels of which he wrote a great many. In his more epical works that included heavily-written historical novels he appended a glossary that gave the English versions to some esoteric and difficult Sinhala words and terms. His personal appearance and traits would not have been considered typically western-oriented because he lived in colonial times and English ways of life were not too uncommon.

He wrote for 50 years beginning in 1907 and ended his marathon stint in 1957 with the abridged Sinhala version of the Sanskrit epic Ramayana originally written by the great poet Valmiki.

It took Silva 17 years to finish the translation because he was relentlessly dogged by illness some bouts taking him months to recover from and recuperate. Determined to complete his work which he probably knew would be his last on the eve of a distinguished service of half a century to Sinhala literature, he wrote undaunted spurning medical advice and pleadings of his brother, friends and relatives. The carefully hand-written manuscript ran to 1700 foolscap pages and he succumbed to his vicious abdominal disease three months after the last page had been written. He began the translation somewhere in 1941 after considerable research and copious reading. Silva was a perfectionist and read minutely everything he wrote, correcting, revising, changing and was never sloth about re-writing. He followed the same pattern in Ramayana too but he could not read the finished product. He did not live to see Valmiki Ramayana coming out of the press as a book in 1961. Simultaneously, with the translation he had begun a glossary to Ramayana to explain lucidly the many high-flown Sinhala words used in the work but after some 700 foolscap pages abandoned it to devote his full time to the main translation.

Made feeble by his chronic illness, enduring great pain without complaint, he perhaps had a premonition about his impending death. It is no easy literary task to engage simultaneously in the translation of a work of the magnitude of Valmiki Ramayana and a glossary of it but Silva was quite competent to undertake it had he not been impeded by a plaguing illness. Perhaps he lay aside the glossary not only because he was sick but death, as it were, threatening him, he feared that he would not be able to complete Ramayana if he tried to work on both at the same time. So he put the glossary away for the time being.

The story of Silva’s Ramayana goes back to 1939. On January 16, 1939 W. A. Silva was celebrating his 50th birthday. "Silver Mere" was hosting one of the grandest parties ever held in High Street. Friends, relatives and literary giants filled his spacious bungalow. Like the Great Gatsby, Silva loved grand parties and his 50th birthday was no exception. After a sumptuous lunch the guests departed leaving only three of the closest friends of the author to keep his company. They were the erudite scholar and grammarian Kumaratunga Munidasa, author and journalist Hemapala Munidasa and the Registrar of Marriages, Wellawatte Dr. J. C. Kannangara. The four friends, left alone to themselves, were immersed in a great discourse on world literature that included an in-depth discussion on ancient isms and the Hindu philosophy in Wedanta. Their subject matter in literature covered the great poets Valmiki, Ashwaghosha, Kalidasa, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Homer and our own Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula. As if propitiously, the great literary discourse centred mostly on Valmiki and his immortal epic Ramayana. There had been several Sanskrit works on Ramayana but Valmiki’s Ramayana is considered the best among them. Although full of hyperbole and filled with miraculous events as was the literary style of the time, Valmiki Ramayana offers historians and researchers of literature a depthless mine to ferret out the epochal happenings in that distant era. The average reader of today and literary critic could steal a glimpse of the Rama-Ravana saga if he prudently sheds the highly romantic and mystical exaggerations contained in it. Since the work belongs to pre-historical times it is not clear when Valmiki wrote his Ramayana. According to the chronical Rajavaliya, the reign of King Ravana dates back to the 19th century BC - that is as far back as 1844 years before the arrival of Prince Vijaya in the island of Lanka.

Towards the end of the esoteric literary discussion at "Silver Mere," on poet Valmiki, Kumaratunga Munidasa turned to the host-author Silva and made a fervent appeal: "Mr. Silva, I have a great favour to ask you. On behalf of my poor language, please Sir, translate Valmiki’s Ramayana into Sinhala. You are the most competent to do it." Silva was flattered and said he would be delighted to do such a service to the Sinhala language.

From that point, for seventeen years W. A. Silva worked (the Sinhala translation. But when the book was finally brought out, alas, W. A. Silva was dead. He could not even put the 1700 foolscap pages together, let alone read them, and on May 31, 1957, succumbed to the vicious disease that had scourged him for seventeen years). Kumaratunga Munidasa who had urged WAS to work on a Sinhala Ramayana was not alive when the book was finally published. He did not even know that W. A. Silva had started the book.

Silva began his writing quite methodically as he always did and with the gracious assistance of Ven. Pelane Sri Vajiragnana Maha Thero studied meticulously the earlier works on Ramayana. But the first year was confined only to the scribbling of notes. Nothing much of substance was written. His greater time was consumed by avid reading. By the end of the second year he was able to prepare a format and then he began the monumental work writing almost a chapter a day. That lasted only for two months - he was afflicted with a painful abdominal disease. Two months of medication did not yield any satisfactory result. His doctors then advised him to change his residence. The salubrious climes in the hills might help him to overcome the illness, his doctors said. Silva purchased a bungalow "The Nook" in Diyatalawa and in July, 1951 took permanent residence there. The doctors seemed to be right: his sickness was diminishing. Gradually he recovered and surrounded by the balmy atmosphere in the hill country, he resumed his writing and completed the first three parts. He told friends who gathered at "The Nook" for another party that he hoped to finish the work in one year. But the curse returned to him. He fell ill again and was confined to bed for three months at the end of which doctors said he may have to undergo surgery. He was admitted to a private nursing home. Silva was reduced to skin and bone. He was a pathetic sight - emaciated and beyond recognition. Doctors said only a miracle could save him. But miracles too do occur. W. A. Silva recovered. But doctors warned him to rest and not work. Silva dismissed all medical advice and continued with his work though he was a mere breathing skeleton. His relatives were acutely concerned and implored him to stop work and recuperate. His life was more valuable than a thousand Ramayanas, they argued. But Silva was not to be stopped. He appreciated their concern but told them in soft but determined terms it was better to sacrifice his life for the sake of his mother tongue than try to sustain it. The title for the book was handwritten by him with the words - "Valmiki Ramayana - an abridged Sinhalese version from the original Sanskrit by W. A. Silva." After 1700 foolscap pages he ended it with the words, "Even Brahama has accepted this." Those were the words of Valmiki who wrote that whoever wrote, or read Ramayana would be blessed throughout life and any home which kept a copy of Ramayana would prosper. Silva also mentioned in the book title - "a fifty year service to my language ends with this -1907-1957." It indeed was the end. W. A. Silva took to bed at the end of the last page and line and never got up. He died ten days after the completion of the manuscript of the Sinhala Ramayana - his last work. He was 68 years old, and died a bachelor.

During those fifty years of literary service. W. A. Silva produced great many novels, short stories and plays. His novels, "Radala Piliruwa" "Daiwa Yogaya" "Handapana" "Kela Handa" "Siriyalatha" and "Hingana Kolla" were turned into Sinhala movies. In "Kela Handa" film maker B. A. W. Jayamanne used W. A. Silva’s voice to describe the uncertainty of the lover-hero John Jayapala trying to cross the border that divided him and heroine Malini. It was a tragic mistake. Silva was sick and in the midst of his Sinhala Ramayana. His speech sounded artificial and lacked any poignancy. Perhaps Silva knew it but did not wish to dissatisfy Jayamanne.

When he fell ill in the first year he started Ramayana, Silva set aside the translation and was preoccupied by his own sense of acute sadness. He had very much wanted to go ahead with the work and now unexpected illness was thwarting him. Yet Silva was not a person given to languishing; he was no fatalist. The creative spirit of the writer did not forsake him. He resumed his translation of the Arab classic "Thousand and One Nights" into Sinhala. The work was completed and published. It has been hailed as a poetic version of the original. He also produced three novels during this "dormant" period - "Handapana" "July Hatha" and "Maya Yogaya." But most of his time was consumed by the heady work involved in the monthly magazine, "Nuwara." He wrote almost all the articles in "Nuwara" and edited the magazine then published by Leela Stores in Pettah.

Writing under a pseudonym, W. A. Silva mercilessly criticized Martin Wickramasinghe, his rival in the fiction industry then. The two were, indeed, different in their approaches to writing though both had the same basis of the modern novel developed in India and the West. Wickramasinghe seemed to have been influenced by Russian authors notably Anton Chekov and Silva by the classical English authors. Wickramasinghe gradually evolved a simple lucid style, euphonic and rhythmic extracted from the rural background and lingo of southern Sri Lanka. Silva used a more weighty flourishing language, as used by the Victorian English novelists.

Silva’s scathing attacks on Wickramasinghe entered on Sinhala literature treated as a whole. They were purely literary criticism — nothing personal. When they re-named High Street as "W. A. Silva Mawatha" it was Martin Wickramasinghe who presided at the public meeting held for the ceremonial event. Wickramasinghe recounted nostalgically the "good times" both authors enjoyed when they took time off writing.