An illustration from Martin Wickramasinghe's first novel Leela

Ajith Perakum Jayasinghe

Martin Wickramasinghe is one of the best, most read and highly acclaimed Sinhala writers of Sri Lanka. May 29th was his birthday.

Translations by Creative Content Consultants

Martin Wickramasinghe was born in 1890 and died in 1976. Professionally, he was a writer and a journalist. He was the famous editor-in-chief of Silumina newspaper published by Lake House owned by veteran D.R. Wijewardane. The price of the newspaper some time in the mid 20th century was ten cents and the social tagline for Silumina tell the story. People called it the University of Ten Cents.

The aim of this article is not writing his biography or analysing his work. He was a master in his trade and also an ordinary citizen with interesting character traits. Martin was a man who had migrated to Colombo from Malalagama, Koggala in Matara district. He lived in Mount Lavinia and Nawala in Colombo city outskirts. He was educated only up to Grade 7 in Bonavista College, Galle.

Wickramasinghe had five offspring and at least two of them were popular. They are Ranga Himanshu Wickramasinghe, a medical doctor and Rupa Saparamadu. Names of the others were Sarath Kusuma, Wasantha Kumara, Usha and Yunie. Wickramasinghe gave interesting names to his fictional characters. Those names were ahead of the trends of the time. He has done the same with his own kids too.

In an interview with Silumina newspaper, Ranga Wickramasinghe said that his father who lived in the village for 30 years was nostalgic about the village. As soon as the school holidays started, he took the family to the village. Ranga told that the characters in Martin Wickramasinghe’s novels were authentic people in the village whom they had met.

It is widely known that the minor character Thissa in many of Wickramasinghe’s novels is either himself or his ideal about his character. Wickramasinghe had eight siblings and famous Nanda and Anula in his novel Gamperaliya could be developed based on the characters of two of them.

Veteran journalist A.D. Ranjith Kumara associated Martin Wickramasinghe closely. Ranjith Kumara was the cover designer of some of Wickramasinghe’s books. In the early 1970s, Ranjith Kumara’s salary in Silumina editorial was Rs. 300 per month. For a book cover, he received Rs. 30 from other publishers. But Martin Wickramasinghe paid him Rs. 300 per book cover design. Later he increased the payment to Rs. 1,000.

Wickramasinghe loved the sea and beach. On holidays, he visited the beach near Mount Lavinia Hotel and played with his kids. Ranjith Kumara wrote in an article written to theLankadeepa newspaper about how Rupa Saparamadu described such moments before she passed away. “Thaththa lies on the sand and asks us to cover his entire body with sand. On holidays, at home, he wears his bathing shorts and lies his face down on the floor of the house. He then asks us to squeeze and beat his body. He enjoyed it as a massage and we were thrilled to do it. The girls combed his hair and decorated it with ribbon. Then his hair was like a flower of sugar cane with colourful butterflies. He paid us five or ten cents for the massage. Some days, we bargained for it.”

Martin Wickramasinghe was a funny forgetful person. Later editor-in-chief of Silumina newspaper Meemana Pramathilaka who worked under Wickramasinghe once wrote to a newspaper how the latter forgot his spectacles. He was browsing everywhere for something lamenting he could not write without it. Meemana asked what he was looking for and he told it was his pair of glasses. By then, he understood that he had been wearing it on his forehead.

In 1953, Queen Elizabeth who visited Sri Lanka offered him O.B.E (Officer of the Oder of British Empire). He is the only Sinhala writer to be awarded that but his kids opposed him accepting it. He accepted it but did not use it admitting the protest from his family.

I know that you have heard more interesting stories about this great writer. Why don’t you jot down some of them here as comments?

Cover photo: An illustration from the original print of Martin Wickramasinghe’s first novel Leela (Taken from Silumina newspaper)

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