Simon Nawagaththegama-සයිමන් නවගත්තේගම

  • September 15, 1940 –  October 9 2005

Simon, as he was fondly addressed by all of us, was my university contemporary in those halcyon days at Peradeniya. The news that he is no more made me sad, to say the least, and reminisce a past full of memories. We were at the same Hall of Residence, Marrs, the best Hall of all! The years were 1960-1962. He read Sociology and I Geography. Years later, in the 1980s he came to meet me in London not under the best of circumstances. The last time I met him was in the corridors of Colombo University, in 1990. I watched from far with great pride the unique contribution that he was making in the cultural scene of Sri Lanka, in literature, drama, philosophic writings, journalism and in the sector of social welfare for the poor.

Most of my contemporaries who lived in those hallowed precincts from 1960-1964 had a guarded respect for Simon Nawagaththegama as a writer, an avid reader, a thinker and a philosopher. Guarded because he kept a distance from some whom he thought were not worth the while to be close to; he had friendships with a few lecturers like Dr. David Craig, a Scotsman who taught English; so we looked with awe at this extra-ordinary personality, when he suddenly left Marrs Hall, and never returned. Prof. Sarachchandra, and other teachers whom he was close to, were instrumental in getting him into the then Vidyodaya University to read History. During the interim period he had been researching in his own way in the wilds of the Vanni.

Although I do not intend delving into the details of these episodes, it makes me wonder whether the citadels of higher education during that era did provide the ambience to produce the appropriate future leaders to lead our country, and enhance the varied in born hidden talents of the generations of students; this I say with great caution and of course, veneration to my Alma-Mater, the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya. I will attempt to develop this thought that troubled me to a theme with the little I know of the life and works of Simon, the literary giant, who would have lived many more years to serve us.

Simon, as much as the others of that generation lived in an “age of transition” to borrow a phrase from the late S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, who gave his life in the process. The university students of the period were the sons and daughters of the “Free Education” introduced to the island by that great educationist the late C. W. W. Kannangara, under severe opposition. Although the Kannangara-education system was based on imparting English education, with the introduction of Swabhsha English was gradually loosing its predominance. Simon belonged to the last vestiges of this English educated lot, but the contradiction was that he came from the Kumara-Vanni Hathpaththuwa, bordering Wilpattu, to whom English education came not as a hereditary privilege like for others from English speaking families, but as a gift from Kannangara.

Simon, very succinctly, dealt with this theme in an article which he wrote to Lanka Guardian, some years ago, which I read with deep interest. It was reproduced in The Island of the October 15 in the Sat.Mag under the title “The man from the village in the jungle”. Let me quote a paragraph from this article:

“Whenever I see or hear the late Kannangara’s name mentioned, I cannot help thinking of myself and my extraordinary experience of obtaining a Fifth Standard Scholarship which he inaugurated. I am told by Vidyalankara Pirivena sources that he faced opposition from the Senanayakas, Jayatilakas, and personally from Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike against this move. May be they were correct in their opposition. Being a son of a Chena cultivator and tenant farmer, I would have been a more healthy man, working in my native soil, spending time with the wild-life as a great hunter and a folk poet famous in the villages. Kannangara’s idealistic political move has made a joke out of me now, parasite thriving on trans-continental cross cultures and Colombo based urban commercialism, hypocrisy and half-baked intellectualism.”

Simon was very cynical of the whole generation of free-education products, but he did not in any way mean to belittle the laudable initiative of Kannangara. The university undergraduate of that era lived between two worlds, one the waning English-elitism and the social milieu which nurtured it, and the emerging Swabhasha-culture in which most other students got seeped in. Among the students there were more from the far off villages educated in central schools and provincial schools, children whose parents were from the lower-middle class or the peasantry. The others belonged to families of affluent parents who had enjoyed all the benefits under the colonial regime, whose language at home was English. The former were derogatorily called the haramanises and the latter the kulturs. The latter could use the English “kaduwa” superbly, while the former used it reasonably well. Simon entered university from Anuradhapura Central which has produced eminent personalities in their own fields for decades, Simon himself being one such. They had enriched the academic, administrative, cultural, and economic life of this land either equally or even better, than those who came from those so-called big schools. Simon when he entered university had already published his first collection of short stories,Ohuge Kathawa, which we enjoyed reading; we knew that he will go a long way in his literary pursuits and we as fellow students were proud of him, especially those of us who were in the nationalist movement in university politics, started by eminent teachers like Prof. W. S. Karunaratne. Simon, however, did not belong to this group.

There was something lacking in the environs, which Simon, perhaps, greatly yearned for in those salubrious climes in the hills; and that was greater interaction among students, and the intellectual exchanges between students, teachers and vice-versa and more avenues to develop his potential. There were interactions in the academic firmament like evening discussions and literary groups, societies etc, but those were relatively dominated by those from the big schools who could articulate better, and those who hailed from the same area as their senior peers, wearing the same school tie. In most spheres this was a dominant feature. Those who could weather all these storms did well but not exceedingly well; those intellectually brilliant ones with a sensitive mind rebelled against this prevalent elitism, while some imitated elitists and were able to do well; others in the minority lost their way.

I look back and feel proud for a few of those contemporaries who fought for a cause and, may be, stood by their principles but did not prosper materially. Simon perhaps was one among those who shone in the literary world, in spite of all the contradictions in the social milieu during a dichotomous education era, although it greatly affected him. He may not have been successful materially because of his own strong convictions.

Simon chose Sociology which was a well-sought after preserve to which a handful was selected and mostly from the elitist schools. It was during his second year in Sociology that he left Peradeniya. Was it a conflict between his brilliant philosophical mind and the environs in which he pursued his education that led to it, I do not know for sure.

Emerging in Vidyodaya University he excelled in his studies and it is there, I believe, that he blossomed as a playwright, and of course, as an liter-artist.

Simon’s contribution to culture

The “Subha Saha Yasa” which I enjoyed (after a long time) a few months ago, without, of course, Simon on the cast, is a fabulous piece of satire on all systems of governance, be it monarchy, republic, dictatorship, or any other. It could be ranked as his best creation of a play. Among his other plays/dramas were Pandukabhaya, Gangawak Sapaththu Kabalak Ha Minihek, and Sthree. It is said that he had a nihilistic approach to life judging from these works. I would rather entrust this task to drama critics, but I believe Simon was greatly disturbed by the wrong value systems, according to him, imposed on society by materialists as against spiritualists.

I have read most of his works and to properly grasp the underlying strains of thought and in depth meanings they have to be read and re-read. Suddilage Kathawa, Sagara Jalaya Mandi Henduwa, Sangsaranyye Asabada, Sansaranyye Dadayakkaraya, Sansaranyye Urumakkaraya andDadayakkarayage Kathawa, perhaps portray the transient nature of life and the hypocrisy of the respect that society attaches to certain so-called purists through his characters like theDadayakkaraya. His intense love for the mother is symbolized in Sagara Jalaya, and on a personal note, if I recall correctly, he had a small photograph of his parents adorning the wall of his room at Marrs Hall during the time he was there. The incessant struggle of the poverty stricken peasant in the Vanni, exploited by the trickery of the urbanite is probably the theme of Suddilage Kathawa. His works are deeply philosophical, seeped in Indian philosophy which he read and studied; he also read Russian Literature widely, which would have influenced his writings.

Some of his stories were made into films and among them were Suddilage KathawaSagara Jalaya, and Siri Medura. They have all been rated as art-films, and I think Suddilage Kathawa was the best.

Social Impact

As mine is not a critique on his works, but a focus on the influence society had on him I could safely say that the turbulent history of our country between1965-1975 affected Simon as much as others. The year 1964 saw the last batch of arts graduates passing out of the university to be given at least a teaching post. Since then there was graduate unemployment and educated unemployment, (that has taken huge proportions now) which was partly a reason for the 1971 uprising. It was a period of “Apata Puthe Magak Nethe”, when youth had to jump out of the Window “Janelaya”, to borrow, with respect, from maestro Henry Jayasena. Simon who got entangled in this web produced masterpieces in the literary field and wrote widely to the Aththa newspaper analyzing the malaise in society.

Simon did not want to join the elitist professions like the administrative service or the overseas service, quite rightly, as he would have been a prisoner in the competitive “Yes Minister” system, and the competition to rise above others in these Bamunu Kulayas.

However with the 1977 liberalization of economy even the field of art became commercialized. Simon in this era, I feel, was used by those who controlled the distribution mechanics of art creations, be it writings, plays or films. That is why he says that he became “a parasite thriving on trans-continental cross-cultures, and Colombo-based urban commercialism” in his essay quoted above.

With globalization of cultures even literary giants like Simon had to depend on selling their creations cheaply to buyers. Maybe the frustration pushed him into a cocoon and he wrote more philosophically as in ‘Sansaranyaya’ in the 1990s. On the other hand, Simon’s conflict with the hypocrisy in the social milieu he worked in, indirectly enriched a literature, hungry for world class products, bereft of half-baked intellectualism. These will be works which will continue to attract the attention of the Sri Lankan literary world, and there should be some attempts to translate them to other languages.

Sri Lankan liter-artists who fall prey to the social abstractions should be assisted. How this can be achieved is a subject for thought by the more mature writers, dramatists, and film artists.

Eternal and ultimate truth

The reality is that social contradictions, class struggles, push and pull forces in society will not end, and like Tennyson’s ‘Brook’, will go on forever. They will be eternal phenomena in this world, and when the liter-artist is confronted with them he will either succumb or emerge with a masterpiece of art; as what comes into conflict with reality is the whole inner self or the personality of the creator. His/her individualism and intellectualism should not be sacrificed as that will be a loss for eternity.

Simon’s struggle was to preserve his inner self and emerge unscathed. Whether he was triumphant is for art-lovers, present and future to judge. He left a legacy with his silent struggle, but there is a lot to probe

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