Words: their sources, half-way houses and journeys | Daily News


Words: their sources, half-way houses and journeys

Five years ago, some Sri Lankan writers attending the SAARC Literary Festival in Bengalaru, India, discussed contemporary novelists writing in Sinhala. Saumya Sandaruwan Liyanage, a past winner of the State Literary Award for Poetry (Sinhala) asked, tongue-in-cheek, ‘Masimbula saha thava kawda (who else, apart from Masimbula)?’ Everyone laughed.

Mahinda Prasad Masiumbula was, in everyone’s mind, ‘established’ as the Sinhala voice in the longer narrative genre. This was thanks to his maiden novel ‘Senkottan.’ Since then he has published two novels, ‘Manikkaavata’ and ‘Apoyyaava,’ the latter described by the author as a novel for young people (‘yovun nava kathaava’).

Now whether other novelists are indeed a notch below Masimbula can be debated and disputed. Other novels and novelists have been honoured with numerous awards since his ‘Senkottan.’ This is not the place for that discussion. Neither is this a book review. This is about one passage in the book.

‘Apoyyaava,’ just like ‘Senkottan’ and ‘Manikkavata,’ is hard to translate. The word is derived from the exclamation, ‘apoi!’ which is an expression of concern or even disbelief bordering on alarm. It’s one of many Sinhala worlds whose English equivalent would be ‘oh dear,’ ‘goodness me,’ ‘good grief,’ or OMG. ‘Apoyyaava,’ then, would refer to the feeling proceeded by whatever it is that prompted ‘apoi’ .

Anyway, here’s the passage (in translation):

‘Well, boy, you don’t have to wrack your mind as if trying to knot the earth and sky for this. You’ll find the word. The words we need invariably surface from somewhere.’

That was a grandmother’s sharp advice to a young boy working on a crossword puzzle. Of course, the word he was looking for did arrive, as did others which enabled the pair to complete the puzzle.

Words. Who made them? Where do they live? How do they travel and when? How many of us have struggled to find the right word? How often do we find it at the right time? What is the formula to call forth the right word at the right time and have it arrive as well? And is what is true for ‘word,’ true for other things too which require calling forth and prompt arrival?

The kiriamma in the story obviously believes in some intrinsic ability for a right word among millions to stand up and walk over to whoever who needs it and at the right time too. Perhaps she believes in a large scheme where this holds true for other things too. Love, for example. Revolution too. A maturation of objective preconditions, a theorist of such things might call it. Maybe that’s a plausible explanation, but such theories take away the magic and denies wonderment to those awaiting the whatever.

Good things come to those who are patient. We’ve heard that. Maybe they do, but not all those who await good times get to experience them. If all wishes could come true, sooner or later, the world would be a happier place. Karma might explain why this is not the case. It might also explain why words (or other things for that matter) can and do arrive as promised by the boy’s grandmother.

You can’t hurry love. This too we’ve heard. Happens when it has to happen. This too. Auspicious times, then? The configuration of planets, constellation and location? God’s will? To each his or her believes, we could say, and leave it at that.

Words. They don’t come easy always. Sometimes, at least to some people, they do. Maybe it’s karmic force, merit acquired in lifetimes, this and those that came before. Masimbula, one senses, writes easily. It is as though he’s waited long enough, not just for a single word but a thesaurus. He can therefore call them forth at will or rather, he just needs to sit with pen in hand and paper before him or fingertips ready at a keyboard, as the case may be, and stories write themselves on their own.

That’s word and writing. Life, can also be read as a narrative made of words made of the things that people do and do not, say and don’t say, are ‘words.’

Since the novel is about a ‘prahelikaava,’ literally ‘riddle’ but in this case a crossword puzzle, let me end this with a hint — ‘down’ or ‘across’ in the riddle of life, your pick. ‘Apoyyaava’ satisfied the conditions of length and compatibility with other words/letters whose paths it crossed or intersected with respectively. It wasn’t the word that the puzzle-maker expected. It titled a lovely story, however. As worthy of celebration as ‘getting it right’ as per established norm.

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