A conversation with award-winning author Chandrarathna Bandara
The Swarna Pusthaka Award, which recognises the best novel in Sinhala literature for 2022, was awarded to Chandrarathna Bandara’s novel ‘Premanishansa’.
The novel was amongst four other shortlisted candidates: ‘Sandhyanandaya’ by Keerthi Welisarage, ‘Nakula Muni’ by Eric Elayaparachchi, ‘Hin Dos Male’ by Sepali Mayadunne, and ‘Mage Chicago Hadawatha’ by Shamel Jayakody.
One of the most prestigious literary awards in the country, the ‘Swarna Pusthaka’ is awarded annually by the Sri Lanka Book Publishers’ Association. This year saw its 16th chapter, with the ceremony being held on 10 September at the BMICH.
Author of the winning novel, prominent novelist Chandrarathna Bandara spoke with The Sunday Morning Brunch about what it means to be bestowed with such a coveted recognition and also shared some insight as a novelist, especially in the writing of ‘Premanishansa,’ which he claims to be one of his absolute best works.
Bandara noted that he had not quite expected this award, particularly due to the rather controversial nature of his novel’s subject matter. “It came as quite a surprise to me,” he said, adding: “Just prior to this award, I won the Vidyodaya Literary Award for the best novel of the year, which is presented by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. One would think I would have got a hint after that one, but even then I did not expect the ‘Swarna Pusthaka’ because it is a national award. While an academic institute like Sri Jayewardenepura can award freely regardless of the controversial nature of the content, I did not expect that ‘Swarna Pusthaka’ would be so bold as to award my novel.”
Bandara stated that while he did not typically wonder about ‘what comes next’ after publishing a novel and he certainly did not write with awards and accolades in mind, his novel being awarded such recognition would only allow the book to be more widely received, which was something he truly appreciated. “I cannot dispute the fact that this recognition adds value to my book; it will now be a book that is brought to the attention of readers of the island and that is a thing I appreciate.”
About the book itself, he noted: “I exercised absolute freedom when writing this novel – I did not think of any outside party, a publisher, nor even a target audience.”
He shared that the inspiration for the subject matter of this novel was borne of the emotions he had felt as a result of the renaming of ‘Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha’ and the realisation of the “indecency of the State”. He shared that he had felt a deep disappointment with the actions of the State in carrying out this change, and while he had been in the middle of doing research for a different project, he had felt that this was a story that needed to be told.
About the author
An old boy of Dharmaraja College, Kandy, Chandrarathna Bandara rose to prominence following his work ‘Meru,’ which won the National Literary Award in 1991.
Bandara shared that his first foray into the arts had been when he was in school: “Originally, we did this to enter into the film industry, but as we were approaching the conclusion of our education and leaving university, the potential for entry into the industry simply did not exist. Everything was in a state of collapse, so we turned to other means to express ourselves – poetry, short stories, and novels.”
He noted that he had developed a passion for investigating the social, cultural, and political dimensions of Sri Lanka, adding that he had been most impacted by the works of Dharmasena Pathiraja and Gunadasa Amarasekara, whose novel ‘Gandhabba Apadanaya’ had actually been the inspiration for ‘Meru’.
Bandara noted that he had maintained his passion for writing novels throughout his career which now spanned over 35 years, 19 of which he had spent in Canada, where he was the editor of the ‘Yathra’ newspaper. Of particular interest had been novels which explored Sri Lanka in the context of its social, cultural, and political natures, which had also led to his most recent work, ‘Premanishansa’.
“It is a political novel,” says Bandara, however adding that for himself and also for numerous readers who had embraced his story, the experience of the novel remained beautiful and one of positivity despite its political content. He shared that he had set out to discuss the “civility of love,” utilising romance as a narrative tool to express the political elements within the story.
“Prior to independence, several pillars were established by a number of individuals who facilitated our country’s emergence from its colonial status. Be it Sir James Peiris or Ananda Coomaraswamy, these individuals, who had a great understanding and a deep knowledge of what Sri Lanka needed as an independent state, set out to establish democracy, administrative systems, a system of education, and cultural growth as Sri Lanka emerged from the shackles of its colonialism,” he said. However, despite these individuals having attempted to let these values guide us, what prevailed instead was anarchy, racism, and nationalist agendas, Bandara noted.
“This decision by the State to disregard the significance of greats like Ananda Coomaraswamy was a crucial moment for me, and it evoked a sense of grave disappointment at the State’s lack of regard, or rather even possibly lack of awareness, of such things,” he said.
Bandara stated that this novel was a labour of a seven-year-long journey. As the book featured three nations – Sri Lanka, India, and Tibet – he noted that he had spoken extensively with individuals in those countries and that the book had been subject to multiple revisions, reviews, and edits by external parties to provide a fresh perspective each time. There were certain chapters that were entirely changed following edits, with some parts being completely omitted.
He stated that because his novel explored a wide range of subject matter, it needed to be subjected to expert review: “I submitted its contents to the respective experts and I followed their guidelines regarding the subject matter to ensure that I was portraying accurate information. Especially with regard to subjects like archaeology, I have no right to distort a specific science, so I sought those with expertise.”
Sri Lankan readership
Save for one singular piece of criticism, he had been overwhelmed by the positive responses to his novel, Bandara said. “It has been wonderful for me to witness my readership expand and grow, to see an entirely different and unexpected audience also embrace it,” he said.
He noted that the readership of the book could be considered in two parts; those who enjoyed the delicate romance – the story of eternal love – contained within the story and those who grasped the socioeconomic narrative he had attempted to showcase through the love story.
“I have given a piece of me to each and every part of this book, be it its cover, its publicity, everything, and so, these accolades I have received mean so much. The acceptance and love it has received amongst readers have been incredibly validating for me,” he said, adding: “All the recognition for this book is purely on its own merit. I live abroad, so there is no one here who is working to give me favours – it is purely due to the book and its impact,” he said.
Bandara also shared his thoughts on the ongoing narrative that Sri Lankans were drawing away from reading and that the youth was not so fond of consuming written content, stating that he did not subscribe to this belief.
“I have sold a considerable number of copies of my book. Moreover, look at the crowds that poured into the book exhibition. If you consider the state that our country is in, then it is understandable that people do not have a disposable income. They cannot afford to purchase books on a whim, but if they are still buying books and showing this level of interest, then perhaps we can see that the love of reading is still very much prevalent,” he said.
Bandara shared that as a published author, he believed that published works had a much longer lifespan in present society, in fact, much longer than we may think.
On a closing note, Bandara shared that while his next project was currently in the works, since he was not a writer known for speed, it would take some time for his next work to be published. However, he encouraged readers to explore his bibliography and also to always keep reading.