Sunday Observer, 3 September 1995
By Anders Sjobohm
On the west coast of Sri Lanka, just north of the capital Colombo, there is a small village where the majority of the inhabitants are poor people belonging to the fisher and the washer castes. The name of the village, Paliyawatte, indicates that it is Christian, for in Sinhala Palliya means "church" and Watta "property". It became Christian, Catholic after the Portuguese conquest of the coastal provinces of Sri Lanka in the early 16th century.
Even today the west coast as a whole makes up a Catholic core area in the otherwise Buddhist Sri Lanka, Catholicism having struck deeper roots than might be explained by the violence of the conquerors. It even stood the test when Catholics themselves were persecuted, after the Portuguese (after one hundred years of rule) were chased out by the Reform Dutch. When their time had come to its end, and when after another 150 years, the more tolerant English took over, the Catholic Church again emerged as the strongest of the Sri Lankan Christian churches - while the Reformed Church collapsed like a house of cards.
But back to Palliyawatte. In this village, 50 years ago, the writer Basil Fernando was born. In those days the village certainly lived up to its name: the village church was a natural centre, the priest the foremost authority, bishops more well known than politicians. People went to church regularly, on Good Friday the women were dressed in black. Especially in the drama of the Passion Week, the villagers lived through something of their own exposed position and agony, their poverty and the threat of illness and death.
The church statues of Christ on the cross were especially easy for the fishermen and washers to identify with: a suffering and lonesome human being, clothed in a simple loincloth like themselves. But also a Christ who according to Fernando, radiated helplessness and - submissiveness. Submissiveness was exactly what the church, a child of foreign conquerors, preached. Neither did it ever seriously try to resist the caste system; it even stirred up bad blood when a new priest, a Frenchman, allowed low caste boys to participate in the altar-service.
The priest never let the villagers get to know him intimately, and he considered himself their benefactor - not their liberator. "He helped the poor, /But disliked/A tailor's son becoming a doctor", to quote "Evelyn - My First Friend and Other Poems" (1985; p28). When Basil Fernando was a child, however, poverty in Palliyawatte was not as deep as it is today. Perhaps this contributed to making it easier for the church to play the role of the benefactor. People could dress better and had more to eat than both before and later; there was even meat to eat all days of the week - except Fridays when Catholics traditionally don't eat meat.
Poverty, humiliation and the agony of self-contempt, however, were always present, the screams of those who were beaten up in the police station….. they also have remained present in the writings of Basil Fernando. Even his first published short story, from 1968 and in Sinhala, deals with the sense of relief of a low caste boy - the monsoon rain forces him to stay at home: he does not have to go outside into world where his value is always questioned. And in another short story, from the collection of 1990, the writer lets a disillusioned revolutionary, a former priest, observe: "Poverty is no abstraction. It is something which eats into you, into your nerves, eyes, ears, anything that may be called the soul and body." (Six Short Stories of Sri Lanka, p150).
Moreover, times grew worse. With the fifties came rising prices and massive protests, a Buddhist renaissance with nationalist overtones, ever more severe antagonism between Sinhalese and the Tamil minority. The Catholic Church, too was gradually reached by new signals. The second Vatican Council (1962-65) emphasized the responsibility of all Christians "towards the poor and all the suffering" towards the poor and all the suffering", the Catholic Church opened to non-Catholics as well as non-Christians. It demanded an end to impoverishment and oppression. The Archbishop of Colombo could, for the very first time, put on a red Cardinal's hat, but a theology with a stress on the liberation of the poor and the oppressed was not welcomed by the leaders of the Church. That is, at least, how Basil Fernando understood it. "Bishops of Asia, we appeal to you….. Dispossess yourselves of your wealth and possessions, was the demand formulated in the late sixties at a bishops' meeting in the Philippines - among others by Basil Fernando - but it was not received with sympathy.
Basil Fernando lived his life figuratively speaking - close to the church, in that he went to schools controlled by it. Eventually, he felt he had lost his Christian faith, "I saw too much blood and hypocrisy" (death and Rebirth, 1993, p10). But it has come back, strengthened - although not accompanied by any confidence in the established church. There are several poems from the collections of the eighties alluding to the suffering and death of Christ, and they all deal with Christ who belongs to the poor and tormented.
In one of them, the poet dreams of a mob - whatever he tries to object - persisting in roaring "We have no king but Caesar", voting t condemn Jesus to death (Sharing Betel, 1987, p35). In another poem, a soldier hears his prisoner whisper "I thirst" and has a feeling of the crucified behind him; he, however, silences the prisoner as well as his own inner voice by shooting - and by crossing himself afterwards (ibid, p32). A third deals with Pontius Pilate, the shrewd lawyer who throws his own responsibility on the masses(ibid, p33).
In a fourth we meet Peter, the disciple, warming himself by the fire in the courtyard of the high priest. Three times he denies all knowledge of Jesus, but in Basil Fernando's poem this does not happen "out of shame" but "out of necessity"(Evelyn My First Friend, p17).
Facing manipulated opinion, a poor man must protect himself with lies and accept being slandered by later Popes and theologians. Above all, he must bide his time, "with patience of a fisherman taught by the sea"(ibid).
The Christian element is strongest in the latest collection, Death and Rebirth (1993). It opens with a sequence of poems, in the form of prayer to God. These are poems dealing with evil and violence, with bureaucrats and refugees and poverty, but also expressing a certainty that God is greater than his churches and that God has patience, love and - a sense of humour.
Basil Fernando was born in a time when the older generation was still in possession of the heritage of traditional poetry, a common phenomenon in the homes of poor Sinhalese people. Modern poetry, too, flourished: "the Colombo poets" with their rhymed patriotic poems were read (and sung) by many, free verse was gaining ground, all newspapers carried a poetry collumn. Basil Fernando was not the only child who dreamed of becoming a poet; so did most of his schoolmates.
Basil Fernando, a boy from the washer caste, also had the opportunity to continue his studies. It was his mother's wish - she herself had wanted to become a teacher but was (according to custom) forced to marry the husband of her deceased sister, to a life of poverty. She defied prejudices, worked her will and inspired other villagers to do the same. In a long poem from the collection "Sharing Betel", Basil Fernando pays homage to his mother for all she meant to him: "And I who carried/The cloth bundles with you/The cloth bundles with you/Am carrying your spirit within me/your pride/And the determination/never to bow down" (p16-17). In fact, English schools offered low caste children new opportunities.
Here Basil Fernando was to conquer a new language, a language that was to help him break with poetic forms and their power over thought and to express experience that traditional Sinhalese Self-understanding could not hold.
In 1972, the year after the suppression of the armed insurrection of Sinhalese leftist youth. Basil Fernando passed his examination at the faculty of law. In the seventies he was a University teacher in English and intensely engaged in the work of revolutionary socialist groups. He had begun to write, and in 1973 his first book appeared: " A New Era to Emerge", a collection of poetry. Three years later a collection in Sinhala, Koluwa Maleya (The Young Man Died), followed.