Gaveen Prabhasara

Curtain call: Jayalath Manorathna

· Gaveen Prabhasara

There are moments in life you lucidly remember when the gears of cause and action in a chaotic universe turn, something clicks into place, and your life changes forever. If you are lucky—like I was—the changes it brings about can be positive and profound.

Somewhere in the late ’90s, I was a teenager trying to traverse self-expression while trying to balance creative life and …life. It was not a fight I felt was going my way. On one such humid evening, I found myself sitting in the main hall of our school with a few friends, watching a ‘stage drama’—which is what a traveling theater production is called locally—named “ගුරු තරුව.”

Looking back, I remember the play was introduced as a semi-documentary with a plot vaguely similar to Dead Poets Society. While the story was straightforward with a sprinkling of sociopolitical commentary, the play was designed to celebrate literature, arts, and folk arts through and through. It was full of songs, dance, and recitals referring to works ranging from local folk songs and classical poems to translations of Chief Seattle’s speech and foreign literature.

The punch came with a subtle and cozy ambiance of music. A character of a student recited a passage from a masterful translation of Konstantin Paustovsky’s “The Golden Rose.”

ගෙවෙන සෑම නිමේෂයක්, නොසිතා බිණූ වදනක්, හෙලූ බැල්මක්, නොදැනෙන සේ ගැහෙන මිනිස් හද ගැස්මක්, පොප්ලර් ගසකින් පතිත වන මටලු රේණුවක්, ගෙදිගු විලෙක දිලිසෙන තරු කිරණ කණිකාවක්, මේ සියල්ලම රන් සුණු ය. ලේඛකයින් වන අපි චිරාත් කාලයක් යටි හිතෙන් මෙවැනි අනන්ත අප්‍රමාණ රන් සුණු අවුලමු. අවුලා දිනෙක ඒවා ගෙන එකට තලා අපගේම රන් රෝස මලක් නිමවනතෙක් තැන්පත්කොට තබාගෙන සිටිමු. ඒ රන් රෝස මල කථාන්තරයක්, නවකථාවක්, හෝ නැතහොත් කවක් විය හැකි ය. සාහිත ශ්‍රොතස උපදින්නේ මේ අගය නොමිණිය හැකි රන් සුණුවලිනි.

In other words, of all the places I could be at that time and day, I got to experience an actor reading from the script of a play written by playwright/master actor Jayalath Manorathna, paraphrasing a passage from a book by poet/writer Ariyawansha Ranaweera, which was itself a translation of a book by writer Konstantin Paustovsky, which in turn was referring to a journal entry of an unnamed writer who heard the story of a Paris dust sweeper named Jean Erneste Chamette from an unnamed jeweler.

I remember being deeply moved. I did not know what that book was at that time. But I recall immediately feeling the need to have that book in my life more intensely than I had yearned for any book before. Luckily, the play was semi-documentary and mentioned what the book was. Following that day, I frequented bookshops until I found a copy of that book, ultimately by chance, and the rest is part of my personal lore.

For those who do not read Sinhala, here is the paraphrasing from the original writing:

Every minute, every chance word and glance, every thought—profound or flippant—the imperceptible beat of the human heart, and, by the same token, the fluff dropping from the poplar, the starlight gleaming in a pool—all are grains of gold dust. Over the years, we writers subconsciously collect millions of these tiny grains and keep them stored away until they form a mould out of which we shape our own particular golden rose—a story, novel, or poem. From these precious particles a stream of literature is born.

To say the least, this was the instance that set me firmly on the path of literature and writing. I used to write before, but this was the confluence that set me on my current path in terms of art/literature. It all came about thanks to one Jayalath Manorathna. Mr. Manorathna had made his golden rose, and it did bring about happiness to me.

I will not repeat what has already been said and what will be said in the coming days about Mr. Jayalath Manorathna—more eloquently and by far more eminent people. I do not have to remind Sri Lankans either that he was one of the finest actors our country had ever produced. Instead, this note is very personal, and I aim to be humble. To me, Jayalath Manorathna was a great teacher (“ගුරු තරුව”) that I never had. For what it is worth, I want to tell you that there is—at least—one life he influenced for the better through his art.

I do, in fact, know that I am not the only one. A couple of those friends I mentioned earlier actually called me today. One even called me in the morning to break the news and share the sorrow. Mr. Manorathna was a celebrity, and we have never met him in person. But, the news of his passing felt as if someone we knew well had gone far away, never to come back.

I could go on, but what more can I say? Mr. Manorathna has left, and he will never be back. I feel profoundly of the utter finality of his passing. When we are gone, and when all those who remember him are gone, the world will still go on as if he never existed. But while he was here, he cast a pebble into the ripples of time that uplifted more lives than his immediate surroundings. I can only be thankful that I, in this infinite span of chaotic space and time, got to experience his work. That too, shall shine among my own grains of gold dust.