Tuesday, June 29, 2010
“Rana Derane” (At the Battlefront) is a very special kind of book. It’s a non-fiction work written in Sinhala by Wimal Weerasinghe, a Sri Lankan who served in the British army during World War II. It’s a special book because, as far as I’m able to determine, it’s the only book of its kind written by a Sri Lankan WWII veteran (war literature, in any case, is very rare in this country. The war with the Tamil Tigers went on for thirty years, but how many books written by combattants or ex-combattants are there?)
I have not been able to trace the author. If he’s still alive, he must be in his eighties. The book is an author publication, and not even the year of publication is mentioned. But I bought this during my school days, in the 1970s. It hasn’t been re-issued and I have never come across any review of it. I doubt if many have heard of or remember Wimal Weerasinghe the author, which I think is a great injustice since it’s a fine book and a unique one at that. It also says something for the quality of education at that time because it was written by an ordinary soldier.
I regret that I can’t scan the entire book. This blog only serves to introduce books, with the idea of arousing viewers’ interest to go and look for these books in libraries and archives. But I have translated a few pages for your benefit.
Chapter One—“I joined the army”
“I joined the army due to poverty. I had no need to defend the much-hyped democracy of the British by risking my life to fight German Nazism, Italian Fascism or Japanese imperialism.
“At a time when unemployment ran high in the country, British imperialists who called themselves democrats were able to lure thousands of young men into joining the army.
“…The camp was surrounded by a special guard of troops as I woke up on the morning of Oct. 4 1943. I went as usual for breakfast following my morning ablutions. There was a notice pasted on the dining hall that all troops who had finished their training should pack their gear and get ready to travel.
“Looks like it’s our turn,” a friend said while buttering a slice of bread.
“I prefer to leave this country,” I said.
“Why, don’t you like Sri Lanka?”
“Like? It’s better to get out and die than to face the humiliation of being jobless.”
The author further describes his experiences as a second-line soldier in Italy. During this time, he was based in Salerno (p.137).
“The months spent in Salerno were happy. Sinhalese soldiers didn’t give two hoots for money. They made friends with pretty Italian girls by buying them watches, shoes, chocolates and cigarettes. I have never heard of people of one race making friends so quickly with another race. The friendships sometimes went far and many soldiers became betrothed to Italian girls. Some got married to their Italian sweethearts and returned to Sri Lanka….
“I made friends with a white haired, twelve-year-old Italian girl called Edda by giving her chocolates and sweets.
(Please note -- This wasn’t a romantic relationship. The author wonders why the girl shies away from him, and discovers that the reason for her shyness is her fear of dark-skinned men. Whenever he stops and offers her a ride in his truck, she refuses. Finally, he visits Edda’s home to meet her and her old mother).
“Good evening,” I said, removed my beret.
“May I come in?”
The old mother came to the door, looked me up from my head to foot, and said: “Yes, you may come in.”
“Sit,” the girl said. She tried to look like a young woman but she was still a girl. Her girlishness could be seen in her smile and adolescent quickness of movement.
The old mother shook hands with me. The girl shook hands rather reluctantly. I sat on the canvas easy chair.
“Why? Tell me, please.”
“I like your girl. We may be around here for a while. While we are here, we need friends. Do you object to our friendship?”
“You have helped us after coming here. You have done us no harm. I have no objection to a friendship.”
“We are afraid of black people,” the girl said.
“Those are Mussolini’s lies. Black people aren’t cannibals,” I said.
“Blacks kill white women,” the girl said.
“How do you know that?” the girl asked.
“I read so in a book by Shakespeare.”
“You must read more. Shakespeare has also written about white men who killed white women.”
The author comes across as an anti-imperialist (independence from Britain was only a few years away, but still only a dream at that point). The book is a fascinating account of the petty hatreds and class differences not just between the Sri Lankans (Ceylonese at the time) and the British but between the Lankans themselves. He has a sense of fairness and justice, and gives credit where its due. The book has atmosphere, colour and emotion. I think it’s very well written considering that the author wasn’t a trained writer. This seems to be his first and only book.