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Martin Wickramasinghe: ගම්පෙරළිය (The Uprooted) Part 1: (The Village)

Martin Wickramasinghe’s trilogy (of which this is the first book) is one of the best-known Sri Lankan novels, though it is barely known in the English-speaking world, not least because, though it has been translated into English, it is very difficult to obtain in the UK/US. It deals with the changing conditions in Sri Lanka at the beginning of the twentieth century, namely the fall of the traditional ruling, land-owning, essentially feudal class and the rise of a new middle class.

It is set in Koggala, Wickramasinghe’s home town. Don Adirian Kaisaruwatte Muhandiram and his family (wife, Haminé, two daughters and son) live in the ancestral family home of Mahagedara. He employs a local young man, Piyal, to teach his daughters English. The annual New Year get-together is taking place, to which Piyal is also invited. Piyal is attracted to Nanda, one of Muhandiram’s daughters. (Note that Muhandiram is a title but not his name but I shall use it, as Wickramasinghe does.) However, though they are of the same caste, Nanda (and her family) look down on him, as he is not from one of the old families of the region. She agrees that she will marry him if her mother consents.

The first issue of their financial problems is revealed with Carolis. Carolis is a trusted retainer whom Muhandiram has helped to set up a local shop. However, it seems he has been giving too much credit to the local women and now is broke and asking for help. According to Carolis, the credit has been given at the request of Haminé, as the local women go to her to beg for help. Subsequent investigation by Muhandiram reveals that Carolis has been embezzling the money to give to the woman he loves and her father. Muhandiram has no choice but to send him to a remote part of the country.

The woman he loves is Laisa. She is the daughter of Kathirina, a respectable lady but very poor, not least because her husband drinks a lot. He has persuaded Carolis to give him money to gain access to Laisa. Kathirina is a great believer in traditional medicines, including soothsayers, and the family will use her as an intermediary with the soothsayers. She also acts as a marriage broker and when she approaches Haminé about Piyal’s suit, she is given a resounding no. However, Kathirina does help with the soothsayers when Nanda falls ill. The family assume that Piyal has given her a love potion that has made her ill.

Piyal is naturally disappointed and decides to go off to Colombo. Meanwhile, Muhandiram’s financial difficulties are increasing, exacerbated by the cost of treating Nanda and the school fees for Tissa, their son. When Nanda recovers, they try to find a husband for her but the horoscopes show a certain incompatibility between Nanda and the various young men. Finally, they pick Jinadasa, preferring the impoverished gentry to the nouveaux riches. Jinadasa is indeed impoverished and this is only fully revealed after the wedding.

Meanwhile, Piyal is making his fortune in Colombo, Muhandiram dies and Jinadasa moves out to a remote ara to set up a shop and try to make some money. Tissa is now a young man and drinking and chasing young women, before he is persuaded to also go off to Colombo and try and earn some money. Meanwhile, his mother and sisters are in dire straits financially. Piyal has still not married and still has his heart set on Nanda. When Jinadasa seems to disappear, he pursues her even more assiduously.

Wickramasinghe is keen to show how the old, feudal classes cannot adapt to the new age, relying for income solely on their land. Both Muhandiram and Jinadasa are totally unable to adapt to the new reality, while, Piyal cleverly takes advantage of the changing situation, supplying the British army and making his fortune. They could have improved their lot by marrying into rich families or families with smart young men but failed to do so, preferring to stick to their own kind, gentry but impoverished. This situation was not of course unique to Sri Lanka. Wickramasinghe’s novel had a big impact in Sri Lanka so it is disappointing that it is not readily available in the West.

Publishing history

First published in 1944 by Sarasa (Pvt) Ltd
First published in English 2009 by Sarasa