Upali Leelaratne: A bridge between Sinhala and Tamil literary exchange
His face always wore a smile. He had a peaceful personality. My sweet friend, a humanitarian, who led his life with such kindness, is no more.From now on, he can be only seen in photos and video footage. Henceforth he will be the subject matter of discussions and speeches related to translations at literary meets! The news of his demise has immersed us in deep sorrow.
Life and work
The Tamil -Sinhala literary exchange previously had been one-sided. Upali Leelaratne holds a remarkable place among those who changed this into a two-way exchange, paving the path for writers from both groups to understand and appreciate
Stories have been written regarding the Devon Estate struggle. T. Gnanasekaran’s Kuruthi Malai (Hill of Blood) is a remarkable novel in that context.
The Sri Lankan hill country not only became evergreen through the sacrifices of the plantation Tamils but also brought significant foreign exchange revenue to the national economy. The people who were responsible for this, however, lived a life of penury. Even now their lives have not changed -they have to struggle to get a pay rise of a meagre 50 rupees.
The Nuwara-Eliya-Maskeliya electorate was created as a Sinhalese stronghold. Under that backdrop, the government of the day dispossessed Tamil people of vast acres of lands and gifted these to the Sinhalese citizens. In the struggle that ensued the poor worker, Sivanu Lechumanan became a victim, succumbing to the
"A literary patron who translated the works of eminent writers such as Pudumai Piththan, Jayakanthan from Tamil to be enjoyed by the Sinhalese readership"
Upali Leelaratne was born in that district when the communal crisis was at its peak. It is from here he made his entry into the literary world.
However, he was not a man afflicted with racial hatred he supported harmony between the races.
Since he was a resident of that area where Tamils were a majority he learned to read and write in Tamil. He didn’t, however, learn that for his benefit. He always had a deep social conscience naturally ingrained in him. He realised the feelings and emotions of the upcountry Tamils, which made him write the book Kahata – Theilai Chayam (Tea Decoction-The Tea Drink).
He started his first job at a printing press in Thalawakelle. A district which was home to stalwarts like C. V. Vellupillai, Chandrasekar to today’s Malliyapoo Thilagar.
Since Tamil publications were also printed in the printing press where he worked he used that opportunity to sharpen his Tamil language as well.
Later in his life, he moved to Colombo and worked at the Godage Bookshop and the Associated Printing Press at Maradana, where he became friends with Sri Lankan Muslim
“You have become clean. Yes, how many times we have
Filth, when we walked down the streets? Are we going to cut off our legs
because of that? We do wash it and even go to the prayer room. Does
God say no and chase us away. Everything is in your mind. Your
heart must be pure. Do you know the story of Ahaligai? Through the
touch of Rama’s feet she became pure, they say. Her heart was
Forget it like a bad dream. Nothing happened to you. You know why
I’m saying that? Your mind should not unnecessarily get worried that you are not pure anymore you. See? Forget it like a bad dream, nothing happened to you.”
Do our readers remember these lines? These are the lines we read in our early days.
When we got introduced to modern literature these were the words that made the modern literary world look up in 1966 when writer Jayakanthan wrote this for his Akkini Piravesam a short story that was published in the popular Tamil magazine AnandaVikatan.
It was Upali Leelaratne who translated these lines into Sinhalese. He translated Jayakanthan’s Akkini Piravesam, including a few of
his short stories, Puthumaipiththan’s Sabavimosanam, Namakkal Sinnappa Bharathi’s Sarkkarai, Vavuniya Udayan’s
Mannar S. A. Udayan’s Lomiya, and Theniyan’s Marakokku.
Besides, he also translated the works of Denmark Jeevakumaran,
France V. T. Illangovan and Sri Lanka Pathma Somakanthan
He has left more than 30 books to the Sri Lankan literary community. A vast majority of them were translated from Tamil to the Sinhala language.
His dedication was admirable. One of his novels was translated to Tamil by Dickwella Kamal under the title of Vidai Petra Vasantham. (The Spring that left us).
Upali’s hard work deserves much praise. He dedicated most of his time to translations. He believed firmly that racial differences could be resolved
Upali was introduced to me by my writer friends Dickwella Kamal and Memon Kavi. We met some 10 years ago on a pleasant evening at the Colombo Public Library hall at a meeting held on Tamil-Sinhala Literary Exchange.
"He has left more than 30 books to the Sri Lankan literary community. A vast majority of them were translated from Tamil to the Sinhala language"
At this meeting Rajeswari Balasubramanium from London, Nadesan, Mavai Nithyananthan, and myself from Australia, and others including Memon Kavi, Malligai Jeeva , Sumanasri Godage, the proprietor of Godage Publications, Denagama Siriewardena, Mudulagiriyeh Wijeratna, Dickwella Kamal and many other
At that time Malligai Jeeva lamented that the Tamil-Sinhala Literary Exchange was still one-sided. Later this situation changed when Godage Publications came forward to print and publish
This change was an innovative one because so far there were no Tamil book publishing establishments in Sri Lanka that
Sinhala books or honoured
It was under that backdrop that Upali Leelaratne worked at Godage Publications in
After we conducted the 2011 International Writers Conference, Sumana Godage invited us to his office and entertained us with tea
It was Upali Leelaratne who organised that meeting. Delegates attended the conference from many countries such as Australia, France, Canada,
He also translated into Sinhala my article on Muslim Authors’ contribution to Sinhala -Tamil Literary Exchange and published that in a special Sinhala edition in Colombo.
At one stage he told me with much satisfaction that Vasudeva Nanayakkara had also read that article with
I contacted him over the phone when I heard from Dickwella Kamal that he was unwell. At that time he was with his doctor.
Not wishing to bother him at that moment, I said we would talk at some other time.
I feel sad although I attempted to contact him many times later unfortunately, I was not able to get through to him.
With a heavy heart, I bid goodbye to my precious friend. I will
Translated by Noor Mahroof