Nandasiri Jasentuliyana aka “Nandi,” in Sunday Times, 1 September 2019, where the title is “A Legendary Author’s Autobiography”
Namel Weeramuini’s compelling autobiography was launched on his 85th birthday, before a large audience at the Namel Malini Punchi Theatre yesterday.We live in a global village where the main road has many forks and takes us on many incredible journeys. It is increasingly difficult to know the final destination of these journeys. It means we choose the life we want for ourselves often amid uncertainty.
We choose the paths of our lives by doing the best we can to be bold each moment when we come to a fork, Namel was indeed bold right at each such moment and chose his own paths, and let life roll along without certainty of outcome as noted in the apt title of his autobiography, Sailed I on Life – Like a Lark in the Sky.
In his book, he vividly describes the tortuous journey he experienced while flying aimlessly as a lark over land and across oceans until he perches on his ‘lovable’ nest, the ‘Punchi Theatre’ (the Guhawa). On that journey, he had two wings propelling him forward, his ferocious passion for theatre arts and his uncompromising love for his wife, Malini. The rest was mundane to him and mattered only in so far as it supported the family he so dearly loved and nourished his immersion in the world of dramatic arts.
The book presents a rich and heart-warming portrait of an exceptional man, his family, and his life and times. Namel, in his own unique style, tells his story, warts and all. He writes about his arduous and fascinating journey from his humble childhood as a gamekolla in the south of Sri Lanka, to the days when he was a respected lawyer in London, and finally, an accomplished dramatist recognised as among the best in his motherland.
In 99 mini chapters spread over a brisk 500 pages, he tells his story chronologically, and we hurtle forward led by our narrator. Yet, he has time for details about his friends and family, teachers, clients, of people he has met and places he has visited.
Where Namel does linger, is on his personal hardships, being sacked from his primary school, years of aimlessly moving from place to place, school to school as a student and as a teacher, job to job, and country to country. Battling for an anchor, he describes how he found the vehicle for all his inner yearnings in the theatre and literary world.
He describes growing up in the seaside village of Balapitiya as one of four children in a household helmed by a pious mother, under the wings of his uncle Danielle Mama, and cared for by an uncle who was a Buddhist monk, his father being deceased when he was a pre-schooler. He takes us through his school years when he was bullied and eventually how his temper got better of him, resulting in his being sacked from his school. These difficult formative moments are movingly described in a way that conveys the awkwardness and excitement of childhood, as well as, the fear and humiliation of a young boy who was ridiculed by bullies.
As fate would have it, with no school to attend, during this time in his life, he happened to acquire a habit of reading that stood in good stead in later life.
Typical of the book as a whole, he is both unsparing in relaying the embarrassing details of his most difficult times of getting sacked from school, and later, from his job as a legal draftsman.
And still later, how he survived by pumping gas on the streets of London, and how he was swindled by the employees of his law firm also in London, resulting in a highly publicized event that brought heartache and embarrassment.
While giving the nitty-gritty of such humbling experiences, and narrating how he persevered to successfully overcome them, he relates charming anecdotes that keep the reader turning pages.
In the end, however, we find that he is triumphant, reaching giddy heights of stardom in the world of theatre and literature. He writes with the flair of a novelist and a dramatist’s insight into the culture and society that he has characterized in his outstanding theatrical productions and his many publications
Namel doesn’t love the theatre arts for sheer entertainment but he tells us, the validation that comes only from mastering it, and from bending the conventions of theatre to his will. He demonstrated this in his recent production of Sitabilashiya, giving a totally fresh interpretation of the Ramayanaya.
He is a man of many talents (producer, director, actor, playwright) who is etched in the minds of Sri Lankans for the portrayal of the principal character as Munidasa Siritunga, in the production teledrama of Rata Giya Attho, as well as multiple stage dramas (Nattukkkari, Golu Birinda, Margawediyekuge Asipatha, and Sitabilashiya among others).
In 1956, Prof. Ediriweera Sarathchandra resurrected the Sinhala theatre that had been languishing for decades with his production of Maname. It was under Prof. Sarathchandra’s tutelage that Namel, as a university student at the Peradeniya campus, was introduced to the world of theatre.
Namel relates how the Professor encouraged a generation of varsity students, himself included, without ever teaching them the nitty-gritty of being a good actor. He recalls how he mimicked the lady fishmonger back in his hometown, the only person he could think of, when he volunteered to audition for the professor for his maiden part in ‘Golu Brinda,’ which launched him on a lifelong expedition in the land of the theatre.
In that arena, he excelled in all forms, stage, film and television, as a producer, director, actor, playwright and author. In the narration of his theatrical voyage, we learn how as a celebrated dramatist, Namel Weeramuni has tried to make his creative work relevant to the societal issues of our time, in keeping with the great theatrical tradition.
His courageous production of Madyawediyekuge Asipatha (A Journalist’s Sword), which depicted the danger caused by political forces, was put on at a time when the freedom of the press was under threat from governing authorities, and this speaks volumes as to how he used the theatre as a vehicle for social criticism and education.
As Namel reveals in this searching memoir, his professional and artistic success often masked his inner struggle to reconcile the various parts of himself: family man, attorney, writer, actor, director. He has written the book not to record a dull story of what happened in his life but to make it come alive. He has mastered the art of turning every phase of his life into human drama. He writes with candour and wit.
There are many vignettes in the book that keeps the reader engaged. LARK is a unique blend of suspenseful storytelling, vivid character portraits, and a glimpse into the world of dramatic arts and literature.
Namel shares his inspiring and often brutal journey in a gripping tale of resilience and redemption and reminding us that heroism is, above all, a matter of embracing life’s challenges with fearlessness and heart. A thought that will resonate with readers who are going to soar the skies with Namel as he lays bare the path of his eventful flight.
The reviewer Nandasiri (Nandi) Jasentuliyana is a former Deputy Director General, United Nations.
n Sailed I on Life – Like a Lark in the Sky
n Author: Namel Weeramuni