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Interview: Pramudith Rupasinghe talks about Bayan

Pramudith Rupasinghe is one of the emerging authors from Sri Lanka who has been privy to the world and what goes on in it. Born in Gampaha, Sri Lanka in 1979, he soon discovered his vocation for writing though he still works in the humanitarian sector. As a humanitarian diplomat, he has served in several countries around the world. While working as a humanitarian, Pramudith has had the opportunity to explore the unexplored side of human life, connect with cultures that have not been in touch with the external world, and experience the emotions of people who have been through trials. Trials which are more distressing than words could ever describe. It is through his experiences that he endeavours to relate their meaningful stories giving those who have been forgotten, sometimes even ignored, an opportunity to be heard.

Pramudith is internationally known for his fiction ‘Behind the Eclipse’ and ‘Bayan’, His books have been translated into several languages and launched internationally.

Tell us a little about your novel.

A stranger travels to Ukraine and ends up stuck in a rural village in Northeastern part of Ukraine when he went to handover a book left by an old man who was in the rest-camp where he spent his summer holiday. During three weeks long waiting for the bus back to regions capital Sumy from where he could take a train of a bus to Kyiv, he had no other option than staying in the dusty apartment of the old man who lives there alone.

The book unveils the life of the old man, beautiful nature in rural Ukraine taking its reader through the changes of time- from 1945 World war II, Soviet-era, fall of the Soviet Union, modern democratic Ukraine. Love and hatred blend relationship with the ex-soviet union as well as with Russia shed the light on the current nationalistic movements in Ukraine as well as on pro-Russian movements. The name of the book "Bayan" is very symbolic. It's an old Soviet wind-instrument known as Russian accordion. Ivan plays it with his trembling fingers and carries it wherever he goes. When he is happy, plays it. When he is angry, he plays it. The book highlights the companionship of the old man with the musical instrument, thus the tendency of all of us having kind of inexplicable companionship with inanimate objects as we grow old when everyone leaves us when we are left alone. Bayan talks about the positive side of ageing, happiness in little things, and many common things across the human race when in winter of life, and treats old age with deeply literary and philosophical meaning. Bayan is a story of resilience, graceful ageing and a celebration of life set in the backdrop of a stark beautiful Ukrainian cultural and ecological landscape, amidst vibrant nature and persistent social change.

Bayan is a story of resilience, graceful ageing and a celebration of life set in the backdrop of a stark beautiful Ukrainian cultural and ecological landscape, amidst vibrant nature and persistent social change. Bayan has been translated into six languages so far: Sinhala, German, Burmese, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian, and a Hindi translation is on the way.

What inspired you to write this book?

I am always intrigued by cultures and people. Mostly, we hear about the Donbas crisis, poverty, political instability and corruption when people talk about Ukraine. On the positive side, Ukraine has a proud history, breathtaking nature, rich and diverse culture and warm people who have a unique lifestyle close to nature, covered with bleeding history, and today's struggles. During the Soviet time and before, Ukraine was the territory that contributed most to the scientific, literal and cultural heritage of today's Russia.

Its a country with a generation of people who grew up in the Soviet time and encountered the sudden change of “their word” with the fall of Soviet-union. They struggle to survive in the modern capitalistic society.

Ivan Nikolaevich is one among those millions of people living in all ex-republics of USSR. Their life story, their struggle, and the way they age in an alien world “capitalistic” and trying to protect their values inspired me to pen ‘Bayan”. I felt it is worth an effort to tell it loud to the world.

Most challenge part of the writing process, and how did you overcome that?

The biggest challenge was to think as Ivan thought about things, every little thing of life, every moment and to imagine his reactions to the situations I make him faces throughout the story. It was a constant and laborious task. Trying to live his life in my imagination was very challenging. Trying to think like a 73 years old man from a completely different identity, while I was just 37 years old. I failed many times. I did a lot of rereading that helped me. It was a difficult fight to dealing with the bias of different sorts- age, culture, and so on….

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

Usually, I chose to do my writing based in the location where the story is set, it's my style. For example, my book Behind the Eclipse was set in a village in Liberia bordering to Guinea and Sierra Leone, I wrote it when when I was based in Liberia, and I travelled often to the other two counties. My new story is set in Dhaka Bangladesh, I have been writing it for the last 3 years. In 2017, I went to Cox Bazar and loved there for over 3 months for understanding the people, culture, and also get familiarised with the landscape and daily life.

I was in Ukraine in 2015. I started the story when I was in there, then I had to move to Northern Rakhine state of Burma (Myanmar) for my work as a humanitarian, I completed halfway when I was in Buthidaung. As a result of the military crackdown in the northern Rakhine state, leading to an exodus of millions of Rohingya population to neighbouring Bangladesh, I moved to Bangladesh for 2 months and then returned to Myanmar to be based in Sittwe in Central Rakhine state, and then Yangon where I fished the last chapter. The book was written mostly on the move, on transits, cafes, etc. But there was one constant thing, irrespective of what happened around me, I wrote everyday as It was vital for me to maintain the psychological connection with the characters of the book, story and ecology. On usual days, I brew my double espresso every morning, by 4.30 am, sit and write. In the evening come back and read what I wrote in the morning. But as a person who works in emergency context I during this writing process of Bayan, I did not have the luxury to enjoy a fixed writing routine. Whenever the world around me was calm and peaceful, I maintained the early morning routine. It's “writing without borders”.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include?

Winter birds of Aurora, I think that song has the close proximity with nature, and it depicts the feelings of Olga when she was playing Bayan in the winter exposing herself to the falling snow, sitting just under an apple tree. The songs depict the scene of the last chapter of the book.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

The challenge I had-living the life of the old man of 73 while I was 37 was the most enjoyable part in the writing process of this book. I could explore, learn and understand a lot about ageing, especially who the world around people change ‘perception’ when they are ageing. I think that will help me in the years to come… (laughter)

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I put the full stop after the last word of the last sentence of the last chapter, I first released a sigh of relief ‘its over, done, and completed” I went to one of my favourite cafes in Yangon- Trademark cafe where I spent a lot of time writing for almost 2 years. I treated myself with a fine caramel-latte, and a croissant- a simple but soul-filling snack- a writer’s favourite kind of snack.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I do not judge authors, I do not call books either bad books or good books, all books are stories of people and needs equal respect for efforts and messages they carry. However, some books and stories we do not forget. Rosanna lay’s return to Mandalay is one of them. As I lived in Burma, am familiar with Burmese culture, people and landscape, Return to Mandalay, took me on a virtual trip to Myanmar, in a time when travelling was nearly impossible.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I have a story set in the second-largest brothel on the earth, Kandopora in Tegali district in Bangladesh. The book unveils the life-changing journey of a young woman who was sold to the brothel when she was 12 years old. Her transformation from a bounded sex worker to a woman who stood against the world oldest exploitative profession and human trafficking will fuse literature to harsh realities of the world where we live.


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