How Carl Muller's, 'The Jam Fruit Tree' changed the landscape of Sri Lankan writing in English

Sri Lankan Writing in English has only managed to gain momentum in the last few decades in comparison to the centuries of attention writing in the official languages of Sinhala and Tamil has acquired. One of the reasons is identified by critics including Ashley Halpe and Chelva Kanaganayakam to be the fact that the English speaking community has been a rather “distinct part of our plural society for a long time”. In the 1990s, with the establishment of the Gratiaen Trust by Michael Ondaatje, investing the prize money he received for 'The English Patient' winning the Man Booker Prize, Sri Lankan Writing in English started getting more traction within the country. Original writing in English devised by Sri Lankans increased in number and quality, with works such as 'Reef' (1994) by Romesh Gunasekera, 'Funny Boy' (1994) by Shyam Selvadurai, 'Pleasures of Conquest' (1995) by Yasmine Gooneratne, 'When Memory Dies' (1997) by Ambalavaner Sivanandan, and of course, 'The Jam Fruit Tree' (1993) by Carl Muller, which won the first ever Gratiaen Prize in 1993 as the best piece of Sri Lankan Writing in English from that year. 

'The Jam Fruit Tree' caught audiences by surprise. It was a piece of writing, often referred to as a novel in four parts, that delineate the daily lives of the von Bloss family, a Burgher family living in Colombo during colonial times. Most writing in English that had garnered attention from the masses in the country in the 1990s was by diasporic writers including Michael Ondaatje, Yasmin Gooneratne, Shyam Selvadurai and Romesh Gunasekera, and Muller came from a pure Sri Lankan existence that distinguished him from the diaspora. Having never been an academic that had studied literature in depth, he was born in Kandy, and he later went on to serve in the Royal Ceylon Navy, the Ceylon Army and the Port of Colombo as a pilot station signalman. His inspiration to pen a novel dealing with a Burgher family engaged in government service came naturally and effortlessly. The novel is therefore often considered to be quasi-fictional as opposed to completely fictional, as so many aspects from his personal life and experiences can be seen in detail in the work, and 'Yakada Yaka' (1994) and 'Once Upon a Tender Time' (1995) that followed forming a trilogy of novels. 'The Jam Fruit Tree', in its descriptive technique, dialogue, narration as well as language, comes across as authentic and true-to-life.   

The piece is often considered to be a representative account of Burghers living in Colombo, serving the government. However, we would not go so far to generalize the narrative presented in the novel, and would simply call it a microscopic version of the lives of the Burghers. The von Blosses are unique in their own way; they are eccentric, informed and Burghers by definition, but with a core of Sri Lankan identity embedded in them. When Maudiegirl's daughter Anna gets married to a Sinhalese man ironically named 'Colontota', the ensuing mixed marriage and its consequences highlight the postcolonial existence of the country with multiple ethnicities merging with each other. As Anna faces a cultural enigma of sorts, coming into terms with the unfortunate circumstances surrounding her mixed marriage, the reality hits the reader even harder. Muller's genius lies in the manner in which he covets this reality in humour. The difficulty as well as the happiness of life are established through the medium of humour, which was rare in Sri Lankan writing in English that was available during that time. The third person narrative acts as commentary, pointing out the ironies and delicate comedy engulfing the lives of the von Blosses.  

One of the significant factors that critics try to extract from 'The Jam Fruit Tree' is its language, with emphasis placed on the variety of Sri Lankan English that was used by Burghers during colonial times. The mixed variety is a result of the influence of Sinhala on the day-to-day manner of speaking, which Muller is unafraid to use in a piece of literary creativity. The question tag of, "no?" accompanied with other quips of "see, will you", "chee", "aiyo" and "aney" accurately capture the manner in which Sri Lankan English has grown over the years to be a variety of its own.

Muller was unafraid not merely in relation to his use of Sri Lankan English; he was also bold enough to describe things as they were, resorting to "vile" punchlines and linguistic machinations, especially in relation to sex. Due to this, the novel has been known to be even more controversial in terms of theme and language. Nevertheless, it does not diminish the manner in which,The Jam Fruit Tree changed the landscape of Sri Lankan Writing in English, by being the first to be recognized by the Gratiaen Trust, by being authored by someone located in the country without associations of the diaspora as well as its linguistic authenticity. The limited amount of attention Sri Lankan Writing in English was getting from an elite, small community of the public expanded with the recognition of the novel cleverly concocted by Muller. 

10th March, 2021 Written Art | Personalities