Dec 10, 2019

Carl Muller: A rebel in a Tender Time

Getting a book contract from Penguin is not easy. Carl Muller did just that, won many awards and above all, entertained millions of people with his wit and sarcasm spread through the pages of his best-selling books.

You know that Carl Muller, who passed away at age 84, is no ordinary storyteller when Penguin begins his introduction with this simple sentence – “Carl Muller is an unusual man”.

According to Penguin India “he is no academic; kicked out of three schools, he never went to university and served in the Royal Ceylon Navy, the Ceylon Army and the Port of Colombo as a pilot station signalman. In advertising briefly, he was also involved in the travel trade, and donned the robes of an entertainer. A pianist and a journalist, Carl Muller has a large number of published titles, ranging from poetry to science fiction, under his belt. His ‘Burgher novels’ earned him special acclaim, especially the first one, The Jam Fruit Tree, which won the Gratiaen Memorial Prize, 1993, for the best work of English literature by a Sri Lankan. He has also won the State Literary Award for his historical novel, Children of the Lion, the first book in this series.”

That description encompasses Muller’s whole life in a few sentences, but he was so full of life and vitality which he breathed into his multitude of books. He was one of the most versatile journalists, poets and authors in Sri Lanka whose fame spread far and wide. His name was often spoken in the same breath as Sri Lankan-born Canadian author Michael Ondaatje. Incidentally, Muller himself was a recipient of the Gratiaen Award established by Ondaatje to foster local writing talent.

Burgher community
Muller, an old boy of Royal College, Colombo, was one of the best known members of the Burgher community in Sri Lanka and unlike many others from that community, who chose to migrate to Australia and Canada, lived his whole life in Sri Lanka apart from a number of years he spent in the Middle East, working for newspapers there.

In fact, his famous trilogy “The Jam Fruit Tree, Yakada Yaka and Once Upon A Tender Time” mirrored the trials and tribulations of the Burgher community in Sri Lanka with a twist of irony and sarcasm on the side. He was also an accomplished musician. His second book in the series was titled “Yakada Yaka” (Iron Devil), a Sinhala term used by Sri Lankan children to describe trains. It was Kala Keerthi Carl Muller who took that word to the wider world, with his book of the same name. Once Upon A Tender Time was the third book in this series.

When the jam Fruit Tree first came out, people outside Sri Lanka had no idea as to who the Burghers were. So Penguin India had to explain to foreign readers about the Burghers: “Descended idea from the Dutch, the Portuguese, the British and other foreigners who arrived in the island-nation of Sri Lanka (and ‘mingled’ with the local inhabitants), the Burghers often stand out because of their curiously mixed features—grey eyes in an otherwise Dravid face, for instance.... A handsome and guileless people, the Burghers have always lived it up, forever willing to ‘put a party’. Carl Muller, a Burgher himself, writes in this quasi-fictional, engaging biography of the lives of his people; they emerge, at the end of his story, as a race of fun-loving, hardy people, much like the jam fruit tree which simply refuses to be contained or destroyed”.

As critic Ravishan noted, “It occurs to us that The Jam Fruit Tree is not an interminable doggerel originating in some dim Irish pub, but a minimally rearranged family tree sprung from Sri Lankan soil. As Muller claims, “‘fact’ became ‘faction’… this is a work of ‘fictional-fact’ or factual-fiction’”. Even where the fiction fails, this book will be sold for its facts. What Muller did was to set a precedent in craftsmanship: Sri Lankan novelists before Muller had no ear for dialogue.”

Yakada Yaka is the second part of the Burgher trilogy that began with The Jam Fruit Tree. When the conquering British roll out the first railway steam-driven locomotive in Sri Lanka, it causes quite a stir. The smoke-spewing, banshee-wailing, fearsome black thing hisses like a thousand cobras... and the villagers declare that this Thing is an Iron Demon—a yakada yaka. The Burghers who drive these Iron Demons have a penchant for challenging authority and courting trouble, sometimes just to liven things up in the railway outposts.

Once Upon a Tender Time, a poignant tale of childhood, is the concluding part of Carl Muller’s Burgher trilogy. The Burghers of Sri Lanka, hardy and fun-loving, produce children by the dozen-but often forget them. Carloboy Prins von Bloss and his companions are usually considered a pain in the neck by the adults they encounter as they go about the serious business of discovering the world and, primarily, the facts of life.

Muller’s was an eventful life. He was first a seaman for the Royal Ceylon Navy (aged 18) and thereafter he joined the Ceylon Army for a brief period. After a tumultuous and brief married life that ended rather too soon, he raised his first son Ronnie more or less on his own. He married again at 35 and according to his family, would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary next year.

In a moving tribute that was published online, his son said: “My father, Carl Muller accomplished much in his life. He was a seaman, then a military man. He married young and when that marriage ended, left him, quite literally, holding the baby. He brought up his first son, Ronnie, more or less on his own. He had a temper, and could instill the fear of God into us, yet he also had such heartfelt compassion that he could calm our fears with the tenderness of his voice.

He was a musician; played the piano by ear and had a gift for being able to play anything that he heard. He had a wicked sense of humour and a rare gift of writing satire and comedy. He was prolific in his writing, words were always his friends, and he could string them together to tell stories or expound facts as he saw fit.

Extremely knowledgeable
Carl was the kind of man that could still a room with the sound of his voice, he was well read and extremely knowledgeable and his writing eventually got him recognition as a veteran journalist, first Sri Lankan author to be internationally published with his book ‘The Jam Fruit Tree’ and this same publication winning him the Gratien Award. He was honoured by the State, being bestowed with the title ‘Kala Keerthi’. He also won numerous State Literary Awards which still hang proudly on the walls of our home today. He was a serious and disciplined man, but he could never resist the opportunity to have a laugh with friends and loved ones, given half the chance. My father was this famous person that we grew up with – well-known, respected, much talked about – but to us he was just ‘Dada’.”

Muller discovered that he had a way with words, which he could use to good effect. Newspaper editors were only too happy to publish his wide-ranging contributions. In fact, until illness forced him to part ways with the pen, he regularly contributed to English newspapers from his home in Kandy on a variety of topics, though he did not take to writing on local politics in a big way.

He had a rare talent that only a few others are blessed with – a penchant for writing satire and comedy. And of course, the ability to laugh at himself and even his own community. This was not surprising, given his sense of humour. He may not have been Politically Correct in much of his writing, but that was perhaps the prime reason for the popularity of his books here and abroad.

Muller was an exceptionally good novelist and won the State Literary Award for his historical novel “Children of the Lion”. He wrote two other historical novels – Colombo and City of the Lion. Spit and Polish and Maudiegirl and the von Bloss Kitchen were also among his well-known works.

He even dipped his toes into science fiction, perhaps inspired by the legendary Arthur C Clarke, who called Sri Lanka home. Among his short stories were “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Cemetery, Birdsong & Other Tales, All God’s Children (shortlisted for the Gratiaen Award), The Python of Pura Malai and Other Stories and Wedding Night (2007)”. He also wrote a travel book called Indian Journeys.

“Sri Lanka – A Lyric, Propitiations, A Bedlam of Persuasions, Clouds over my Senses, Read Me in Silence and The Thin Red Line” were among his works of poetry. Ranjit Discovers Where Kandy Began (1992) was a book written especially for children. Many of his books have been translated into Sinhala, Tamil and several other languages.

Muller will live on, on the printed page and in cyberspace and his prose and verse will continue to strike a chord with those who appreciate a good relaxing read, replete with a laugh or two. Other writers will find it extremely hard to replicate his unique style and viewpoints lifted straight from his own life.