2019 Dec 6
Carl Muller, one of Sri Lanka’s finest storytellers and among the first to receive the prestigious Gratiaen Prize for his book “The Jam Fruit Tree” breathed his last on December 2nd 2019, aged 84 years, with his family by his side.
“He was prolific in his writing,” Muller’s son says in a family statement announcing his passing, “… words were always his friends, and he could string them together to tell stories or expound facts as he saw fit.” There was an outpouring of condolences by other distinguished authors, public figures and ardent fans who reflected on Muller’s quintessential and one-of-a-kind storytelling. Carl Muller was one of few Sri Lankan authors who masterfully dedicated most of his stories to document the life of Sri Lanka’s Burgher community. This gained him the byname ‘the Burgher of all Burghers” as a term of endearment by his fans. Apart from writing novels, he was also a skilled poet and journalist and perhaps best known for his widely loved Burgher trilogy: The Jam Fruit Tree, Yakada Yaka and Once Upon A Tender Time.
Pulse looks back over this exceptional writer’s illustrious career: from schooldays to the military, journalism to storytelling and celebrating the Burghers of Sri Lanka.
Carl Muller was born on the 22nd of October 1935 in Kandy as the eldest of thirteen children. He had expressed often that his childhood was not a happy one, which led him to eventually leave home at the age of 17. As a young man, Muller eventually joined the Royal Ceylon Navy and was sent on duty to the far-east and India. Subsequently, he briefly served in the Ceylon Army and later joined the Colombo Port Commission as a signalman.
Upon returning home, he came back to an unstable and hostile family. His parents eventually moved to England with the rest of his siblings, leaving young Muller to fend for himself. Even as a young boy, he was dismissed from three schools before being enrolled at Royal College, Colombo. Essentially self-taught, he knew that the only way out was to educate himself and read anything he was able to find. In due course, Muller found a promising career in journalism, going on to hold diverse posts that ranged from cartoonist to sub-editor. Following his marriage to Sortain Harris, the couple moved to the Middle East. Carl Muller served as a journalist for various newspapers in Bahrain, Dubai, Oman and Qatar.
Although best known for his Burgher trilogy and other novels, Carl Muller skillfully delved into other genres such as poetry, short stories, historical fiction and collections of essays and monographs. Amusingly, he preferred calling his novels “faction” instead of “fiction” in order to note the quasi-fictional nature of this storytelling- often portraying the Burgher community as a race of fun-loving, lively and sturdy people. His writing also brought out the quirks and easily over-looked mannerisms of Sri Lankan culture- a distinct feature that made his writing unique and unlike no other.
His novel “The Jam Fruit Tree” remains a prolific work of writing that illustrates a bygone era. Often described as a “blunt, filthy and unapologetic” portrayal of ordinary life, Muller never shied away from raw and brutally honest takes of the ups and downs of family and community dealings. In fact, most would describe his bestseller as a critique of 1930s Ceylon. The book undoubtedly transports the reader to an era of simpler times- one of rickshaws and buggy carts tied together with witty ‘Sri Lankan-isms” and funny, satirical names.
Muller won the Gratiaen Prize in 1993 for his bestseller “The Jam Fruit Tree” and the State Literary Award for his historical novel, “Children of the Lion.” As a veteran writer and journalist, he was also bestowed the prestigious “Kala Keerthi” title by the state.
Carl Muller will live on through his prolific work and will always be remembered as Sri Lanka’s literary genius who brought vivid, honest and authentic Sri Lankan storytelling to life.
As he was loved, admired and honoured, so will he be missed.
Rest in peace, Carl Muller.
Image courtesy of Good Reads & Daily Mirror