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Thenillankai Kavithai: 
A collection of poems from South Sri Lanka! 

- A. J. Canagaratna -

A.J.KanagaratnaS. Pathmanathan - a Tamil poet in his own right and a notable translator who gave us  African Poems (2001) - has now turned his  attention to the Sri Lankan Southern Muse in this path-finding work dedicated to the Hiru Group which has striven against all odds to  bring Sinhala and Tamil artistes together as a first step towards improving Sinhala-Tamil ties53.  poems from South Sri Lanka are transcreated here. Wisely, Pathmanathan does not confine himself to poets writing in English: all the 'canonical' figures of Sri  Lankan English poetry, with the notable exception of the late Patrick  Fernando, are represented here by their best (or best-known) poems. Unfortunately Jean Arasanayagam is represented here by Remembering Na3llur - 1984 which, in my opinion, is one of her weaker poems: it seems somewhat strained, overwrought and  unconvincing in its attempt to superimpose images of war, death and destruction on typical Nallur temple festival scenes. She has written more memorable poems and it's a pity that Pathmanathanopted to transcreate this poem perhaps because it centres round a temple which is close to the Jaffna Tamil Hindu psyche, especially in  the aftermath of Black July '83. 

Pathmanathan has also transcreated (via English renderings) Sinhala  poets like Mahagamasekera, Parakrama Kodituwakku, Monica Ruwanpathirana and Ariyawansa Ranaweera. So one could say that this slim volume (neatly produced with a computer graphics designed cover) is a representative collection of the Southern Muse. 

S.Padmanathan's BookThe first poem is Mahagamasekera's Prabuddha (English rendering by  Ranjini Obeysekera). The poet dons the persona of an ordinary man who was not born to riches to implicitly critique (not through abstract arguments but by confronting the ideal with mundane realities) the Buddhist ideal of renunciation. The speaker says he cannot renounce his family because if he does  so, his wife and infants will ultimately starve to death. Thus it's the compassion he feels towards his family (glossed as attachment by Buddhism) which prevents him from turning his back on them.. The poem concludes by his appealing to Prince Siddhartha to show him a way whereby not only he as a lone individual but also along with thousands of others collectively, can sever the ties of attachment. 

There's one other poem by Mahagamasekera, The Moon and NewYork City, which expresses the sense of complete alienation felt by  the poet in this concrete jungle. When he opens the window and looks skywards he sees the familiar moon which immediately brings  back nostalgic memories of the moon-lit paddy fields in his native
village and of the full moon lighting up the bo-tree in the village  temple, every Poya Day. 

Prabuddha is immediately followed by Ariyawansa Ranaweera's Rahula is Born (English rendering by E. M. G. Edirisinghe). In tone,  this is the diametrical opposite of Mahagamasekera's poem. The poet imagines Siddhartha addressing his son Rahula: "Sleep, search  for me not, my son so tender A world full of bliss unto you I render."
Compared with Mahagamasekera's radical view, this poem expresses well the orthodox, conventional view. 

Space will not permit me to comment on all the poems. Therefore I shall concentrate on those that appeal to me. 

His transcreations of some of Anne Ranasinghe's Holocaust poems are as moving as the English originals. As Prof. Ashley Halpe has  aptly observed "Anne Ranasinghe has made an aesthetic and ethic of memory." In July '83 she links up the Nazi killers with Black July '83 in Sri Lanka, 40 years later: 

"and I - though related  only by marriage feel myself both victim and accused" Incidentally, I wonder whether Anne Ranasinghe has written a poem (or poems) about the terrible plight of the Palestinians who are being brutally victimised by the Israelis, a once-oppressed people. Which only goes to show that there is no special virtue in being an oppressed people because they are just as likely to become brutal oppressors themselves overnight: there are local examples close to hand. All this is by the way and not intended as disparagement of her undoubted poetic talent or to cast aspersions on her patent sincerity. 

I must thank Pathmanathan for his discovery of Upananda Karunatilleke's poem Corbett's Gap where the poet subtly and unobtrusively transforms topography into a symbolic landscape: 

"And the boy said, 'This is the Gap' 
We thought we could see far below, 
But there was only mist swirling, so we headed back 
The boy pointing out as we descended 
Their row of gloomy line rooms, 
Where women after tea plucking pottered around 
Watching across the slope the tennis by the summer-house 
And tea served English style." 

Another noteworthy poem is Karunatilleke's Nineteen Fifty Six - Part 2  where the poet narrates his experience of 

"The second spell of duty that election week 
Was a tea estate town 
Steep crossroad in a mountain bazaar 
Deafened by waterfalls." 

He goes on to relate: 

"Was it your luck, love, or the black cat's 
That found us that night in a cosy estate bungalow 
 Magically empty. 
The sad South Indian type who cooked our dinner 
Appeared lonely and wanted to talk. 
We asked him about tomorrow's poll 
And found out the reason for his sadness. 
He had voted, he said, with all the lusty joy of voting 
In every election since Independence 
He couldn't vote on the morrow 
He was no more a citizen" (emphasis mine). 

There's a further twist of the knife at the end: 

"By strange chance it was our polls result. 
It brought a pang of sadness for our previous evening's caretaker 
The name over the radio was that of the bazaar lawyer." 

How much more powerful these lines are - because they focus on a concrete person - than all the harangues in Parliament about the  disenfranchisement of the Indian tea estate workers by the then UNP Government because their votes had helped to return predominantly left-wing candidates in the up-country electorates inthe very first General Election, held in 1947. 

I now turn to his renderings of Yasmine Gooneratne's Big Match 1983 and Basil Fernando's Yet Another Incident in July '83. The former is better known and reputed for its sophistication, irony and balance. 

As a Tamil, when I look at the poem more closely I think the  comparison with the Big Match is completely askew (after all, there was only one team playing!) and somewhat callous though it  masquerades as sophisticated irony. Her cock-eyed balance amounts only to this: A hundred guns raised above Jaffna's palmyra fences'. 

Apart from the stereotype of the Palmyra fences (no longer true even of the villages), only poetic licence can sanction the reference to a hundred guns. At the time of the ambush of the military patrol  in July '83, there were less than fifteen hard-core militants. 

Thanks to President JR's (and his henchmen's) ill-conceived pogrom, the ranks of the militants have swelled since then much to the discomfiture (to put it mildly) of successive governments. If Yasmine's poem is suave, Basil's is stark. Its language is spare and unembellished: 

"Yet I remember 
the way they stopped that car, 
the mob. There were four 
in that car, a girl, a boy 
(between four and five it seemed) and their 
parents - I guessed - the man and the woman. 
It was in the same way they stopped other cars. 
I did not notice any marked 
difference. A few questions
in gay mood, not to make a mistake 
I suppose, then they proceeded to 
action, by then routine. Pouring 
petrol and all that stuff. 
Then someone noticing something odd 
as it were, opened the two left side 
doors, took away the two children, crying and resisting 
as they were moved away from their parents..... 
Someone practical 
was quick, lighting a match 
efficiently. An instant 
fire followed, adding one more 
tok many around...... 
Then suddenly the man inside 
breaking open the door, was 
out, his shirt already on 
fire and hair too. Then bending, 
too his two children. Not even 
looking around as if executing a calculated 
decision, he resolutely 
re-entered the car. 
Once inside he closed the door 
himself - I heard the noise 
Still the ruined car 
is there, by the road-side 
with other such things. May be 
the Municipality will remove it 
one of these days 
to the Capital's 
garbage pit. The cleanliness of the Capital 
receives Authority's top priority. 

Though the poet had stated later that he had not witnessed this particular incident personally, his poem is virtually an eye-witness, report and by its very matter-of-factness it sears our consciousnessand conscience and is as heart-rending as John Hersey's Hiroshima. 

I'd like to wind up with a reference to his effective renderings of Parakrama Kodituwakku's Kusumawathi and Court Inquiry of a Revolutionary and Monica Ruwanpathirana's Podiduwa and Streetwalker. They introduce into poetic discourse the hitherto muted voice of the marginalised and the downtrodden, something barely audible in Sri Lankan English poetic discourse, with the  possible exception of the late Lakdasa Wickramasingha's The Death  of Ashanthi. 

assessment of this poem: "His concern for the humble is best seen  in that most gentle and moving story told by this gifted story-teller - The Death of Ashanthi, with its many-sided observations and its perfect direction and control of feeling." Though Lakdasa's poem is a   harsh expose of the sexploitation of the servant girl by the aristocrats (the poem bears the sub-title Nuwarawalauva Kotte 1974) and others the reader's indignation and sympathy aresomewhat dissipated by the touch of romanticism in the lines: 

I noticed her ear-lobes 
They were longer than usual as if 
gold rings of great intricacy 
and weight had hung from them" 

These lines are reminiscent of Baudelaire's To a Red-Haired Beggar Girl where the poet indulges in erotic fantasies which have little to do with the beggar-girl: 

"Gaping tatters in each garment prove 
your calling is not only beggary 
but beauty as well, 
and to a poet equally 'reduced' 
the frail and freckled body you display 
makes its own appeal - 
queens in velvet buskins take the stage 
less regally than you wade through the mud 
in your wooden clogs" 

(Richard Howard's translation) 

Baudelaire's poem oscillates between these erotic fancies he's indulging in and the wretched reality: 

"Meanwhile here you are, begging scraps 
doled out by the local table d' hote at the kitchen door." 

Lakdasa's poem moves from Ashanthi's 'marsh howl', with the focus  shifting to her ear-lobes and it ends on a rather surreal, danse  macabre note: 

"and then the familiar black stork 
danced in the hall 
once more, among an army of spines, 
an army of men centuries old who watched and gloated 
as she lay upon my lap, packed with white seed." 

Way back in 1988 when Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha published his pioneering anthology of Sri Lankan English poets he had to tackle head-on the question whether there were any worthwhile poems being written in English by Sri Lankans. 

Now that particular question has been answered once and for all  with a resounding 'yes', I would like to conclude by urging him to publish a new, expanded edition covering not only Sri Lankan poets  writing in English but also representative Sinhala and Tamil poets  transcreated in English. Such an anthology will be trulyrepresentative of the Sri Lankan Muse. 

Thenillankai Kavithai:
A collection of poems 
from South Sri Lanka 
(in translation; Author: S. Pathmanathan)
First Edition: December 2003
Publisher: Thoondi, Thirunelvely, Jaffna.
Pages: xxxii+132 pages
Price: Rs. 175 

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