A collection of poems from South
- A. J. Canagaratna
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.
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
"And the boy said, 'This
is the Gap'
We thought we could see
But there was only mist
swirling, so we headed back
The boy pointing out as
Their row of gloomy line
Where women after tea
plucking pottered around
Watching across the slope
the tennis by the summer-house
And tea served English
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
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
The sad South Indian type
who cooked our dinner
Appeared lonely and wanted
We asked him about tomorrow's
And found out the reason
for his sadness.
He had voted, he said,
with all the lusty joy of voting
In every election since
He couldn't vote on the
He was no more a citizen"
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
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
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
the mob. There were four
in that car, a girl, a
(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
I suppose, then they proceeded
action, by then routine.
petrol and all that stuff.
Then someone noticing
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.....
was quick, lighting a
efficiently. An instant
fire followed, adding
tok many around......
Then suddenly the man
breaking open the door,
out, his shirt already
fire and hair too. Then
too his two children.
looking around as if executing
decision, he resolutely
re-entered the car.
Once inside he closed
himself - I heard the
Still the ruined car
is there, by the road-side
with other such things.
the Municipality will
one of these days
to the Capital's
garbage pit. The cleanliness
of the Capital
receives Authority's top
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
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
I noticed her ear-lobes
They were longer than
usual as if
gold rings of great intricacy
and weight had hung from
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
your calling is not only
but beauty as well,
and to a poet equally
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,
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
danced in the hall
once more, among an army
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.
A collection of poems
from South Sri Lanka
(in translation; Author:
First Edition: December
Publisher: Thoondi, Thirunelvely,
Pages: xxxii+132 pages
Price: Rs. 175
Daily News (Sri Lanka)