Lutesong and Lament!
- Stacey Solie -
the world map, Sri Lanka appears a humble island nation. Shaped like a
tear dripping off the Southern tip of India, its proportionally small geographic
area belies the cultural diversity housed within its borders. Lutesong
and Lament, a recently released collection of Sri Lankan short works, translated
from Tamil, is similarly a deceptively skinny volume, its cover binding
together a remarkable variety of voice and perspective, style and subject.
This anthology represents the creative writing developments of a vibrant
literary community over the past fifty years, and may surprise and challenge
those accustomed to the casually urbane literary fare of, say, the New
Yorker or the Best American Short Stories series. The prose and poetry
collected here for the first time since independence, reveal a rapidly
evolving and diverse culture. A steadfast reader, willing to wade
through some initial disorientation when faced with unfamiliar literary
and cultural references, will be richly rewarded with the breadth of experience
and talent represented within.
The anthology pulls together
the works of thirty-three authors with diverse backgrounds, and includes
the work of many ex-patriots. Contemporary writers find their works
inevitably influenced by the volatile political landscape that followed
Sri Lanka’s (formerly Ceylon) attainment of independence from British rule
in 1948, and especially the extreme civil unrest of the past twenty years.
However, Sri Lankans can trace their Tamil literary history back much further,
to the Sangam poetry of the first century B.C. The timeline over
the next two millenia is marked by the flourishing and domination of the
Jaffna kingdom, by colonial invasions, and by, among other influxes, the
writings and doctrines of Christian missionaries and Islamic Moors.
Add to that the growing number of Tamils living in exile across the world
and the regional diversity within the country, and it becomes increasingly
apparent that it is not easy, if not impossible, to sum up the Tamil experience.
One commonality amongst many
of the pieces is evidence of a lively social consciousness. This awareness
seems much more of a driving force than exists in most popular English
literature today. Class analysis, nationalism, gender politics, filial
duty and right behavior continually surface as thematic elements, and demand
a certain level of attention to issues from the reader. One can easily
recognize the play and power of status and social politics, and occasionally
the message overshadows the character’s particular dilemma. However,
in most of the pieces, something more, something harder to identify, emerges
from the social predicament. It is in these examples where literature’s
power to move the imagination and the mind is demonstrated, when it is
able to stretch across political and class boundaries, across cultures
and across oceans. For example, Ramiah’s “Among the Hills” describes the
dilemma of a young woman of marriageable age, who yearns for a certain
suitor, but is held back by her family’s dependence on her wages as a tea
leaf picker. Clearly the story’s conflict is derived from a
set of specific local conditions: the challenges posed to a woman from
a certain class, as she struggles with the potential repercussions of challenging
patriarchal decisions and the pull between her own desires and her sense
of duty to her family. The author guides us deftly through this thematically
rich landscape, giving us a protagonist that is at one moment haughty,
the next repentant and unsure, revealing in only a few pages a complexity
that renders her actions both surprising, believable, and memorable.
The civil conflicts of the
last two decades provide creative fodder for many of the authors included
in this collection. The violence and the ability, or not, to escape
from it has undoubtedly played a role in both simultaneously shaping ethnic
identities, and differentiating between regional and class experiences.
One need only juxtapose “Kosalai” with “The Dematoagoda Refugee” to see
this dichotomy played out. “Kosalai”, by Ranjakumar, traces a mother’s
hopeless anxiety as the favorite son abandons her to join in the fighting,
and she is left to deal with wounded rebels bleeding in her living room
and a growing resentment towards the son left behind. In “The Dematagoda
Refugee” (A Santhan), protected by a fenced and latched yard and in the
company of his mother, we see an upper middle class man’s skeptical response
to a beggar woman’s dubious plea for help. He seems infinitely far
from the refugee camp she claims to come from. Add to this A.Muttulingam’s
story of a quest for transcendence, to be found on the wings of a butterfly,
but not without the invaluable aid of the visa, and we can get an idea
of the vast terrain covered in this volume.
The verse interspersed throughout
the collection reveals an equally if not more diverse field of inspiration
and influence. The body of the anthology is flanked on either end
by retellings of the myth of Indran and Ahalikali, but with markedly different
results, reflecting many of the artistic and intellectual developments
over the past several decades. Some of the pieces delve into
the abstract, like M Ponnambalam’s multi-layered “Self Rule”, and others
read more like odes, such as M A Nuhman’s “Passion”. Several, again,
demonstrate a strong social message, one of the more clever and powerful
dictums issued by S Sivasegaram: “Simply stop /dropping arms and ammunition
/in the begging bowls /of those who ride on our hunched backs.” The scope
of work presented here is rich and many images linger on, despite the inevitable
veils of diction and nuance that drape any literature-in-translation.
The quality of translation varies throughout the volume, often remarkably
smooth, occasionally awkward, but almost always the force of the artist
comes through, where the turn of a phrase evokes the waft of a river breeze,
the shadow of swaying limbs, where the printed word casts a spell, if for
a moment and the abstract takes shape in the mind.
While many of authors included,
according to the introduction by editor and collector Chelva Kanaganayakam,
are well known within Sri Lanka, most will be read here for the first time
in English, to the delight of any who are so lucky to thumb through
its pages. This edition should serve to catapult the literary activities
of Sri Lankans into the English-speaking and reading public realm, giving
their writings the attention it merits.