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In 2007, the National Book Trust published a collection of Sri Lankan Short Stories I had edited, entitled ‘Bridging Connections’. Typically, it has not sold well in this country. This is a pity, because it also introduced stories written originally in Sinhala and Tamil. It would have been good for at least the English speaking who did not know one or other of those languages to appreciate thoughts they otherwise could not register.

In India the book has done very well, and is being translated into all the other official Indian languages. I have since been asked to compile a similar collection of poetry, a task I was more worried about, given the much greater knowledge required to judge the merits of poetry in languages in which one is not a literary expert. However, I have received much assistance from friends, and strangers to whose kindness I am indebted.

I will try over the next couple of months to introduce some of the poems I have chosen, juxtaposing poems from two or three different languages each week. I should note that I have not as yet got permission from all the writers, which is essential before the book is finalized, but I hope they will not mind my introducing some of them through these columns.

Many poems deal with violence and suffering, understandably enough for times of tension stretch creativity to its limits. The insurgency of 1971 revitalized Sinhala poetry, as has happened with Tamil poetry since the conflict in the North flamed up. English poetry too took on new life with the riots of July 1983 that brought suffering home even to groups that had been immune from such problems previously.

I thought I would begin however with something more lyrical, and present different accounts of the appeal of the rivers that make our landscape so luscious.

The first poem here is by R Cheran, who teaches now at the University of Windsor, Canada. He comes from a distinguished family of poets, being the son of Mahakavi, arguably the most important of 20thcentury Sri Lankan Tamil poets, and the brother of Avvai, one of the younger women poets who came into prominence in the 1980s. Cheran is perhaps better known now as a political activist, and has most recently produced a paper on ‘Empowering Diasporas’ for the Berghof Foundation. His poetry however conveys a wide range of thought and emotion. The placing here of the adjectives ‘wet’, ‘bitter’, ‘unhushed’, prepare us in the idyllic scene for the lovelorn loneliness of the poet.

Cheran

Dry Season: Riverside

 Boatman,

You paddle away into the distance …

And I still sit on the bank

Before me green eddies in the river;

mid-day, and the wet sun glints

in the paddle strokes

The etti trees that survived the storm

are laden with bitter fruit beside the bank;

and scattered coconut palms guzzle the sun

On the bridge the crowds pass, still unhushed ….

Boatman, you paddle still further away

and lovelorn

I sit on the bank alone

Tr. S. Pathmanathan

As a pendant to Cheran’s poem is that of Lal Hegoda, who approaches life at a tangent that compels attention to life’s many ironies. This poem moves lyrically to celebrating a self-denying union with the river, that takes the poet away from ‘samsaric bonds’.

I know even less of Lal Hegoda than of Cheran, though I have just written to him. I can only say that he is a photographer as well as a poet, who is concerned with interpreting the private man, in the socio–political setting of the present day, to quote his translator.

I’m A Man Because You Are A River

On this river bank

in a most pleasant seat

under a cool canopy

of Kumbuk trees

I will rest awhile

for a brief respite in life

Here and there in the high canopy

caressed by long fingers

red leaves rustle in the breeze

they move and show

the blue sky in a floral pattern.

its shadow falling on the water

breaking into a thousand little fragments.

When the sun’s brassy rays

flow along with the river

the jeweled lights

float in the soft darkness beneath the canopy

the grandeur is beyond words

and only a poet can sing of it.

Free from other ‘samsaric bonds’

my mind falls in love

As with a language so familiar

I understand what you say so coyly

smiling like the foam

as you go winding along

amidst the rocks

breaking into a symphony

I will throw away the watch in my hand

I will throw away the shoes on my feet.

Leaving you where else can I go?

As I shed my clothes

one now and then another

I see my own body’s image

like a dark shadow

Because I am a man

and you are a river

let’s melt softly

in a loving embrace.

Is there another way?

Tr. A T Dharmapriya

Finally, since there are no rivers in the English poems I have chosen, I will include something by Richard de Zoysa that also uses an image from nature. It may need some explication, for those who do not know the cult book of the seventies called Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, which became a byword for the urge for self-expression of those more innocent days.

Having read recently, in a thought-provoking essay, that Richard’s fame as a poet is owing in part to my celebrations of him since his death, I will not say more about him, or this poem. Happily, the writer, who was sad that Lakdasa Wikkramasinha did not enjoy similar fame, grants Richard’s excellence. All I can say here, nearly 21 years after Richard died, reading again the last few lines of this poem, is that Richard continued to be Jonathan L all through his far too short life.

BUT EVERY GULL IS NOT CALLED JONATHAN L.

When first love dies, it is like a sea-bird

plunging from the wheeling heights of ecstasy

into black waters.

There is a moment, as you rip through the heaving surface

when sensation is all

abandonment to the depths is complete

and there is no thought.

No words. Then down down,

chasing the winking gleam of a fish

until reality clasped firmly in your beak

you emerge ………. rocket-like

you burst into the day’s hard glare

climb once more, but to a more conservative height.

And

(the day goes on, but the thrill is gone)

soon comes night.

And as you turn and head for home

there is a sad salt tang in the breeze

that draws at your consciousness, saying

No more the high-flung heights. No more

the light fantastic on the gusty winds.

Security is all

Sunday Observer 23 January 2011

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