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Understandably enough, given the constant emigration from this country over the last few decades, a constant theme in poetry by Sri Lankans has been the plight of the exile. Given the vast numbers of Tamils who have left, this is obviously more common in Tamil writers, and the forthcoming collection will reflect this. I will start here however with a poem by a Sinhalese writer now in Australia, Sunil Govinnage. The poem comes from a collection called ‘Memory Island’, which in itself suggests the relation to his roots of the writer, who has also worked in Thailand. He was previously at the Institute of Fundamental Studies in Kandy, and has taught at Notre Dame University in Perth, where he works now for the Western Australian Civil Service.

The poem is short and sharp, covering a lot of ground. The first verse highlights critically but economically the financial reasons for the exile that has been sought, the second lays down a phenomenon that would have been unthinkable at home, with its more leisured way of life, dirty dishes left out all day.

The emotive description of the music from ‘one room’, perhaps the poet’s son’s, suggests the different culture of this new world, emphasized by the male laughter in the daughter’s room. After the reiteration of the daily grind, there is the delicate touch of the ridiculous decorations on equipment that have become a cult, extending to this country too. The poem then ends with recurrence of the word ‘war’, interpreted personally, to emphasize the sense of alienation and despair the emigrant life inculcates.


Tr. Ranjini Obeysekere

Like a parrot set free from someone’s hand

I rushed home famished after work

For which I had sold my soul

In the kitchen a stack of stale dishes

Looks hideously at me.

Angry music

Makes war in one room

From my daughter’s room

Comes the laughter of young men

I wash the sickly dishes

And start work in my house

A comic face hangs grinning

On the refrigerator

I turn on the TV to see

If the whole world

Is at war with me

Parvathi Arasanayagam, who still lives in Kandy, is the daughter of Jean, one of our most distinguished poets, while her father too is an accomplished writer. She is a graduate of Peradeniya, and taught there briefly, though the sometimes Orwellian requirements of our university system prevented her from continuing in service. Less ebullient than her wonderfully extravagant mother, she writes simply and perceptively of social issues as well as personal relations.

 This poem contrasts very tellingly the romantic imaginings of emigrants with the harsh reality they often have to face. The juxtaposition of churches and coniferous woods recreates the world of picture post cards, but the woods are fog-laden and what is described as temperate is soon felt as chilling.

Yet the land that has been left is registered as a wasteland, and paddy fields, normally evocative of familiar warmth, are seen as flooded, also unknown in their own way. Thus, though the fear of unemployment is noted, the emigrant puts his head down and works, excessively, looking for warm recesses, unwilling to abandon the hope that the new land might provide a home.


You wanted to escape

to a world of safety

a re-enactment of pictures

in cards sent by faithful

relatives, of spires,

churches and coniferous

woods in that temperate


It was a slow awakening,

it didn’t take long to

see that it was a landscape

to be viewed from afar,

the waft of cedar from

gloomy fog-laden woods

alien and bare stifled

dead memories of

another wasteland.

Reaching that other country

was like treading unknown

rain flooded paddy fields

way back home,

you clutched your passport

like a prayer book and

hoped that you did not

slip under the murky depths

in a new land.

The statistics weren’t too

comforting, unemployment

was on the rise and soon

you work three shifts

in order to survive,

you bow your head into

the warm recesses of winter

clothes and avoid public gaze

hoping that the chilling air

will thaw in this new found home

But there can be worse things too. Christopher Francis, who writes under the pen-name Ki.Pi. Aravinthan, was a political activist who went to France as a refugee in 1991. He also writes short stories, and has edited the web journal Appaalthamil. 

This poem deals with the racism that many emigrants have experienced. This was perhaps worst in France which was unlike Britain, where there was a long tradition of economically productive immigrants. That was the status of the majority of those, Sinhala as well as Tamil, who first went to Britain, whereas in France many of those who went initially were economically vulnerable. Even an intellectual like Francis then could have been the victim of general prejudice.

The poem vividly recreates the humiliation felt by immigrants who are the butt of disdain, and then transits swiftly to a defiant mood, which refers to the injustices of colonialism. The image then, of a tree cut and carried away from its native soil, is compelling, especially with the suggestion that the soil can never be removed entirely. But, after a plea for tolerance – since there cannot be love – the poem ends with a reiteration of the shame of the immigrant, suffering in freezing snow.


Tr. Kanchana Damodaran


Even my shadow cries out cringing, eyes lowered

in shame as eyes like those of a cat

strip me a shade lower than Black,

penetrating into the very marrow.

Oh, the blood isn’t black….?

Disdain bubbles.

Hell for Africa is in its South

they say, how can those blackened by hell’s heat

enter our circles, they ask…

The entry port to Hell was negotiated by Vasco de Gama

to discover Paradise for your cold worlds.

Who wants your Paradise?

I have not come to snatch it back.

But I cannot ever forget,

you are the ones who snatched our Paradise.

Before I could drink the waters,

spread my roots, become a tree

yielding shade and fruit,

sow seeds, become a grove,

I was felled, cut away from the soil of my roots

thrown as a tree without fruit into the frozen ice,

the soil around me was shaken off but

can the soil around roots be ever taken away?

The soul which survived the ancient flames of caste,

will it be singed now with the hot fires of race?

When and where was a foreigner ever loved?

But did we not tolerate you for three hundred years or more?

Now you should tolerate me just a little.

Even my shadow cringes and cries out

shame in my heart, I live

frozen in the snow

Obviously the stories are not as simple as all three poets suggest, and many of those who emigrated have done well. The next generation, as Govinnage indicates, has no essential reason to feel alienated, though that might not be true of those who are economically deprived and suffer discrimination. But in all three cases, the poets make those of us who remain reflect on what it was that has made so many of our people leave.

Sunday Observer 6 February 2011 http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2011/02/06/mon11.asp