The poems I am juxtaposing this week all deal with legends. They are therefore all of them quite long, so my own intrusions must necessarily be brief. This is fortunately not a problem, for the poems speak for themselves. All I need to note is the fact that the legends dealt with by writers in English and Sinhala and Tamil all deal with sexual attraction.
The Tamil poem, by one of the most influential of modern poets, Mahakavi, is about how the God Indran seduced the wife of a sage, and was punished for his crime with a thousand sores, while poor Ahalikai was turned to stone. Happily, she was later brought back to life by the touch of Rama. The translation is by Chelva Kanaganayakam, to whom I am indebted for my first visit to the University of Jaffna, way back in 1981.
Indran climbs down the heavenly mountain
his sweet-smelling chest draped
in an embroidered shawl that reflects
the rays of the waning moon;
And suddenly the noisy insects are quiet
Anklets silent on floating feet
he does not pause in his majestic stride
as he descends to the earth
and moves across the grassy fields to a singing stream
He plucks a bud awaiting the sun
cups his hand and breathes deep
loves and laments
the joys of earth that bloom at dawn
and fade at dusk
Reaching the stream he drinks
as though the dull taste recalled
the flavour of celestial food
he smiles, fleetingly, flicks away the flower
and approaches the hut
His shawl that shines like stars in the serene sky,
sword and sandals and bracelets too
he hides with care
and returns again to the descending path
bright eyes searching the maze of trees,
the line of shrubs
to alight and focus on the hut
He steps across the thornless stile
the birds now stare, disturbed from the branches
but blind to all he moves with steadfast eyes
to peer searchingly through a tiny crack.
Ahalikai moves her arms, soft as winnowed stalks
across the grey chest of Gothama the sage
he wakes, thinking it dawn
pushes her away and leaves the hut
watched by unblinking eyes.
The arm that moved in search of joy
comes back to rest on her half seen breasts,
and lips curl in a wistful smile
She sighs and turns
Gothama sets off for his usual seat,
eyes closed in meditation
and Indran stands at the foot of the bed
eyes bright with flaming passion
as her body arches with love denied.
No beast of prey would dare approach
this hut the sage had made his own
but possessed by lust, the god stands
his body burning, and he moves
She gasps with pain, loving the
hands that move in love
he fills her with the passion he brought
she does not see what brings her joy
As one possessed his lips seek
eyelids and melting limbs
his body aflame he takes her
and her eyes slowly open
She sees, shuddering
her body drenched in sweat
and then she seems to freeze
and her eyes wide open she turns to stone
The lord of all celestial beings
Watches aghast at the woman he craved
the sage returned, looks around,
strokes his beard in thought
and turns away
damned for eternity
his perfect body erupting in a thousand sores
Deserted, alone, a senseless stone
She awaits the quickening touch of another god
Alfreda de Silva was a wonderfully lyrical poet who I feel never obtained the recognition she received. Perhaps this was because initially she was known as a writer for children. But she also produced a wonderful series of vignettes based on legends, Cinderella, Eve, and more than once Persephone, the daughter of Ceres, the goddess of fruitfulness, who was taken down to the Underworld by its Lord, Hades. Ceres grieved so much that the world was overcome by cold, so Zeus, the King of the gods, made Hades return the girl.
But, having refused to eat in her grief, she had tasted three pomegranate seeds before she left, and this meant she had to return to Hades for three months every year – which is why Winter came, as Ceres grieved for her absent daughter. Alfreda de Silva however gently suggests another reason for Persephone to go back to Hades.
Words for Personphomne
In that outrageous hour
when you imprisoned me
my fear and hate
stopped all the machines
The sun grew dull
I have returned
at the appointed time,
bringing back the flow
Lakes unfreeze themselves
fish dive in hollows
grain flares in fields
and sap flows
in the tree-roots
They’re offering me
promises and distractions
to get away from you;
but I would not stay here now
even if I could.
What has happened
to my hate and fear?
Is it the pomegranate
that has cast a spell
with its bitter-sweet taste
on my tongue?
All summer long
you have haunted me,
to the weird abundance
of that unending dark.
Finally, Sarath Amunugama, now a Senior Minister, writes of the Bhikkhuni whose story appears in the ‘Theri-gatha’, the songs of virtuous women. She was turned away by her husband because she was excessively modest. The translation by A T Dharmapriya captures the fact that Dr Amunugama, writing in his romantic youth, concentrates as much on the attractions of the lady as her virtue.
Innocence is an enemy
to the tide of love
that rises as one removes the richest of attire
I’m endlessly impatient
to touch the softness
of her modesty –
of the one who is
in the city of Udeni.
Yet between us
is a thick impenetrable wall.
In the deepest night
my hands, maddened by the taste of
to break the wall
but it remains
unshakable, spiritually spotless.
Maddening me more
I see the woman through the wall
from time to time
like flitting lightning
yet the wall doesn’t shake
like the wall round the city.
Even the harlot that roams the city
On a festival night
And undresses her love to the gold coins
though not half so beautiful as her
does not build walls around me.
Even with a harlot
my hands swooned mercilessly in love
can make a sweet note that tickles my body
like the hands of Guttila
running through the veena-strings.
She was the most virtuous in the city of Udeni
she was the most beautiful in the city of Udeni
like an emaciated, skeletal beggar woman
she was expelled from the house.