While I have enjoyed preparing this column from a purely literary perspective, it was also intended, as its title indicates, to indicate similarities between the different peoples of this country and therefore encourage a sense of shared perspectives.
I was not sure if I was having any impact in this regard, so I was delighted recently to receive a note from one of the Tamil writers whose work I am using for the book that will be published later this year by the National Book Trust of India. This is Somasundramoillai Pathmanathan, whose translations appear under the name SOPA. He wrote ‘After all, isn’t the end of all Knowledge, Spiritualism and Culture, Man acquires the recognition of things in common among different peoples of the world? Perhaps, decades later, when Sri Lankans sit back to ponder over what went wrong in our relationships, won’t they blame our generation for pushing the Country into an abyss? It is from this point of view that I consider what you are doing laudable.’
I was deeply touched, and I hope that others too have looked also at what these poems when juxtaposed tell us about our common concerns, and shared attitudes in dealing with these concerns.
Talking of common concerns, I have looked previously at poems that dealt with love, and also poems that dealt with sexuality. On the latter occasion I used three poems expressing female sexuality, and the tone was tender and also romantic, though desire was not necessarily directed at a particular individual.
Male sexuality is less sensuous in the poems featured today, and in a couple of cases the writers are engaging really in social criticism. Buddhadasa Galappathy deals with a topic that is unfortunately all too common, the abuse of domestic workers by males in the household. Though we express shock and horror when we come across instances with regard to migrant workers, we need to be aware that the phenomenon occurs within this country too. As with child abuse, the worst cases occur in domestic settings, and we should not salve our consciences by pretending that the guilt lies with foreigners alone. The translation is by Malini Govinnage.
She was not allowed
To cross the frontier between kitchen and parlour
But it was not the same
For the young master of the house
Who could cross the border between parlour
Anytime he wished
One night when the moon had not yet appeared
When the hearth fire was out
She was asleep on a ragged old mat
Covered from head down in a chintz cloth
Asleep, weary of her work from morning
Stealthily the young master stops by her
He stoops, deft hands
Searching for the flower buds on her bosom
Searching for the warmth spreading in her
Dayawathie woke from her sleep
Felt for the knife she had kept at her head,
And plunged it through him
And Dayawathie shouted, and she laughed
She will have to move
From the court to the prison one day
And she will be there for a year or two
And then back to the village she will go
With a light heart, with smiles
Not being the mother
Of a fatherless child.
This story ends in death, though the impression conveyed is that tragedy has been avoided. T Ramalingam, one of the older generation of Tamil poets, deals with a similar subject in a manner that seems more light-hearted. The narrative voice in the poem, in this translation by S Pathmanathan, asserts a superiority as to caste which goes hand in hand with crude behavior. A thirst for alcohol is followed by lust, which is expressed peremptorily and cannot be denied by its poor object.
Ramalingam wrote at a time when caste issues were a bone of contention in the North, and his aggressive egalitarian outlook struck deep chords. At the same time one should note that, while such exploitation needed to be recorded, and remedied, sexual abuse does not arise only in cases of social difference. Even within families unequal power relationships can lead to abuse, and the problems caused by inequalities based on class and caste should not blind us to other inequalities too.
Lust is without caste
High-caste vellala I was born
and scan the eggs of orthodoxy
to avoid even minute traces of hair
However, for its medicinal value
I take toddy
nothing so heinous about that
For a drink of toddy I went, ignoring
the dead flies floating in the foaming pots
in the compound
‘Sit down, your honour’, and I sat
on the mat apart that the low-born lass showed.
As she filled the cup and bent to hand it over
she struck a spark
that lit the fire of lust within me
My eyes turned to a bowl to be filled by the toddy
of her overflowing breasts
I took her hands
startled, she shook them free and ran inside
But I followed, my mouth a-quiver
to collect the toddy of her lips
‘Quench my fire,’ I begged
and she yielded
So in scrutinizing the egg of orthodoxy
I found a blackened hair
Finally, in looking at one of Lakdasa Wikkramasinha’s best known poems, one needs to register that the indulgent tone should not be accepted unquestioningly.
The situation that is described, sexual relations between master and servant, is presented as tragically exploitative in some of Wikkramasinha’s other poetry, and one has to wonder whether the relationship that is described so jovially here is actually quite so pleasant.
But, that having been noted, one should also avoid an indiscriminatingly puritan approach to the question.
Some such relationships can actually be mutually satisfactory as well as beneficial, and I suspect Wikkramasinha was sharp enough to know and appreciate the range of possibilities.
Certainly the racy references to historical precedent, the gentle mockery as to pretensions about lineage, and the entertaining references to Keyt show a sophisticated talent at its best.
To my friend Aldred
My dear chap,
In this Kandyan weather there is
no shame in having in your bed
a servant maid –
The same passion moved others too, famous in time –
When there were servant maids about
Achilles for one – who gave his heart to
Briseis, a milky slave
& Tecmessa: enemy blood, as Horace has it;
and Agamemnon fired Troy and burnt his
heart to a cinder, hot
for a virgin there;
and though we do not get so Greek here
we are not to such titillations immune –
– being classical in our traditions.
And so it is
with you and your Jose
with such long lashes
to whom you have lost your heart,
And no fear, she is not engendered by the low
at all. Dismiss the mere thought; I envisage indeed
such an ancestry
as leading in its heyday
to some king of these parts, or some
noble lord, or at the least
some lonely Scotsman in these hills. Else
would not have such a loyal, unmercenary mind,
or cook such yarms, gleaming purple
and pots of jak, steaming yellow
or have a figure
straight out of the old poetry books:
Breasts like gourds, and ripe and Oh
nodding like geese, thighs
like plantain trunks, and
haunches as a king could ride on
in this matter of praise, in your fortune –
thick black coils of hair on her head, and elsewhere –
I mean, all’s well
that ends there
And all roads lead to Rome!