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Poetry can often convey a sense of place vividly. In the Sri Lankan context this has been used often recently to convey the sadness of parting from places to which one belonged. Earlier we looked at poems that talked about exile, in terms of the difficulties of creating a home in a different environment. Here we see descriptions of the familiar, accompanied by a sense of loss.

Kamala Wijeratne has been the butt of criticism on occasion by authorities in some English Departments for what is seen as chauvinism. Indeed I remember the sad occasion when the English Association tried to celebrate Sri Lankan writing in English by asking academics to bring out collections of criticism for poetry and fiction and drama. The last never happened, and the fiction collection was interminably delayed because the editor could not get enough contributions in time. Finally what he had got was put together as part of one number of ‘Navasilu’, the journal of the Association.

The poetry volume did come out, but it turned out to consist of harsh criticism of most poets. Anne Ranasinghe was the only person whose merits were seen to outweigh her defects, understandably so since I wrote that piece. Even Yasmine Gooneratne was traduced, leading however to her memorable comment that she had known the academic in question was not able to write, but she was sad to discover she did not know to read either. Kamala I think had the harshest treatment, but I feel the essay showed rather the difficulties those with urban perspectives had in dealing with the emotions of the average Sri Lankan. What was missed too, in the midst of critiques of what Kamala would perhaps have thought of as simple patriotism, was her empathy for all those who suffered. This comes out most clearly in her account of a friend leaving after being victimized in the anti-Tamil riots of the early eighties.


Can you remember
the last time we met
over the ashes
and the smoking debris
of what was once your home?

Painfully you built it
year after year
adding bit by bit
as your resources permitted
and filled it with your presence
to give it the feeling of home.

That grim day
under the mournful splatter of rain
your hand felt clammy to my touch
your brow when I kissed it was stone cold
but the tears that sprang to my eyes
brought no answering wetness to your own
you did not lament nor protest.

I hung down my head
In misery and shame
The weight of history sagged down my shoulders
Its pages heavy with the grim saga of our war-torn races.

But you did not sag
for dispossession had made you free
free of the water bill, the errant tenant
and all trammels that unleash the beast in man.

You held your head erect
and there was grace in your bearing
you gave your two hands
one to the daughter
one to the aging mother
and supporting both
you set forth
your face to the west.

You did not tell me
whether you would begin all over
where you would pick up
and how you would go on.

I lingered on, the smoke choking me
I remembered that drawing room
the twilight filtering through the west window
the fading sunlight a rainbow on the pane
how you used to talk on as the shadows deepened around us
I listened and there were moments
when we did not speak at all
but sat companionably side by side
and let the night come down on us.
For hours I stood there
aimless, alone and benumbed;
shaking off the dull paralysis.
I saw the charred skeletal wall
and the shadow that stretched over the mountain side
and the fear of the cemetery was on me.

The poem by Thirumavalavan, translated by S Pathmanathan, uses the image of the weaver bird to convey the care with which a home was built up, only to be destroyed. The poet moves dexterously between the work of the bird and the feelings of the narrator, ending with the stark image of homeless wandering.

The Weaver-bird’s nest

crossing seven seas and five continents
the weaver-bird has at last found sanctuary
in a hut
in the frozen north

a prized remembrance sent
by a friend back in my village
the nest sways in the wind blowing through my window
kindling thoughts of my land
ravaged by war

how many days
would the weaver-bird have taken
to weave this nest?
picking blades of grass
like me choosing words
weaving them dexterously
like my grandmother weaving a purse
with palm leaf strips

an entrance to receive visitors
an exit in case of danger
a cradle
held by a long string
to rock the little ones

when the nest sways in the breeze
I hear the lament of birds deprived of their nests

my land
the hut built by my grandfather
to be bequeathed to my daughter after me
and to her child after her

the swaying nest
slaps the face of my memory
my long dream lost in a day
driven out
hiding sobs and moans in my saree’s hood
during the long walk along the jungle track

my heart bleeds
in this freezing cold
only nests remain

and wandering amidst foreign pines
birds without nests
like me

No such stark accounts of enforced exile can be seen in the Sinhala poets I have collected, but the piece by Aryawansa Ranaweera, translated by Liyanage Amarakeerthi, that is presented here seemed a suitable counterpart in its evocation of emotions associated with a place that has not been lost. A strong sense of desolation is conveyed, but since there is no actual destruction of what there was, the feelings roused are less charged. The contrast with what has been destroyed by external forces brings home more forcefully then the situation described in the other poems.

The intersection

I love that intersection
where one path leads
to a certain little house.

A few dwarf stores
their old plank doors half closed
break the deserted loneliness
and stray dogs
with mouths down on the ground
sleep here and there.

It’s just an intersection
with nothing special about it.

I love
that intersection
with one path leading
to a certain
little house.

Sunday Observer 1 May 2011 – http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2011/05/01/mon12.asp