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A number of poets have dealt with students and student life, in a range of approaches that is of course entirely appropriate for the subject.

I remember being particularly struck in the old days by a couple of poems written by Wilhelm Ephraums about his experiences at Peradeniya, though I have not included in the collection for the National Book Trust the one about evenings talking on a balcony with a friend, a simple experience that reverberates in the years that follow, as Yasmine Gooneratne too shows in her novel, The Sweet and Simple Kind.

The poem by Ephraums I did choose deals rather with the sense of loss that was so common, during the period he was at Peradeniya, when youngsters died seemingly at random in the upheavals of the late eighties.

But instead of that, I am using here a poem that is I think the only one in my original English anthology that was taken from a news magazine, by a writer who does not seem to have been a poet as committed as the others I published. The poem is not about university life, but deals rather with adolescence in school.

However the subject is at the cusp where adulthood looms, which means possible dangers too, as the poem indicates, whereas youngsters of that age are still secure in their innocence.

The writer was someone called Upul Karunatilleke, and Mervyn de Silva, who edited the ‘Lanka Guardian’ where I found the poem, told me he was simply one of those learned left-leaning persons who were such an ornament to the professions and the administrative service in the old days.

Totsie Vittachi was another, though he tended to go overboard in his generally erudite writings, which he produced under a series of pseudonyums.

I would have liked to have met Mr Karunatilleke, but I never did, and I think I noticed a few years later that he had died. I have continued over the years to find the poem immensely moving, with its extraordinary juxtaposition of images, the crows scattering to lusty laughs, the dying grass, the waiting helicopter, glib tongued Death.

Sports meet

You are trapped, the young
Unthinking as the bar clatters
this Jump not making five foot one
unthinking as the white clouds toss
in the pale sky, swerve to your fall,
tumble, sighting the ashen tops
of the school ground trees. Crows call
scattering to your lusty laughs
heady with the scent of the dying grass.
Records broken? Have no fear
unemployment will not get you.
You will make a sleek recruit. Be sure
this is no toy. It is deadly and it’s new
in rounds per minute, and its range
and swift reach of Death.

We taught you, and you fought
for the sports grounds cheers,
swift metres in your breath
while Applied Maths and Physics wrought
this gun, and the helicopter waits.
Death, glib tongued, presents the silver cups
shakes your hand (still there)
and money bags your hate.

Sivaramani’s poem, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom, describes a simple scene, another frequent memory for those who have left university, the desultory long-drawn-out interactions with totally familiar friends in university canteens or similar convivial places.

Here however the scene is resonant with the wider situation, where interactions have to cease by evening, and the night can be fearful.

This endows such meetings with tensions that the poet indicates through a striking series of images, the walls that rise, the sense of solitude as in a railway station, where strangers come together without the intimacy a university canteen should exude, the effort at cheerfulness in spite of wounds, the absence of words to share.

Sivaramani herself committed suicide in 1991, when she was just 23. Her poems, or what was left of them, were collected and published by the Women’s Study Circle, Jaffna, in 1993, with an introduction by Sitralega Maunaguru of the Eastern University. I do not know the circumstances of her life or her death, but it seems to me that she deserves a detailed memorial in the form of a critical biography.


Place: Jaffna University canteen
Time: 4.30 pm

An evening,
as a small deserted railway station,
walls rising between us
with each smile.

We talk desultorily,
my friends and I.
These moments are of no importance –
only a reaching out for cheerfulness
in spite of our wounds.
There are no words to share.

A friend’s fingers tap
amidst the splashed tea
in time to a forgotten song.
Drunk on tea, flies
are trapped in the cobwebs above.
Someone shakes her shoulders,
laughing quietly.
Who made a joke?
I didn’t hear.

Clouds move past
the glass window panes.
So does time, minute by minute
leaving no trace nor scent.

The westering sun enters the door
to drive us from the tables,
the chairs, the empty cups.
We rise to our feet and leave –
not to change the world:
only to enter another night.

Finally I thought I would look at a much more ordinary phenomenon as far as students are concerned. The poem is by Buddhadasa Galappathy and translated by Ranjini Obeysekere. Again it deals with schooldays, but at the stage where adult concerns have intruded, and perhaps taken over.

Reading recently of problems that have occurred because we have not really adjusted to the fact that children grow up more quickly now than before, and are open to information and communications that were not common a few decades back, I wonder whether we should not be ensuring better counseling in schools, more skilful supervision of extra-curricular activities and greater concern with ensuring purposiveness.

If the dangers of political perversion of the young are less worrying than previously, social problems will only increase as the young grow up more and more quickly.

Still, I’m sure Galappathy would not have wanted protracted analysis with regard to what is after all a simple if striking poem.

The student

In a dress white as the athana flower
and a pair of milk-white shoes
head demurely downcast, not a glance astray
like a holy one observing the precepts, she
walks to school to acquire learning
a love letter smuggled between her breasts.

Sunday Observer 8 May 2011 – http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2011/05/08/mon08.asp