After the oblique references to conflict in poems about the full moon, I thought I would deal direct with conflict this week. The first poem, by Parakrama Kodituwakku, was one of the most remarkable works of art associated with the first insurrection of 1971. I still recall reading it for the first time, in an Anthology of Sri Lankan writing produced by Ranjini Obeysekere and Chitra Fernando soon after I began teaching at Peradeniya. I believe it was the first book I was asked to review, and I think I made special mention of this poem.
The stereotyping by authorities of radical youth, if not subtle, makes clear the dichotomy between traditional expectations and modern aspirations. The translation by Ranjini Obeysekere captures in each stanza the different ways in which authority looks at the unorthodox. The last stanza, with its blend of diffidence and defiance, suggests the dilemma of the new generation; it illustrates too the long intellectual tradition of which the young rebels felt themselves the latest incarnation.
Court inquiry of a revolutionary
I. (School Report)
Doubts all teachings.
Works as he chooses.
II. (Religious Instructor’s Report)
Disbelief verily signifieth a sinful mind.
The horoscope too indicateth a lack of merit.
Choleric humours have become excited, turbulent.
Hath no knowledge of the doctrine of the gods.
I take refuge in the Buddha. He should do so too.
III. (Court Report)
(a) Attempted to break the law.
(b) Destroyed the peace.
(c) Should be ordered a whipping.
(d) Be made into a good citizen
IV. (Doctor’s Report)
Psychiatric treatment advised.
Phobia, mania, paranoia, hysteria
Brain surgery recommended.
Demonic fantasies to be controlled.
Before going to bed
Several tablets of phenobartitone.
V. (Statement of the Accused)
Turn me not into a snail
my feelers chopped off.
Turn me not into a coward
By preaching of gods.
Turn me not into a buffalo
Burdened with false views.
Make me not a good boy
with hands and mouth gagged.
Allow me to question like Socrates
Doubt like Descartes
Crash through like a gushing river
Cut clean as a knife.
Let me, like a p….
Karunakaran’s poem deals with the expectation that a soldier should destroy, without contemplation of the humanity of those he acts against. The animal imagery is used to establish both the innocence of the victims and the abnegation of self and reflection that a soldier must cultivate. The juxtaposition of the soldier’s own nervousness, with the terror of those he attacks, brings home vividly the sheer brutality of war. Mention of both the toys of children, and the long history of the village now destroyed, contribute to the sense of waste.
The subject is probably an army soldier, but the description could equally well suit a terrorist. In either case the perpetrators as well as the victims suffer from the destruction they unleash. The translation is by S Pathmanathan.
Impressions of a soldier
the command tore my frozen blood.
At dawn I opened fire
at the sleeping village
two doves fell bleeding, and
branches shed leaves
distant wails rent the air
In my mind’s screen
no bullet-proof jacket
no peace of mind either
Loosened, my mind fell down
to be trampled
by my own shoe
The commander’s voice goaded me
as if I was a bridled horse
the wind laden with wails wriggled
again the orders for leaping stallions
Our shots silenced the wails
hands gripping the slipping rifle
I inched forward
opening Time’s door
The village under siege had lost its people
the compounds strewn with flowers
longing for kids
the surge of wind rising from the palmyrah palms
The wailing palms cried
not to erase the footprints,
rooted here for centuries
I stood frozen
Kamala Wijeratne also conveys a sense of waste, but what she describes, and the tone she uses, are quite different. Her generally gentle approach to conflict has led to criticism on the grounds that she glorifies nationalism and war. This is a misreading of her sensibility. Though I am sure she would see herself as patriotic, there is nothing chauvinistic about her perspective, able as she is to register the suffering on all sides that war brings.
The soldiers who are her subject here are certainly presented positively, not as the killing machines Karunakaran had described. Yet this too is an aspect of soldiers, and doubtless of those engaging in terrorism too, at moments of relaxation and camaraderie, outside the field and focus of battle.
There is no romanticization however about Kamala Wijeratne’s perspective. The first few stanzas are jolly, but these move into the writer’s sense of melancholia at the jollity. But mixed in too with sympathy for the youngsters is an understanding of their passivity in the process they are part of, captives rather than free agents. In a sense, this is the other side of the coin from the compulsions Karunakaran’s soldier is shown as undergoing.
Singing they went
Those troops of youth
Looking so smart
In their green-brown uniforms
Happy they were
As they drummed with their hands
And sang their songs
And beat their boots in rhythm
The truck trundled to the north
Was it their youth
That brought the mist to my eyes?
Was it the unbroken melody
That left me uneasy?
I could not wipe off a picture
That sprang before me and spread
As the long convoy passed
And the music in it faded
A long line of caged parrots
I saw one day in a pet shop:
The green was fading from their feathers
I knew their days were numbered
I wanted to buy them all
And let them fly
Back to the greenwood to sing all day
The trucks trundled to the north
I pressed my eyelids
Down over the smarting eyes
The gods protect you
And also, those you meet
Smart they looked
Those troops of youths
In their green-brown uniforms.
Happy they seemed
As they drummed their hands
And sang their songs
Their voices drowned the noises
In the street
The trucks trundled to the north.