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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.

Questions continuously.

Thinks individualistically.

Disregards discipline.

Works as he chooses.

Conduct unsatisfactory.

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)

Sick.

Psychiatric treatment advised.

Phobia, mania, paranoia, hysteria

Neurotic, psychotic

Abnormal, criminal

Behaviour unnatural.

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….

Rise, erect.

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

Terrifying moments

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

pleading faces

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

knees knocking

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

toys

longing for kids

the surge of wind rising from the palmyrah palms

kicked me

The wailing palms cried

not to erase the footprints,

rooted here for centuries

Stunned

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.

Musical

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

I thought

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.

Sunday Observer 5 June 2012 – http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2011/06/05/mon07.asp

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