, ,

C(Excerpts of Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha’s introduction to “Sri Lankan Tamil Poetry: An Anthology’ by S. Pathmanathan, which was published in Jaffna recently.)

I am pleased, and honoured, to contribute an introduction to this collection of poetry produced by So Pathmanathan. I got to know him well when he helped with the production of Mirrored Images, the collection of English and Sinhala and Tamil poetry that the National Book Trust of India published a couple of years back. He then participated actively in the various launches of the book, in Colombo and Jaffna and Matara in 2013. Then, in 2014, he toured a number of other universities too, together with English and Sinhala language poets, to introduce the book and discuss its contents from a shared pluraristic perspective.

In the case of this volume too I use the work produced because, while the bulk of the book consists of translations which he has produced of the work of others, his own poetry is also included. The work as a whole showcases Tamil poetry of the last several years, and does this in English, which makes it accessible to more readers in the country.

This is an eminently worthy task, because for far too long people in other parts of the country had no knowledge, let alone understanding, of what people whose first language was Tamil were going through. I do not say Tamil people, for this volume contains many poems by Muslims, which suggest both shared experiences and some instructive differences.

The volume covers a wide range of experience, described in vivid language and moving imagery. Though obviously the skill with which the poems are presented is that of the translator, he has also managed to indicate some flavor of the individual styles of the various writers he has included. Obviously, given the dominant experiences of the last couple of decades, there is much emotion arising from violence and deprivation, but there are softer emotions too, and also some examples of whimsicality and romance.

The most unusual of the poems new to me was Solaikili’s ‘THE MAD BUFFALO’ with a conclusion that brings us back to earth, reminding us of what could be seen as the rewards of absurdity –


Drinking the muddy water
it declared:
“I drink boiled filtered water”
“Entry into the fields
is forbidden!”
It decreed
Hot mid- day sun
The buffalo’s madness worsened
It applied soap
dried its head with flowers
‘I don’t like dirty ones”
It proclaimed
and chased away the white cranes
Who knows its speeches and photos
may appear in tomorrow’s papers!

Amongst my favourites, which appeared also in Mirrored Images, is Cheliyan’s ‘The little fry that left the sea’.

were in no mood
to get back to the sea
but instead
The house – fly brought the news
that the fry had been seen
dancing in the night clubs
The insect lamented that they were loafing
with a handsome singer


I suspect that, were this poem taught in Sri Lankan universities, hidden meanings would be deemed essential, and the fry would be seen as symbolizing expatriates who had left their original element and
had dissolved their hearts in the frothing beer
and were found weeping
on the banks of the Thames


But I think the poem is entertaining enough without such interpretations, and is a joyous exploration of the thirst for new experiences.
This unusual poem is followed by a straightforward lament for a grandfather, which weaves in a range of experience, moving from the narrator’s fond memories of childhood to a shrapnel wound when war broke out, and then religious devotion and second childhood. But Jeyaseelan ends on a note of unusual sensitivity, when he asks


Will I be able
to offer my grandson
a relationship
as precious
as yours, appu?
I wonder


Loss is sharper, and its source more bitter in Oddamavadi Arafath’s ‘ MISSING’
You’re at the threshold
waiting for your father
who left
in his ox – drawn cart
to fetch firewood …
Those who went
looking for him
brought your vaapa’s
blood – stained sarong
like Yusuf nabi’s cloak
How then can I give
what you’re asking for ?


Interestingly, a great many of the poems about the suffering inflicted by war are by Muslims. And though it would be comforting to believe that this persecution was the responsibility of the LTTE, it is clear that the state too played its part in the brutalities that occurred. Particularly telling is Nuhuman’s account of the burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1983, a vicious action that we still need to expiate


Last night
I had a dream
Lord Buddha was shot dead
by the police –
guardians of the law.
His body lay drenched in blood
on the step
of the Jaffna Library!
Under cover of darkness
came the ministers
‘His name – not in our lists!
Why did you kill him?’
they ask in anger
‘No, sirs, no!
Without bumping him off
it was impossible
to harm even a fly.
Therefore ….’, they stammered
There was no mistake.
‘Okay, okay!
Hide the corpse.’


Pathmanathan himself deals with another source of suffering, when he talks about the changing role of the IPKF, following the Indo-Lankan Accord of 1987, in ‘Thoughts on a Full Moon Day (Composed on the eve of the departure of the IPKF)’


Having received those celestial beings
we took them round in motorcades
we were in a trance for over a month
But one day the gods turned into demons
they pestered us who had asked for a homeland
and our homes were destroyed
The transformed gods had to be appeased
with fowls and goats
with ornaments and houses
and wine and women


The other poem by Pathmanathan that he includes in this volume is his evocation of the losses caused by displacement. When he manages to get back home, he misses the dog he had to abandon


You are not there
but your memory haunts me
when I think that you perished
defending the house I abandoned
I feel the pangs of guilt
I am ashamed of my cowardice
my pettiness
As I take stock of the damaged house
the lost possessions
the missing members
the displaced persons
my balance sheet shows a debit
I could ask you for a write – off
but you’re not there
Only your memory
haunts me still


Other poems are more direct in their descriptions of the problems of those who had to seek refuge from violence, as in Manohari’s ‘THE DESTITUTES’


Endless line of refugees
with their kit bags
Trudging along
drenched in rain
Collecting rain water to drink
Guided only by the morning star
we moved on
Unclaimed corpses
on the fringes of the village
Our motherland was slipping
under our feet


Solaikili’s account, as a poet, deals with the emotional draining of the experience –


I am a three – day refugee
successful in saving my life
The poem wells within it
Those who saw my house say
its nose is broken
I understand
that the flower plants I nurtured
have been eaten by cows

I own no sky
Even the air I breathe
belongs to someone else


Having lost ninety thousand stars
and the sky
and you
How can I write poetry?


Having lost my butterfly
and the lizard that dwells
in a cranny of my bed
how can I write poetry, o moon!


And Karunakaran, whose work I had been especially pleased to discover, and include in Mirrored Images, draws attention to a poignant aspect of displacement, the corrosive impact of enforced dependency


Don’t scribble on the wall, son
Don’t pluck the flowers
They are not ours
Be thankful to those
who threw their door open
when we came desperate that night


Wait till we get back home
You can play in the courtyard
You can tie a rope swing
on the mango tree
and climb up the wind


You can lie for long on the sand in the moonlight
and gaze at the sky
Till then we have to be contented
with the space we have
It pains me to impose sanctions, son


But in addition to the evocation of suffering caused by the war, there is also empathy for the other. Particularly moving was the account of a youth in need enlisting


My training was over yesterday
This evening or tomorrow
I may be sent to the North
so that he could
see my little hut
in the south – west blossom


Karunakaran’s approach is more ironic in ‘WHEN WISDOM WAVERED’, but there is also sympathy for the individuals caught up in the suffering, wherever they might be


The Head of state
having removed his shoes
falls at Buddha’s feet
“Must capture ten or twelve towns”
A gentle smile crosses
the corner of Siddharta’s mouth
Buddha is saddened
that the passions he once burnt out
sprout today
On this full moon day
Jeyatillake is poring over
the notice of enlistment
He thinks about
Podimenike and Punchinilame
who couldn’t even see
the bodies of their sons killed in action


In the midst of all this suffering caused by conflict, Pathmanathan also reminds us of other forms of suffering prevalent in an earlier period. The principal poets of the revival of Sri Lankan Tamil poetry in the middle of the last century were particularly concerned about caste, and it is mentioned in both the poems drawn from that period. I presume Mahakavi is talking about the violence that was a feature of the movement to open temples to all castes in the sixties, when he writes
He came with sparkling eyes
and sinewy arms
to seek the grace of God.
He came,
a youth of lowly caste
a human being
kin to those
who spread their wings
to touch the moon
and return unscathed.
But found death instead, punishment it would seem for aspirations above his station
A stone fell
A head split
Teeth broken
faces disfigured
blood split
the earth reddened
and in the commotion
humans massacred….
Behold, the kin of men
who spread his wings
to touch the moon,
writhing in pain
on the bloody dust


Ramalingam’s ‘Lust is without Caste’ is entertaining rather than intense, but it is also meant to make us think, in its account of power asserting itself –


High – caste Vellala I was born….
… for its medicinal value
I take toddy
nothing so heinous about that….
‘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…
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


Another aspect of the burdens women bear is explored in ‘TODAY I AM A BIG GIRL’ –
I’ m a flower

transformed into a stone

I’ m the wind

turned into a rock,

I’ m water frozen into ice….

must be modest



a female ornament





and walking

every thing as per code

I’ m now a stone

a rock

a block of ice

a woman


That is the only example of distinctively feminist poetry in this volume, though there is also a startlingly frank account of sexuality by the Muslim poet Sharmila Seyid, who was I believe ostracized for her daring.
The chill that permeates

the body slowly thaws

As from a frozen river

and the secret knots of lust

loosen one by one

As lips touch lips

and moisten each other

eyes close

hands discard

clothes turned thorns

Shamed by the unusual

my eyes close


In general women writers are well represented, and the distinctive suffering of women in war is hauntingly explored. The male poet Aswagosh has an especially moving account – if I am right in assuming that the voice is that of a mother

As I destroyed myself

through self – denial

my son left

to make his life meaningful….


he came to me

his body was cold

no mosquitoes came

to suck blood

I didn’t permit the flies

to approach him


Auvvai’s ‘MY SON COMES HOME’ deals in a very different vein with the problem of ruthless extremism


My son came back to me

having steeled his heart

turned his brain

into a gun…

He has come

after shooting his friend…

I remained silent

He has forgotten

about human beings

about freedom

It looks

I cannot be his mother

any more

Will he call me


and bury me

one day?


One element that is in short supply in the book is traditional love poetry. Indeed there is I think just one poem about romantic love, Solaikili’s ‘THAT VELVET BIRD’, and it is about love that is disappointed. Still, it has a charming lyricism, with its unusual motif of a bird that accompanied the budding relationship –

You remember

the velvet bird

the one with long bright tail

that would stand sentry

and warn us of intruders?…

That red – eyed velvet

Somehow smelt out

our secret meetings

In the unknown nook

You remember

you used to throw

a fistful of sand

to scare it away?

….When I think of it

I get wild with rage

Why did they destroy our love

the very love approved

by the red – eyed velvet?


Love then is relatively scarce in this volume, for obvious reasons perhaps, given the traumatic nature of the last few years. But romance is there, in the evocations of the landscape. And in one poem, Cheran’s ‘Dry Season : Riverside’, landscape and love come together in reflective romance, the very essence of the poetic spirit.

You paddle away into the distance

And I still sit on the bank

Before me green eddies in the river;

Mid – day and the wet sun glints

in the paddle strokes

The etti trees that survived the storm

are laden with bitter fruit beside the bank;

And scattered coconut plams guzzle the sun

On the bridge the crowds pass, still unhushed …..

Boatman, you paddle still further away

and lovelorn

I sit on the bank alone


I am glad this poem too has been included, for it rounds off the collection. But as noted its value as a collection lies also in its recording of the feelings of the last several years, during which suffering was the dominant feature. That readers in the rest of the country are better able to understand this is something to be welcomed, as also to understand the resilient spirit of the writers and the people they represent.

The Island 10 April 2015 – http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=122954