Through my window

Shared traumas

Print edition : May 16, 2014

Gunadasa Amarasekara.

Siri Gunasinghe.

THE oldest surviving collections of Sinhala poetry in Sri Lanka date back to the 12th century. If we include the 700 verses written on the walls of Sigiriya rock, termed Sigiri Graffiti, it goes further back, to the 6th century. The first Sinhala Buddhist kingdoms that promoted literary activity had flourished in the North-Central capitals; but slowly, the capital shifted to the south-west, taking poetic activity to the Kandyan kingdom of Matara. That is where culture found its patrons, in the class that had grown rich exploiting the new trading opportunities provided by the Portuguese and Dutch regimes of the coastal regions.

The foundation for modern Sinhala poetry was laid by the Matara literati of the 18th and 19th centuries. These poets were not subjected to the religious hegemony of the Kandyan kingdom and hence were able to secularise poetry: one of whose predominant themes was love between man and woman that helped poetry move away from explicitly Buddhist themes prescribed by tradition. During the Matara period, poetry, even while retaining the traditional form, became personal and stopped reiterating Buddhist narratives. One voice exemplifying this trend was Gajaman Nona, considered the greatest woman poet in Sinhala. She broke the conventional poetic mould and began articulating her individual experiences, like the killing of her father by an elephant and the pain of his loss. The poets also wrote letters in verse and their works reveal their awareness of the arrival of a new era in life as well as in literature. From then on, poetry began to connect with the sociopolitical realities of life in Sri Lanka.

The linkages between the independence struggle and poetry in the 20th century, while producing a large corpus of poetry, also expanded the thematic and stylistic scope and range of Sinhala poetry. Piyadasa Sirisena was one of the pioneers of the poetry of freedom who invoked the image of a young woman in anklets—in the typical subcontinental fashion—to denote the arrival of freedom. S. Mahinda, a Buddhist monk of the Theravada tradition who had come to Ceylon from Tibet as a boy, was another vocal nationalist poet who exhorted the people to water the tree of Mother Lanka’s freedom with the blood in their hearts. Though the poems of this phase were clichéd and stale, they did strengthen the secularisation of Sri Lankan poetry.

The rise of print capitalism created new publishing opportunities for poets whose number swelled during the “Colombo Period”, the early decades of the 20th century, when the centre of Sinhalese poetry shifted from Matara to Colombo. The form still remained conventional, confined mostly to traditional rhymed quatrains while the themes were mostly romantic love and freedom. Poetry now became part of people’s lives and struggles. But it got modernised later with the emergence of a new group of mostly university-educated poets, aware of trends in world poetry. This new school, often called the Peradeniya School though the poets were not all from the University of Peradeniya, was pioneered by the well-known poet-playwright Ediriweera Saracchandra and included writer-critics like Martin Wickramasinghe. They began using free verse and earned the wrath of the Colombo poets, a battle that took place in India too in the 1950s and 60s when poets like B.S. Mardhekar, Bishnu Dey, Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh and Gopalakrishna Adiga began to experiment with form.

The formal values of poetry began to be recognised widely during this period of literary modernity. Poets like Siri Gunasinghe, impacted by the innovations of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot in the West, attempted a fundamental change in the sensibility and idiom of Sinhala poetry by using new images and condensed metaphors like “the flood of death”, “the prison of hope”, “the cadaver of history” and “the neck of life” which, at that time, sounded quite strange and fresh to the readers. Of course, critics like Martin Wickramasinghe argued that these were modelled on English expressions and hence alien to native culture. This again had happened in India, the first generation modern poets accused of being imitative. But now, as in India, modern poetry has entered the mainstream and experiments with form are no more stared at, though conservatives have not entirely ceased being critical. However, modern poetry is not a monolith; it has different voices and debates around aesthetic as well as thematic issues. Gunadasa Amarasekara, more prolific than Siri Gunasinghe, was a major intellectual influence on the writers of the time even though he was more conventional, accepting uncritically classical poetic lexicon and idiom while Gunasinghe was more radical in his attitude to poetic form. Amarasekara, in his treatise Sinhala Kavya Sampradaya (Sinhala Poetic Tradition) identified one particular thread of poetic idiom that runs through the history of Sinhala poetry that he called hada basa (language of the heart), that he insisted should never be abandoned. Gunasinghe spoke against this worship of tradition and wanted poets to confront the present boldly. The debate between the spokesmen of these trends, however, lent vibrancy to the poetic scene in the second half of the 20th century.

Contemporary Sri Lankan poetry is diverse in its concerns and forms. Haiku is one of the most popular forms, even though critics like Liyanage Amarakeerthi say that most of them lack the suggestive depth of Japanese haiku, which any way is the case with a lot of haiku written in different languages today. Young people use social media and blogs to publish and propagate poetry.

Tamil’s tragedy

There was a period of intense nationalism following the Tamil Eelam movement, but now poets have become introspective and have begun to interrogate Sinhala nationalism and cultural conservatism and have grown critical of the Sri Lankan state. They look at the civil war as a major tragedy and refuse to take sides. Many poets are sad about the suffering of the Tamil people during and after the war. They consider cultural self-criticism extremely important to the future of the country. A young Sinhala poet writes, recalling the day Prabhakaran, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader, was killed: “A single sky/ without north and south/ one single earth/ without right and left/ in the middle of them a man lost/ this lightness/ is an unbearable weight/ the silence/ is a scream /that rends asunder/ the sound of firecrackers/ mist gathers and gathers/ from all directions/ holding huge mountains/ rivers, creaks/ blossoming flowers/ and even prickly thorns/ in its fist.” Eric Illayaparacchi has a poem, “Human Bomb”: “There is a terrifying secret under the voluptuous breasts/ fire burning in the blue-lotus eyes/ The city, walled round like a breast in a bra/ will be blasted in an instant/ This terrifying she-devil/ is she the same docile feminine Eastern woman?/Born as Sita in the past/ she was mother, madam, wife and daughter/ Before your eyes, thin waist and breasts explode/ Black she-devil! Say you are Sita!”

Sajeewani Kasturiaracchi is full of irony when she looks at the Tamil refugee camps. She speaks of the camp as her house surrounded by tall walls with barbed wire on the top, with closed doors and windows, so that she is perfectly protected and can happily watch the war news on TV! “As long as they are there/ they are safe, they say, /so we are all happy.” Liyanage Amarakeerthi, after a visit to the Peabody Museum at Harvard, wonders about the ancestors who had created the arrow and the veena: “the arrow has pierced our hearts, and we have lost the veena to console those wounded hearts”. In another poem, “Once upon a Foreign Country” he says on the day Karuna broke off from the Tigers, his arrogant Sinhala heart felt pleased and he wanted “to brag about building the nation”, but looking at the figure of the ex-Tiger, his two-year-old son just said, “ thatha” (father). Again, the day Kaushalyan, the eastern Tiger leader, was assassinated and his image appeared on the screen, the baby said. “ thatha”. “To my son’s eyes/ still not blinded by culture,/ still not bound by ideology,/ all three looked alike/ with no mark of ethnicity/ carved on our foreheads.” He thanks his son for having given him that third eye that could see the Tigers and himself as belonging to the same humanity. The poet looks at violence from both sides as two sides of the same coin. He says he too would have been Karuna or Kaushalyan had he been subjected to the same torment as the Tamils were. He realises, “this mad island has hurt us all into the heart of madness”. It was this madness that had killed the innocent Kadir who was neither with the Tamils nor with the Sinhalese in the battle. Now the poet’s son is grown up and is living abroad; he does not want to tell him of the death of Uncle Kadir and disturb his peace. He will say only good things about Sri Lanka, the Tamils and the Sinhalese.

Gunadasa Amarasekara grows paranoiac whenever he looks around: the shadow of the giant palm tree, the weeping stream, the creeping darkness that comes to devour him…“I cannot stir. I cannot turn. /Only the dark, what else? But I fear it/ Sister, little sister, go, strike a match, quick/ Light the lamp in the living room” (“Darkness and Terror”). In another poem, he wishes he had time to see the quickened earth flower before his “drooping body turns to huddle in that cold month’s sleep”(“Unduvap has Come”). Death seems to stalk his world. The violence of the real world has entered even language. Sarath Amunugama says he selects his words like bullets, aims the argument and fires the shot at the enemy with a sardonic smile; his logic strikes him like a hunter’s arrow; but he only sobs wordlessly, hiding his head in a pillow. But having murdered him with logic, the poet’s heart is pervaded by the solitude of the graveyard. In “Isidasi”, the poet retells the tale of a Buddhist nun from Therigatha. The beautiful Bhikkuni had built a wall of modesty around her refusing to yield to her man and hence she was expelled from her home.

Wimal Dissanayake’s poems are also often nightmarish, speaking of black trees with black blooms with black scent (“My Friend Dying of Cancer”), of being imprisoned in the past (“Anuradhapura”), of a friend lying lulled in a bed of clouds when the country is aflame with war (“To a Friend”) and of a flower red as a clot of blood blooming in the jungle at midnight (“Strange Flowering”). Buddhadasa Galappathy has romance in his poetry, with a student smuggling a love letter between her breasts (“The Student”) and a wife whose lover is waiting outside when the husband has gone to sea, telling her husband she is no Sita (“I am not Sita”). He also portrays strong men and women like the servant maid who kills her young master who tries to molest her (“Dayawathie”) and a young man, who, when abused by a youth as a prostitute’s son, tells him that it is he who should despise him for being the son of a well-paying adulterer (“Son of a Prostitute”).

Sunil Govinnage’s poems, like those of Siri Gunasinghe, are full of the fatigue of living and the absurdity of hope. Lal Hegoda speaks in riddles about the ferryman who does not return to the Bhikku carrying a heavy pouch (“Bhikku at the Ferry”) and about the day that could be a white line in a black night or the night that could be a black line in a white day (“The Black Zebra”). Wipuli Hettiaracchi speaks of the terror of losing all men at home in war and having to pretend they are away when they are actually dead. But when the uniformed men probe further, the mother screams: “Yes. Who else?/ We are the men /Who have survived in this home” (“We are Women”).

Parakrama Kodituwakku writes in a kind of direct prose close to conversational idiom. When his brother writes from the security of Australia that “Sri Lanka is like a rotten egg/ a land of grotesque masks/ a country without justice” and asks him to join his family in the new continent, the poet refuses to go as he loves Lanka’s mountains and brooks, rain and sunlight and feels surrounded by his people everywhere: “Tear off the mask./ Bind the festering sore./ Create a land of the just./I belong / to the generation that broke out of the egg” (“I Will not Come”). “Court Inquiry of a Revolutionary” is an ironic poem where the reports of the school, the religious instructor, the court and the doctor are all negative, finding in the radical youth indiscipline, a questioning tendency, disbelief, disobedience of law, criminal behaviour and psychic disorders. The accused in his reply requests them not to turn him into a snail, chopping off his feelers, not into a coward afraid of gods, into a buffalo carrying false views, or a good boy with gagged mouth. “Allow me to question like Socrates/ Doubt like Descartes, / Crash through like a gushing river/ Cut clean as a knife/ Let me, like a penis,/ Rise, erect.”

Ariyawansa Ranaweera is another interesting poet full of irony. He compares the legendary lion king splitting the elephant’s head with the sleeping lion in his daughter’s zoology textbook and says the lion in the country’s flag fluttering in the wind was rising now and then to check whether any of the lions of the legend was still surviving among the emaciated and fearful lions of the textbook. (“Today’s Lion”) He asks the giraffe whose neck reaches up to the branches whether he has ever tasted the sparkling savoury grass that it crushes under its hoof (“The Giraffe”). The blind beggar tells the passer-by that he does not look at his blind eyes and turns his face away, but the blind man sees his eyes and recognises the humanity in them (“A Blind Beggar’s Song”). G.B. Senanayake finds reason an obstacle as it has killed his God who had given him confidence and does not allow him to resurrect (“Killing God”). The man in another poem hears his heart’s whisper for the first time when he is about to die as he had been listening to pundits and philosophers all his life, those who never allowed him to listen to his heart (“Philosophers and Pundits”). Ajith Thilakasena’s “I Do not Know If” is about a divorcee who remarries but who keeps meeting his first wife, falling in love with her again as everything around him seems to remind him of her. Nandana Weerasinghe, in a dramatic poem, introduces scholars who keep debating where Kalidasa was born. Pointing to his different works, they argue that he was born in Ujjain, Kashmir and Darbhanga, but the young poet raises his hand to the sky, pointing out the moon spreading light and comfort in all directions (“Kalidasa and the Moon”).

RajivaWijesinha’s (ed.) anthology, Mirrored Images ( National Book Trust, India), from the first section of which I have chosen these examples, is an excellent introduction for poetry lovers to modern Sri Lankan poetry written in Sinhala, Tamil and English.

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