Malinda Seneviratne had written to the Observer that Vihanga Perera is “more poet than prose writer”. The same Vihanga Perera published and launched his new collection of poetry, Busted Intellectual. Personally, I haven’t read his first collection, Pesticides for My Pants. But, compared to his fiction such as Stable Horses I don’t find much power in the poetry in Busted Intellectual.
As Vihanga indicated in the flyer which accompanied the invitation for the launch the collection indeed is a “meeting point” of the personal and the wider space of the nation. But, I felt that Vihanga gets carried away by the entire “post-war” scenario. In fact, he gets carried away so far that the collection becomes a kind of anti-Sinhala, anti-governmental stance. There are recurrent sentiments which belittle the great military victory of the threefold armed forces and the stamping down of the militant terrorism of three decades. This shouldn’t have been the case — specially because Vihanga in many instances has shown that he is capable of bringing out good literature.
The preoccupation with the after-war scene makes the collection topical and time bound. Some poems read okay. Poems such as “April-May: A Dialogue in One Act” and “Alien Accents” both refer to the immediate after war. But, they come across as being nonsensical and trivial. Vihanga uses “Sinhala chauvinism” and “Sinhala nationalism” — as I see it — interchangeably. This is a mistake and has to be corrected. What we have today in Sri Lanka are nationalistic forces: not extremist and fundamentalist elements as they were in the early 20th century.
Vihanga Perera, however, seems to reject these nation-building nationalism in the face of Eelamist sentiments. He has written “The Public Enemy” where he condemns the killing of the former LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. Here, he writes: “for some strange reason I want him to live, survive and escape”. In a shorter poem, “Reversal of Order”, too, he mourns the demolition of the Eelam mentality.
As a person who knows Vihanga, I think this is not because he is genuinely interested in Eelamism, but because of him losing his close friend Thamilini, who left the country several years ago. Therefore, this can be a form of “talking back” to the Establishment for creating a situation where many Tamil persons had to migrate. This is where I see Vihanga Perera’s “personal” becoming “national”. Maybe he has a complexity of Thamilini leaving. But, it is not justifiable to bloat this to the level where the historic military win is belittled.
Some of the poems were critical of the political scenario of Sri Lanka. “Time Asks for no Accountability” and “May Day 2010” are two such poems. In the first one, Vihanga takes the missing journalist Ekneligoda to town. If you are aware of the country’s political situation we see that this one missing journalist has been the “trumpet” for human rights violation over the past 2 years. Many people point out that Mr. Ekneligoda has actually left the country and that anti-governmental forces are using his absence as a means of protest. In “Sweet Akon”, another poem where Vihanga identifies state involvement in disrupting civil life, he justifies the controversial Sexy Bitch video by rap artist Akon. Earlier, this video created an uproar and even Akon had apologized for using a Buddha statue in the visual.
While these so-called “political poems” become pessimistic and means of getting out of his system disaffection of sorts, the more “personal poems”, I felt, have some promise. I enjoyed the wit and the playful humour in “My Father’s Political History” (political again!), “Near the Family Grave” and “Near Nihal’s”. These bring out the poet’s true strengths — not the wannabe political riffraff. There are some love poems in the collection as well. Out of these, “In a Roomful of Strangers”, “Bay Water” and “Mother” were quite memorable.
What I have always noticed in Vihanga’s writing (and I have told him this many times) is the textual sexual energy. I have noticed this in both The(ir) (Au)topsy and Stable Horses. In Busted Intellectual, too, there is much innuendo, swear words and sexually suggestive allusions. One poem is “Don’s Life”, where he looks at the academic sphere solely from a sexually frustrated perspective. He trivializes the wider implications of academia in the process; for, the title suggests that all that is there to academia is what Vihanga suggests in the poem. The title is “Don’s Life” and not “From a Don’s Life”.
In another poem he writes:
“…it was only I, who
Dreamed of six other women
While being in love with you. And at the same
Fatal hour, even as you denied it,
I spoke and I wrote of love that’s true…”
“Your Heels” presents the speaker’s “lover” in the following light:
“You’re just customary:
Just one of a hundred and ten thousand
two hundred and ninety three. That’s how I love you”.
However, while being so de-romanticizing (perhaps, self-consciously), he also writes the following lines in “Flower Once Gone”:
“From before this earth was made to spin
Part of my dream was you…
A rose you are, people say, at bay,
And to love you I am made…”
This is a testimony to the complexity of emotion Vihanga Perera portrays in his love poems. That is why I concluded that these poems are much more richer than the topical vent of political frustration. These poems have a more durable relevance and can be read dispassionately.
Vihanga, in an e-mail to me, insists that these poems are hardly “sexually charged”, in comparison to some pieces in Pesticides for My Pants. But, I excuse myself from giving any judgment there, because I am yet to read that other collection.
Vihanga Perera is a personal friend as well; and he wants to run this in his blog site “in love with a whale”. Yet, I have to state my belief quite clearly: I think contrary to Malinda Seneviratne’s thoughts. Vihanga Perera is a gifted prose writer. The poetry has novelty, I won’t dispute that. But, this pre-occupation with politics and the restriction of his focus to the immediate after-war set up cripples the carrying power of those “political poems”. His wit and playful humour is both refreshing and rewarding. But, as a political being, he has to come clean of the decidedly anti-state stance he occupies. But, my suspicion is that this anti-state stance is less of a political statement; but, more of a means of overcoming “loss”.