A luxury which Richard De Zoysa had after death, Lakdas Wikkramasinha didn’t. Being the most politically-committed English poets to emerge out of Sri Lanka, the two have had highly contrasting posthumous destinies. Lakdas was drowned in 1978, aged 37, off Mount Lavinia. Richard was the victim of what is widely alleged as the silencing gun of a paranoid state, as his bullet-drilled body, too, floated in in 1990.
Richard’s rise as a “poet” in his post-death setting is largely indebted to Rajiva Wijesinha. A personal friend and a great admirer of Richard, this Professor has been instrumental in preserving Richard’s poetry by way of several anthologies of which he was / is the editor. One such collection is “Richard De Zoysa” subtitled “his life, some work, … a death”. This has been published by the Sabaragamuwa University Press, of which Rajiva Wijesinha, at that time, was Professor. This book also carries the monograms of the “The English Association of Sri Lanka” and the “Canadian International Development Fund”. The latter is acknowledged as the body that has assisted in the establishment of the publishing press. The assistance given by the “President’s Fund”, too, is appreciated.
There is little doubt that Richard De Zoysa is a commendable poet. More than the craft per se, what garlands him is the form of political and social commitment his poems resonate. Specially, for a young man writing in the volatile 1980s, his quill reflects an edge that is essentially sharper than any of his contemporaries. Of course, the 1980s is the decade where the life blood of a nation draws the nest of birds in our bards to condemn violence — both in the North and the South; makes them lament for the trodden plight of suffering humanity; so on and so forth. At the risk of exaggeration, almost all of them who have had a breeze of an English Department became a poet in this decade of the devil.
And then we have Richard — he is one of the few poets who attacks not the “impersonal system”, but the persons who gear the terror from within the state structures. It is easier for one to harangue at general — to condemn the general loss of lives, to mourn for the faceless deaths caused by nameless and numberplate-less agents. But, to attack “my lord the elephant” who, in passive acknowledgment of the fire, “sways in his shaded arbour / [wrinkling] his ancient brows” is a more personalized hit on the late President Junius Jayawardena. The point is that Richard De Zoysa’s political commitment through his writing was immediate and compelling. He is one whose writing has to be preserved; and therefore, the preservation undertaken by the likes of Rajiva Wijesinha is highly appreciated.
But, the question gapes: would Richard have been preserved thus — and elevated to the status of an era-defining poet — if not for the personal bond that existed between him and Wijesinha: a bond that the latter testifies to in numerous texts, The Limits of Love and Acts of Faith being just two of them. Even in the extensive introduction Wijesinha writes for the anthology of Richard’s poetry which I have highlighted at the outset there is much evidence regarding the same. In a sense, all forms of preservation — while living and after death — happens in terms of mutuality. This is a noted trajectory of how histories are written; how inclusions are made.
This very principle has one of our most enigmatic poets — perhaps, alongside Richard, the most crucial poet in terms of political commitment and social consciousness — at the verge of extinction. This is Lakdas Wikkramasinha, whose posthumous life is spent without a “burial”, or without a “tomb” in the conservatory sense. As much as Richard had Wijesinha, Lakdas has had none to fight his battle after death. Today, Lakdas Wikkramasinha survives and is forwarded to new readers through the numerous anthologies on Sri Lankan English writing that exist. Numerous and varied as these anthologies may be, their purposes and their founding principles are dubious and suspicious. Of course, most of these anthologies have been put together by leading authorities on Lankan English Lit. But, then again, the orientation of some collections inevitably invite us to question the validity of their authority; if not their sexual preference in literary judgment; for, in most selections, there is much evidence of quote-unquote incest and nepotism.
In turn, and with years, these dubious texts have become the vehicles that carry Lakdas Wikkramasinha across. One only needs a wider reading of Lakdas’ poems to realize the injustice done to him by the selections included in the anthologies in question. Lakdas has written a wide corpus of poetry cutting across issues of imperial resistance, national identity, inter-class disparity and so forth. At times, he is also seen striving in the propagating of an “alternative idiom” as opposed to the historically valourized English English expression. This can be identified as being within the prevalent spirit of immediate post-independence nationalism and to be complementary to the politics of the Raja Raos and the Wa’Thing’os. Then, again, Lakdas presents us with a revealing branch of writing where he / his persona struggles to come to terms with himself and his ancestral heirloom. I call this “revealing”, as some sentiments expressed in relation to his aristocratic inheritance (notably in his 1976 collection “O’ Regal Blood”) contradicts and even neutralizes some of the harsh attacks he brings on the walauva as an oppressive and abusive social agent (in early poems such as “Death of Ashanti” and “To a Servant Girl”). In another forum, the claims I make here can be expanded. Right now, it is apart from my purpose.
Of Lakdas, what gets circulated today in numerous academic forums and university and Advance Level syllabuses is a bare minimum; and often the material lack direction or an impetus to guide the reader in realizing the richness of Lakdas Wikkramasinha’s art. In anthologies, the most widely cited Lakdas Wikkramasinha poems are “Don’t Talk to me about Matisse” and “To My Friend Aldred”. There are two anthologies edited by DCRA Goonatillake where a wider focus is given; but, this, again, is a limited study to a poet who shows much vivacity, variety and maturity in his work.
In 2008, conversing with a publisher, I was asked what I think a publisher could do to serve the interests of Lankan Literature. I had no hesitation in suggesting that they try to collect an extensive anthology of Lakdas Wikkramasinha’s poetry. I was told that poetry has no market. But, my answer, I feel, is still valid. It could be that Lakdas’ “kind of poetry” is less fashionable among the politically-naive audience. Besides, removed from his immediate social and political context, Lakdas may have a lesser resonance to a contemporary reader. But, these cannot be contributory factors for not preserving him. For, the preservation has to be done for the greater good of Lankan Literature at large; and the extent and breadth of it has to be determined by the love and passion you have for such good.
At the least that a reader may realize that Lakdas Wikkramasinha had much in common with Percy Shelley: both were from socially elite backgrounds, though both wrote poems critical of their very breeding foundations. Both display immense political commitment in their writing. Both Shelley and Lakdas evoke violence and force — even revolution and social upheaval. Both died in their 30s. And by drowning.