With or Without Sugar? The Question of Chanima Wijebandara’s “Tea And Me”

by Vihanga

A little over a year ago, Egghead (the blogger of sri lankan books @ http://srilankanbooks.blogspot.com/), reading Tea and Me remarked: “Is there a new Vivimarie in the making?” For Egghead, Chanima appears to closely model Vivimarie Vanderpoorten, for her neat mix of “passion and outrage”. Egghead also makes several other obvious and commonsensical observations as to how Chanima’s poetry deals with social issues, issues of life and that of love. In this blog entry which speaks more of Vivimarie than of Chanima, Egghead rounds off by saying that Chanima has “room for improvement”, and, too, compliments her “talent” as a writer.

Vivimarie Vanderpoorten, herself, guarantees us: “though firmly rooted in the Sri Lankan reality, [Tea and Me] transcends its context to address issues that affect people. Specially women, the world over” (back cover of Tea and Me). Thus the naïve ultimate aspiration of an illusioned worldly being – of being universally relevant – is stamped on Chanima Wijebandara’s book. However, this is not an accurate assessment of the poetry, which is essentially person-bound and is governed by the poet’s immediate social and class interests. The impetus of Chanima’s writing is the perception/s of a (safely nested, but) disturbed individual who is trying to relate to the disparities, disillusionments, apathies etc that come within her view. There is a desire on the part of the writer to engage with these factors; and to note them down. But, for the greater part, the writing comes to nothing more.

Chanima Wijebandara, with the cruel world, is having tea: this is the ultimate definition to which I could subject the title of the book. In diplomatic discourses – assemblies that desire discussion, but are incapable in addressing issues at the practical fronts – we often end up “talking about things” and having tea. Chanima’s concerns, on the whole, are intensely personal and her responses are securely couched in the sentimental vein that her poetry — in spite of its pretensions — fails to reach out to a realm outside of her own. She does “speak about” rape and violence, their consequences etc. But, so have others – that, too, without being either resonant or relevant. Her words in poems such as Kill me – Kill me not merely carry a detached observation from the safety zone of a neatly nestled individual in a privileged social end. It recoils to being the hundredth repetition of a banality:

“Mother
Can you ever love me?
Can you see yourself in me?
Or is it him that you will see?…
…Will I not be forever

the burden
you carry within your heart?”

The very desire in the voyeur to record and reproduce the pain and the trauma of a victim of rape reduces and trivializes the issue at hand. This is the best at which Chanima engages with the “issues” that she desires to “see” – as a voyeur and as a reproducer of it. These absences of her familiar world, which she recollects through a desire to represent, become the lego pieces for Chanima and an ilkminded readership. In Quit Notice, for instance, she draws a parallel between a birds’ nest in the courtroom fan hook and the legal orders to evict settlers from an Estate. This casual observation has no function outside the limited allowance of the individual world. It becomes, in that sense, a “Quit Notice” alright.

In a poem such as Interview the limitedness in question is further highlighted. Here, the poet’s issue seems to be how at a job interview a person is denied (or it is as such implied) her place on the basis of gender. In an upper middle class context where a discussion of gender (as opposed to, say, class) is always preferable in a case of discrimination, the following satisfies:

“To the
beauty pageant type
question,
at the interview,
‘A bossy woman
A tough woman
A strict woman
A proud woman
What will you be at the top?’…

… Dreams and hopes
of a life time
Burst like a balloon
at the prick of a pin
when
womanhood stood
in the way”.

Yet, the moment you place the poem outside the confines of class, its significance obliterates. The interviewer’s subtle play with “What will you be at the top?” is not without innuendo and sexual suggestiveness. If at all, this single line intrigues me more than the rest of the poem.

Chanima Wijebandara

Egghead, as hinted, notes the “room for improvement” the poetry begs us with identification. This room for “maturity” is not necessarily with craft, structure or approach. It is more to do with transcending secure, safe economic-social cradles. The “improvement”, if at all, has to do with “growing out” into Sri Lankan society at a wider empathy. I am making myself a mockery of such stupid-sounding “holier than thou” directives, but the limitedness of cultural exposure is a common problem to us all. With a more sustained notion of the “self” along the highlighted path, one may cease to publish poems that lack in resonance or weight, such as Evolution, The One or To Men.

Not that Chanima’s collection is without spirit and moments of intrigue. She does, as argued, display a vigorous and earnest will and desire to build bridges between herself and the world. Yet, a primary sense of being limited hinders the desired connection; making her work, at times, to appear superficial and in want of weight. I do not contest the quality of her lyrical appeal, the intensity of feeling and the memorability: assets which, I think, makes Chanima resonant of Vivimarie to readers such as Egghead. Nor are those finer aspects my forte to comment on.

[Submitted as a review to the Lakbima News]

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