[The following questions were sent to me to be answered — the idea of an ‘interview’ — by a features writer of a Colombo 2 newspaper. The questions were duly returned with my co-operative responses last December-ish, but, to my best knowledge, this material hasn’t been used by the said journalist / paper. Eight months later, I thought of sharing some of the questions and responses, hoping that the prolonged silence is a sign of me being characteristically dustbinned. I acknowledge these questions as the intellectual property of the unnamed journalist].
Vihanga’s poetry is sharp-edged social criticisms often in their rudimentary form. Unlike most of the contemporary Sri Lankan poets in English, Vihanga does not mince his words when it comes to offering his critical views on society and dominant ethos. In his latest collection of poetry entitled Busted Intellectual, Vihanga offers his poetic critique on diverse issues ranging from politics to romance. He spells out his views in an exclusive interview with [Name of Supplement]. Excerpt of the interview:
- In the poem ‘Alexander’, you have highlighted on vanity of power and what had happened to the empire painstakingly built up by Alexander the great. How do you analayse Alexander’s legacy in modern context?
Does the poem speak of the “vanity” of power? Well, it is you who’s making the judgment. Personally, there are many people who argue – and I guess I agree with them to a point – that power has to be vain, in order for it to have an impact. But, one thing about the poem – we have always had Alexanders around us. Alexander is a historical metaphor that has always been there before and since the ‘Great’ Macedonian conqueror. He’s a generic term for that kind of power-hungry, charismatic, role player of God. You ask me, what is Alexander’s legacy in the “modern context”? Alexanders only often bring megalomaniac visions which are often self-centric and exhaustive of the common treasury. These are often followed by utter confusion, irreparable loss, chaos and mess and things like that.
Well, of what I have read and heard of Alexander (the Great), he had a massive project and an ambitious dream: to found a global Macedonian empire. To own the East and the West and to infuse these peoples into a complex blend. To play with the genes of people and to mess up the historical patterns on the other side of the Earth. Aristotle himself had been Alexander’s tutor, they say. He grows up modeling his life after the mythical warmonger, Achilles. Alexander’s fantasy is to be the next Achilles. Just look around you – our problem is we got too many Alexanders around.
2. In ‘The Taming of Angulimala’, you have given a new interpretation to the old story. How do you revisit the story?
Well, the “new interpretation” you speak of is where the poet states that Angulimala’s assignment all those years ago was not to cut off fingers (as they state the case in the Grade 2 Buddhism book), but to cut off dicks. Well, this is no “new” interpretation; the interpretation has always been there – and is no improbability either, if you read the Angulimala story with some imagination on your side. Come on – it has to be something bigger than a finger, right? What is so ruthless and romantic about a finger collector? What is so terrorist about a man who collects index fingers? This was Angulimala’s final lap – his ‘dissertation’ or ‘thesis’ – and the supervisor had vowed to fail him.
At college, there was this guy three years senior to me – a vocal and vibrant debater; an innovative, quizzical thinker. He used to dash out what one might call “alternative histories” and radical interpretations and stuff like that – but, each one of these were neatly supported with textual evidence. This guy used to keep us adolescents in a semi circle and logically prove that Prince Siddhartha couldn’t have been fertile, and that seated next to Christ in the “Last Supper” was Mary Magdalene (this was way before Dan Brown material). He used to take the “Mahawansa” to task as if it was his favourite toy. The Angulimala story’s origins go back to this chap. I forget whether the “dick theory” was actually his – but, for a fact, I remember juggling with this possibility from a very young age. Guy’s name, by the way, is Supun. He’s a top shot lawyer today though I haven’t met him for about 10 years.
But, sad that you ask me about the validity of the Angulimala story – as I have presented it. For me, the more crucial point of interest is how Angulimala is “saved” by Buddha, but to be a proponent of the Buddhist word. You should also read page 1 of my new book, “The Fear of Gambling”. There is an inter-textual reference to the Angulimala poem. Perhaps, you’ll find it cool.
3. ‘Midfielder’ is a poem which deals with many issues including sex and uncertainty in life. How do you define sex in modern context and particularly in a busy life fraught with uncertainties?
I guess sex scores in all contexts at all times. So, when you say define it in the “modern context”, it kind of puts me off guard. Surely, sex is so powerful an expression that it wholeheartedly defies the constitution (18th Amendment included) without a care; and puts to ridicule all our assumptions and convictions in life. Sex in 2011 is simply awesome, what else can you say?
Take the “Southern Highway” as an example. With the new expressway, even sexuality, as we conceive it, will be open to new possibilities and probabilities. Sex at 100 km/h is something you had to simulate or watch in “Basic Instinct 2”. Now, you can simply live the fantasy and not worry about oncoming traffic either. Perhaps, because our people – and by people I mean the non-VIP bracket of the national population – by and large do not have a sense of “leisure” and its finesse their appreciation of the sexual energy of the times might be a bit underrated. But, they will know, even if they would not always show.
4. The poem ‘May Day 2010’ skilfully captures the change of milieu and questions the very meaning of May Day in the contemporary milieu. How do you conceive the idea for the poem? And how do you perceive the political rituals of May Day in modern context?
Actually, this was a particular May Day – May Day of 2010; a May Day barely four months after a particularly hard fought Presidential contest. I remember writing this and I remember the tensions and the anxieties of some political groups that were sympathetic with the General. What I feel is that the poet juxtaposes that sense of anxiety with the general resignation we see in modern day May Days.
Don’t get me wrong – May Days have their ritualistic and ideological value. It is just that our Left Wing has been maimed, neutralized or corroded over the past two decades or so. Let us not be hypocritical – barely ten years ago the JVP, as a neo-Marxist agent, could produce magnificent drills on the 1st of May that even their political opponents would stop awhile to take a second look. Groups like the JVP could make meaningful improvisations from the “May Day spirit”, but one thing the failed Left Wing did not keep an eye on is the dynamics within Lankan society at large; the changes in priorities and values of the people with techno-capitalist inroads. Concepts such as “May Day” take a totally different – perhaps, “depressed” is a better word when considered within the spirit of working class politics – meaning in a post-Soviet setting. The trick is to manipulate these advents to energize your cause.
5. In ‘My Father’s Political History’ you survey the contemporary political landscape of Sri Lanka and the plight of the masses in the game. How do you compare your ‘father’s political history’ with your ‘political present’?
The poem is in a light vein. I’m not being serious all the time when I speak in that poem. Basically, growing up we never knew what my father’s political convictions were. He was a zipped up, private man and answered all political-related issues with a grunt. He had an awesome sense of humour, but spoke sparingly. It was almost as if he had no core belief in politics, though by about 1994 – I was 10 or so then – it was quite clear he was for CBK (well, who wasn’t?).
Much later, after his death, hidden subaltern histories of a more vocal political past started creeping up. My uncle Francis had been a unionist activist in the 1970s and had been working with Bala Thampo and the like. Much later I got to know that my father had also played some minor role in those activities – like putting up the stage, pasting posters etc – where once he had even been locked up for the night. He had, in fact, been a Marxist in his early 20s and an older cousin tells me how my father tried to teach her Marxism when she was barely 12.
My father’s political history was spent under a regime he never believed in. When his excellency JR came to power my father would have been 25, at the prime of his youth. He spent the next 17 years under successive UNP regimes. The poem, in a light vein, touches on one of his biggest problems – that all his three names were closely resonant of three UNP frontliners. In many ways, my father’s anxieties are somewhat parallel to mine. But, I have a bad feeling that I am yet on the tip of the iceberg.
6. ‘The Owl’ deals with issues of sex and the lessons of life. How do you de-construct the philosophy behind the poem?
I won’t grudge anyone the thrill of feeling that it is a poem to do with sex. But, in my reading it is more a meditation of “mediocrity”. It is a moment where the poet’s ego is willing to compromise with an “inferior” ego. He identifies that the person with the inferiority, too, is made of similar stuff as he; and is willing to spare him/her for another day. “The Owl” – the title – comes from the notion of wisdom. The owl, in many traditions, is taken as a symbol of the wise.
On the other hand, we’re all dumb most of the time. But, being dumb we yet want to be the interpreters of history and – worse so – the torchbearers of it. The last two line of the poem concludes that the poet has been taught many lessons in life, but has “learnt only to be a leper”. By trying to smother inferior egos the poet has continually been battered and exiled – like a leper. The metaphor of “leprosy” has always had a fascination for me. Some of the less polite – but, at the same time, more obvious – things I have said about Lankan Literature and other such inferior matter have got myself branded a “leper” at times. There are some fascinating theories about me, peddled by people who have never even met me. They won’t believe it when I tell them that I’m a nice guy and that some statements I make about books and literary festivals are unforced, personal views. The owl knows better since.
7. ‘All Touring Sinhalayas’ is a poem which questions the brand of ‘patriotism’ on the part of a segment of the population who travels the North and the East. How do look at the post-terrorism situation in the newly liberated territories?
“Post-Terrorism” is an anomalous term. I have heard people who make the “pilgrimage” up North and return to tell the tales. They are so happy to have seen the vineyards, the underground bunker complex, the fallen water tank etc. Surely, the sight-seeing spirit is too obvious for us to juxtapose things with a “terrorist” or “post-terrorist” query. But, let me tell you the story told me by a somewhat older lady in retirement – a good friend of mine, named Mrs. Alahakoon. She’s no theoretician, Mrs. Alahakoon, but a retired lady from the Telecom. She was telling me of the massive hills of vehicles and appliances – all stacked up at the last feasible point to which the retreating cohorts could carry them; afford them. Television sets, cookers, vehicles – this is a well known story by now, we all know. These appliances tell us a pathetic story and since we are partially “post-terrorist”, these allusions should not be erased.
Some earliest “touring Sinhalayas” – I am told by another “early” pilgrim to the North – were busy replacing the worn out tyres of their vans with the tyres of the abandoned vehicles. Of course, that is the practical thing to do – but the semiotics of the episode tells me a more pathetic, violent story. It is a journey of conquest, by all means. A journey to satiate the voyeuristic urge of a sort. There’s something of the empathetic human that is essentially missing in such voyeurism. At least, that is how I felt at that time when the “North Rush” was happening.
8. ‘Deep Down We Both Used to Breathe’ deals with love and the ephemeral nature of love. Love, romance and sex are dominant themes in the collection. How do you conceive the idea for the poem? How do you perceive the changes that the time brought about in the lives of ex-lovers?
The first stanza of the poem was written soon after I was reconnected with a long lost friend whom I happen to admire as a teen. She used to treat me real bad back then; used to treat me like a “dish rag”, as I told her; but, I figured that she has really changed to the better ten years on. So, the first stanza and that stanza alone was inspired by this meeting, ten years since she had ceased to inspire poetry.
The rest of the poem just came on. It is more the flight of the fancy and I was in a non-alcoholic high when part of it was written. I think I’m trying to frame into words a series of inconsequential, scattered experiences. So, the last three stanzas don’t make much meaning to me either – as I re-read them. Or, let me say: I am not in a position to say what I had in mind when I first wrote those last few stanzas. So, I guess, i’m not qualified to speak of them beyond this admission.
9. In the poem ‘Streets after Independence’, you question the very notion of ‘Independence’. According to you, how do you define ‘Independence’?
This was soon after an Independence Day showdown they had in Kandy. It must have been 2009, if I remember right. The entire suburb of Katukele – which is a good kilometer and a half from the town center – was virtually shut down. I remember walking miles on end, hunting for an essential good – a reload card – and shops are shuttered up and the streets garrisoned. Not that I’m essentially against parades and fun items, but this was more personal angst at not being “independent” to pursue my own quarter on a day dedicated to a more illusive “national independence”.
To define “independence” is plain stupid, for there is no such thing. It is a feel-good ideal with an empty bottom. So, you can fix it anywhere, pour any kind of chemical into it, put it on the top of a flagpole etc etc. It is a hollow concept which takes the meaning of what “power” dictates it to be.
10. Love is a recurrent theme in your poetry. You describe a meeting of ex-love in a room full of heads in the poem ‘In a Roomful of Strangers’. How would you revisit the incident and the issue of ‘true love’ in a changing milieu?
Of that poem, I remember the first stanza and the last stanza quite well. The first stanza just came to me while mumbling to myself in a 178 bus on a Thursday evening. This I remember quite well. The last stanza was written much later – but, again, separately – and it was incorporated to the poem when I figured I has a vacancy for a “fanciful” conclusion. The title of the piece is from a poem I had written in 1999: a poem which dealt with a totally different situation.
More than “true love” – a metaphysic – it, to me, is more to do with the fleeting moments before some sort of final declaration to love is made. The kind of semi-flirtatious, half-conscious moment where you are acting pathetic and all that. But, like in the case with “Deep Down We Used to Breathe” here, too, I am half in a non-alcoholic high when I am writing this. Some of the feelings and sentiments behind the poem are quite hazy and unaccountable. It is almost as if those lines had come to being – and I am only half aware of noting those words down.
11. In ‘Reversal of Order’, you question the notion of ‘homeland’. What does it signify for one who is no longer alive in this ‘homeland’?
Well, it’s more about “convictions” than anything else; and a “homeland” is coincidentally a conviction of a sort. All said and done, I am a fairly well off petty, middle class suburban Sinhala person who didn’t have to theorize a “homeland”. So, I don’t know how I can answer the second part of your question, if you see what I mean. I have no resonant consciousness that can identify a response to that query. I can relate to the “homeland” related crises, but those crises were never mine. It is the same with Sinhala people for whom the stakes of the war up North were not the same as it was for people whose daily bread was drilled by it.
If I try to answer your question I might end up saying something dumb and insincere. So, let me just say “pass”.
12. In ‘Near the Family Grave’ you explore the notion of ‘death’ and question the concepts of ‘hell’ or ‘heaven’. Does the ‘Family Grave’ unite the strange members of the extended family? And how would you define the notion of ‘death’ in the context of Asian extended family?
To be quite honest, “Near the Family Grave” was written in a light vein. Its impetus is that both my father and my maternal grandmother – two who didn’t speak much to each other while alive – are now buried in the same grave. There is this “family plot” at the Mahaiyawa General Cemetery in Kandy where my mother has both parents, three brothers and the husband laid to rest. This measurement of land is what is given as the “family grave”. You may see some tongue-in-cheek bends in the poem as you read it along. It’s not meant to be taken too seriously anyways.
Nor was mine a proper extended family at any point. Grandmother used to spend much of her time at my house with our family; but, she had a Siddhartha-like philosophy and shared her time among the households of other children as well. But, on a personal note, since death is generally unpredictable, I wonder whether either my father or my grandmother ever thought of having to share the same pit after death. These are the innocuous but crucial things which you have to think of while you’re still alive – for, harmless as they may appear, they have much potential to stimulate ironic poetry once you’re dead and done with.
13. ‘Near Nihal’s’ is a poem which exposes typical Sri Lankan attitudes towards one’s attire and disposition which are class-markers in Sri Lankan society. How would you revisit the incident and what are the social issues that should be contested in this context?
Yeah – there is a background story to the narrator’s encounter with the cashier girl. “Nihal’s Super” is by all means a real life supermarket near the Anniwatte tunnel in Kandy. It is a much sought after, alternative-to-Cargills store which has done well for Mr. Nihal over the past few years. The checking counter lady in the poem usually keeps a straight face and is somewhat automaton in the checking.
I think more than anything else it was a case of personal attitude towards a slob dressed in three-quarters, slippers and sporting an unruly Tilvin goatee. It is a part of the “supermarket culture”, perhaps; where even the client, alongside the cashier girl are consumer items. I have written another poem – it is not in “Busted Intellectual” – titled “Cruelty to Animals”. It is about the dressing up of cashier women for New Year, Christmas etc – it is simply pathetic where they add value to the service provided, made into sex toys upfront. The midriff revealing, cleavage prompting salesgirl is a twin hypocrisy at one go – of the so-called fraught “Sinhala Culture” and its “moralist” dress specifications and of crass consumerism.
When I was set to launch “Busted Intellectual” I had half a mind of inviting the cashier lady as the special guest or so. Or, at the least, to go and give her a free copy of the book. But, then I changed my mind; for, I figured that it would only amount to a bit of drama everyone can do without. If the supermarket management read it the wrong way the poor woman might even lose her job – who knows.
14. ‘Mother’ is a poem which epitomises, in a way, a mother’s pivotal role in one’s life. How influential is the role that a mother plays in one’s life?
“Mother”, the poem, is also about a failed and unhappy marriage. It is where one’s one time love, as a married woman and a mother, returns to spill the beans of failure in your ears. A mother’s love and care – as you may well agree – can make a huge difference in a person’s life. But, the focus in the poem is more on memory and the loss of love. The last two verses deal with that past from which the narrator has been displaced. He refers to the woman’s carefree school days and then, her choice of marriage. On hindsight I wonder whether the images I try to paint here are too predictable and – in that sense – clichetic. But, now it’s anyway too late, even if I am to feel that way.