By Dhyan Peiris
Dhyan Peries writes about People Who Don’t Count and how he sees the notion of “consumerism” played out in a few poems which caught Dhyan’s attention.
People Who Don’t Count is a well thought out and well selected collection of poetry. From what I learn from its author – poet and fiction writer Vihanga Perera – it is a selection of what he has been writing for the past two years. As a regular follower of Vihanga Perera’s poetry blog most of the entries in People Who Don’t Count are familiar to me (in one version or another). Yet, the wide scope and terrain of the blog taken into consideration, what has been “chosen” to be published in the current anthology is a well discriminated selection.
One notable shift from Vihanga Perera’s previous collection – Busted Intellectual – is the more predominant presence of the “personal” side of things. The poetry moves away from the political and social concern which tops the writing of Busted Intellectual. This does not mean that People Who Don’t Count is devoid of social commitment – it is. But, even where the poetry is most concerned with cultural and political traffic, the personal involvement is equally given prime of place. As a random example, if we consider the poem Cruelty to Animals, the poem deals with the consumerist ethic which overpowers our daily transactions. Vihanga draws on the cashiers of chain stores who are objectified and made into a “part of the deal” during New Year season and Christmas time. Yet, in the midst of his cultural commentary, we have the persona, too, who is gloating over the objectified women. This becomes a recurrent pattern as the collection opens out.
When I read Cruelty to Animals I was immediately reminded of another poem Vihanga had collected in Busted Intellectual: where a cashier woman snubs the poet in a supermarket outlet. The contention, if I remember right, was to do with the persona being not dressed in a way to flatter the “supermarket culture”. In a way, Cruelty to Animals, is then a counter-strike on the part of the persona: because, what we see in the poem is a partaker in a “value added consumerism” who drools over the anatomy of scantily half dressed cashier girls during Aurudu season. Yet, there is a deeper understanding of the pathetic implications of the crass system which manipulates cheap labour – as the writer winds up by insisting that this is a season of “another class” (from the class to which the objectified women belong).
Superstars and celebrities have featured as inter-texts in Vihanga Perera’s prose as well as verse. Another poem I found intriguing is Slingy’s Signature, where a defense of the capable yet controversial cricketer Lasith Malinga is made. The poem may have caught my fancy as I first read it during the latest controversy which Malinga authored: bad-mouthing a press person. Vihanga’s focus however is when Malinga retired from playing for Sri Lanka in test and ODI games, concentrating on T-20 and domestic blockbuster matches in India and Australia. As Vihanga writes, Malinga should embrace the poet as he is Malinga’s “only friend” at a time when the Cricket Board deems the “Slinga” a “man without a linga”. Of course, there is enough wit and humour to make the poem an interesting read – but Vihanga Perera (by taking the cause of Lasith Malinga and the like) upholds the very consumerism he condemns in Cruelty to Animals.
Lasith Malinga’s attitude and priorities in life has been the focus of much learned criticism. Vihanga defends the work ethic of Malinga and co as a new era in Cricket, which cannot be understood or appreciated by the “pre-IPL” voices and pundits. There is no problem as far as Vihanga Perera is being playful or semi-serious about the issue (which, according to one of our close colleagues, he seems to be); but, if the mercenary outlook of Malinga’s sports-ethics is endorsed, then, Vihanga Perera is contradicting himself. The poem ends with a reference to Chris Gayle – the West Indian batsman – who led a salary-related players’ revolt against the West indies Cricket board. In his reference Vihanga claims that Gayle had managed to draw the Cricket officials to a discussion and that the discussions were agreed on because of Gayle’s “market value”.
While we see that salary-issues has consistently been a “thorn” in West Indian Cricket from as back as the 1960s, Vihanga Perera champions the fact that Gayle used the superiority of his “market price” to force a discussion. This is almost holding the team officials to ransom. The lopsided performance of the West Indies in many series in the 1990s and 2000s, and of their top / best players being “unavailable” for national duty has had salary issues at the root. Players such as Courtney Walsh and Brian Lara have been caught in these bargains for years – Gayle is simply an extension. But, whether the spirit of “boycott” is the right spirit is debatable.
In Evening Talkers Vihanga Perera unravels yet another side of consumerism – where we have two salesmen who are yet unhappy of their line. The persona and the main protagonist of the poem – a bra salesman – resonate each other as both have dreams and major schemes to fame and fortune: but, in their mind and as the subject matter for idle, “evening talk”. The setting seems to be a bar or a club, with music and drinks being served. The poem highlights the lethargy and constrained nature of two sales persons caught in a capitalist consumerist set up.
Of course, what I drew on here are merely three poems which caught my fancy: three poems that unfold the ugly presence of the consumerist culture as seen in Vihanga Perera’s People Who Don’t Count. The poetry has a deep echo with many topical and contemporary aspects of urban life and challenges us to see ourselves inescapably caught in a web of consumption.