Silence in the Court Room: Raviraj’s Suspected Murderers Freed

Raviraj’s fluency in Sinhala was an ace up his sleeve in presenting matters with clarity and with conviction before Southern politicians and the Southern community, and through him, the South had the opportunity of hearing the grievances of the North. In symbolic terms, Raviraj was a bridge that could have connected the two valleys, but, perhaps, what was detrimental to Raviraj was also the fact that he was being heard and understood: for, being represented and with clarity is too troublesome for demagogues and people who would rather keep the populace under their thumbs through false impressions.

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N. Raviraj

The sign of a saviour seems very far away from the shores of Sri Lanka, where justice and the people’s confidence in the justice-meting mechanism seem to be on holiday, even in the time of a government that checked into the sites of power using those very two words as their gate pass. Sri Lanka and the world alike seem to look on with skeptical eyes as the five suspects, including three Navy personnel, who had earlier been charged with the murder of Nadarajah Raviraj – the vocal ITAK parliamentarian – which happened in the vicinity of a highly secured zone under around-the-clock military surveillance in the heart of Colombo in 2006. Raviraj was a tireless speaker on issues that were immediate to the Northern community from which he was elected, and was no beater around the bush in his attacks on the state and its players. Raviraj’s murder was one of the earliest murders attempted on “out of the establishment-line” voices during the time coinciding with the Rajapakshe government. Even the booking of suspects who may have committed homicide was delayed almost by a decade, and a reasonable breakthrough happened only within the last year – what, at that time, was felt as a reversing of the order of disorder, and a fair attempt at bringing out truth and justice.

The news of the acquittal of suspects, even in the face of witness accounts, comes as a shock to many close observers, and the news has already gained wide international attention. Both the Daily Mail and the Indian Express, in their reports of the development do little to disguise their bitter amusement, and seem to hint that they have better apprehensions of who the responsible parties are of Raviraj’s killing. Both sources make sustained references to President Rajapakshe’s regime and the questionable circumstances under which the parliamentarian was gunned, along with his security officer. Yaltribune.com, in its report of the acquittal, hints at indirect pressure created by the President Maithreepala Sirisena who has, over the past 2-3 months or so, made comments that may easily be seen as defensive of what might be constituted as crime charges against the state military. Yaltribune.com reports: “In a highly unusual move, the jury’s verdict was delivered at midnight following a unanimous decision in the month-long trial… Earlier this year, Sri Lankan President Maithreepala Sirisena who has previously ruled out allowing any political leader to be prosecuted for alleged war crimes, said he was concerned that naval and military commanders had been summoned before the courts”. The verdict had been delivered by an all-Sinhala jury in a case that involved a Tamil parliamentarian being gunned down by a group of suspects who were, again, Sinhala; which includes three militants (in the popular psyche, the “vanguard” of the Sinhala nation) who are identified as acting under the orders of a pro-Sinhala nationalist regime.

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The site of Raviraj’s murder

My memories of Nadarajah Raviraj are very vivid. His entry into parliament happens in 2001, at the young age of 39. He was a trilingual, energetic lawyer-activist cum politician, who emerged from a community that was linguistically and culturally distanced from the majoritarian Sinhala South. Raviraj’s fluency in Sinhala was an ace up his sleeve in presenting matters with clarity and with conviction before Southern politicians and the Southern community, and through him, the South had the opportunity of hearing the grievances of the North. In symbolic terms, Raviraj was a bridge that could have connected the two valleys, but, perhaps, what was detrimental to Raviraj was also the fact that he was being heard and understood: for, being represented and with clarity is too troublesome for demagogues and people who would rather keep the populace under their thumbs through false impressions.

Raviraj’s inspirational political trek arrives at a crucial landmark when, in 1998, the LTTE kills within a few months the mayor of Jaffna, Sarojini Yogeswaran, and her to-be successor, Pon Sivapalan, both of the TULF. The second killing also wipes out the top  military command of the Jaffna area including Brig. Susantha Mendis, creating a vacuum and a dubious atmosphere. The terrorist climate thus encouraged made representative politics  be held under the gun. Raviraj’s stepping up to take the role of Acting Mayor and, then, Mayor was therefore a courageous and challenging move in the immediate context of things. Later, when nominated to parliament, Raviraj was a vocal opponent of the abusive state of human rights, specially as they affected the day-to-day culture of the Tamil community. He was a regularly sought after representative in media political debates, and was charismatic and intelligent in his deliveries and tabling of issues. On the eve of his murder, Raviraj had demonstrated against a military shelling that killed 40-odd persons in  Vaharei. His death happened close to his Narahenpita house, when his self-driven vehicle was obstructed by a motorcycle and was repeatedly fired at by the assailant at close range.

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And, how? asks the skeptic.

Nine years after Raviraj’s death, the Rajapakshe government was toppled by the loose alliance of a merged UNP and SLFP gene, whose election platforms boomed with rhetoric of justice for all. A strong dictation was made against corruption and malpractice, which, after a brief hope-awakening (false) start of sorts seems to have reclined to a back seat of the government’s agenda. In any case, the search for justice seemed to be more focused on the corrupt smaller pawns of Rajapakshe’s second and third tiers  (as it is, as it should be in a system where one statesman is as corrupt as the other), while strategic “sins of omission” have left the bigger and better fish untouched and unharmed. The enthusiasm and zest with which crackdowns were being made on the alleged killers of Lasantha Wickramatunge, Prageeth Ekneligoda, Waseem Thajudeen and others such as Nadarajah Raviraj seemed to suddenly fizz away, as if hitting headlong a giant stumbling block. The FCID activism in probing into ministerial accounts and activities of the former government has, to date, achieved very little in terms of a “search for justice”, than feeding the roadshow of politics. If the world is a stage, then surely President Sirisena is cast to play an ambiguous role. Throughout 2015, he was a silent and detached viewer from the gallery, his position and voice often unheard and made to look uncertain. When he did begin to speak, in the wake of startling revelations in the Thajudeen and Wickramatunge cases, his voice seemed to be very different to what the people had heard (or thought they had heard, or – alternatively, were made to hear) the previous year. Ventriloquism is a complex art, and we are but a humble people.

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A share from Lanka-e-News (L.E.N)

As recent as October, President Sirisena made a statement that was given much circulation, where he expressed his concern over members of the military (ex-militants included) being summoned and tried before courts of law. This was a major setback to what was earlier generally seen as a facilitating environment for the execution of the law’s due process and was alarmingly viewed by activists both here and abroad as well as by diplomatic missions that show concern of Lanka’s reconciliation path (See, the Sunday Observer and the Colombo Gazette among other sources that reported on this, in the week of October 16th).   What were seen as “major breakthroughs” were being achieved in the murder cases alluded to above, and coincidentally (or not) the trails of blood were being tracked back to some of the highest in the military and in politics. President Sirisena had the difficult task of choosing between the nationalistic heartbeat of the Sinhala masses, and the line of justice. His vote was admirable, and revealing, under the circumstances.

Now, notwithstanding the developments of the past year or so, the five suspects of Raviraj’s killing have been acquitted. As a Facebook post shared by Lanka-E-News on the matter sardonically observed: “So, now did no one kill Raviraj, then?”. The Sri Lankan government has taken the curve. It has now, over the past 4-5 months taken the anti-climactic dip towards the very pit of vice they lobbied against in December 2014 and January 2015. The budget proposals recently tabled revealed the pus and blood with which its economic and social programmes are written. This silence in the courtroom, one may argue, is one of the first of a possible string to follow, where that quest for justice and truth will be further pushed away into the distant horizon, as (the Tamil community of) Sri Lanka moves on in search of that ever-illusive palm tree in the oasis.

The Death of Anne Ranasinghe and the Life of Literature Studies in Sri Lanka.

05Anne Ranasinghe, poet and holocaust survivor, passed away last week and was buried three days later in Colombo, two continents away from her native Essen, where she relaunched her life as a poet and cultural icon, after a ruptured youth affected by Nazi rule in Germany in the 1930s, and world war II. Personally, Anne Ranasinghe’s poetry was never among my favourite, nor was her writing progressive in my eye; but, notwithstanding, Ranasinghe is arguably one of the two best known and most widely read Lankan poets of post-independence: the other being, Jean Arasanayagam. From syllabuses to anthologies, and from academic papers to newspaper articles, Anne Ranasinghe’s work is widely represented for the right and wrong reasons. Her death brings down the lid on another of the generation of Lankan writers who have steadily contributed to the national literature corpus from the 1970s, through the 80s and 1990s.

Upon close analysis, Ranasinghe’s literary corpus is, in a word, somewhat repetitive in theme and scope, while her range is limited. Her social consciousness is, again, restricted by her classed, elite location as a member of the upper end of Colombo 7’s Rosmead Place, while her empathy with and reception of the culture and pulse of the soil appears to be superficial at best, and minimal otherwise. Her poetry is a reflection of these rubrics that give shape to her voice and delivery, and have been placed in perspective by writers such as Dhanuka Bandara who, in 2015, wrote a provocative – if cheeky – essay on Ranasinghe’s work, range and her call to fame (See link here ) .

How, then does a writer, who is largely monotonous and repetitive, comparatively lacking in social and cultural insight, politically disconnected with Lanka and its social, economic and political fates, and who is not necessarily a progressive experimenter in structure, style or craft end her career at 91 or so, as one of the most widely read Lankan poets? Partly, this is an indirect outcome of the good work by education policy-makers and syllabus-setters of the Lankan school, diploma and university systems who, by perpetuating Ranasinghe within the corpuses read and studied at these levels, has inject to her work a fetish value, endorsing it as a selection undiscardable from the classroom. It is evident that the various literature syllabi have a key role in the value addition to some writers, and the doing away with of others, thereby setting the measurements of canonization and legitimization of “literature” from the “not-so-literary”. The role of the syllabus-setter and her aptitude as a designer of literary value and cultivator of literary taste has to be therefore briefly examined.

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Tarzie Vitachchi

If one is to consider the GCE Ordinary and Advance Level syllabuses for English Literature as (convenient) examples, the confusion and chaos in the syllabus design, as well as the directionlessness of the planning reveals to us the grim reality that faces literature studies at the national level. One of the prominent cogs of the GCE Ordinary Level syllabus-designer machine has had no substantial exposure to literature in a B.A classroom beyond the one fourth of a dozen texts offered in the heavily Language Studies-oriented Distance Learning first degree through which he has qualified into the Academy. To my knowledge, he is yet to complete his postgraduate requirements, but is since long being used as a vital resource in national syllabus design at the highest level by bodies such as the NIE. The GCE A/L syllabus is an even sadder tragedy of errors, where a strange mixture of incompetence, greed for recognition, lack of awareness of the ground conditions and lack of insight into the student sample have produced two farcical syllabuses (including the syllabus set to be introduced in 2017) in the past decade or so. The syllabus designers and (so-called) coursebook-writers at the GCE A/L  Literature include (at least more than) one person who often show(s) abysmal spoken and written competency, while the team also includes persons who have no in depth exposure to Literature in graduate environments. It is deductive that none of these syllabus-designers have any knowledge of the classroom conditions or of the student samples they are assigned to accommodate by the syllabus they are meant to design. The 2011-2017 teachers’ guide is a shocking document, cheap and erratic, while displaying an amateurish  and straight-laced approach to literature that is alarming and – to say the least – hazardous to the growth of scholarship. It is one of the most scandalous documents I have encountered in my life, and this is not entirely owing to its free and liberal use of Wikipedia and Spark Notes-type material.

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Vihanga Perera

The composition of the recent GCE syllabus-setter was used here to illustrate the creative and imaginative inadequacy of the steering force in literature education in as seen in recent years. The GCE A/L syllabuses from 1974 to the present will most certainly keep the doctor away (but the mental health inspector at close quarters), with its repetitive recycling and rehashing of a series of texts and writers, set within a rigid, firmly-set rubric. The syllabus policy, I am told, is for a syllabus to be exhausted after an eight year run. As such, we have between 1986 and 2017 three syllabuses, each one having a set structure that has gone unchanged and unaltered for 30 years. The same goes for the bulk of the syllabuses’ core content and selections. Of the three syllabuses of the defined frame, perhaps, the syllabus in use from 1997 to 2010 is the better and more progressive one. The syllabus currently in use, as well as the proposed syllabus set to be initiated in 2017 are both the work of a collective Frankenstein.

The cult status of Anne Ranasinghe’s poetry is partly the by product of imbecility at work. Perhaps, at one point, in a given moment, at particular juncture of Lankan literature’s evolutionary growth, Anne Ranasinghe may have produced a certain meaningfully locatable body of verse. But, clearly, the Academy has failed to receive her work critically, or to place her comparatively in the pantheon of our rhyming bards. One example is the increasingly diminished position a writer like Lakdas Wikkramasinha receives in university as well as GCE classrooms. Wikkramasinha, even in our time and age, is a unique and powerful voice, though he died as far back as 1978. Arguably, Peradeniya is the only university that still teaches a palpable corpus of Wikkramasinha’s writing; and that, too, might change with senior scholars such as Nihal Fernando and Arjuna Parakrama being led away from chalk and Chaucer by their ultimate retirements. Sri Jayewardenepura has its own full course of Sri Lankan Literature that enables a more detailed and focused study, but in heavily gendered English departments and with some deplorably theory-laden teachers, Lakdas Wikkramasinha has shrunk to an under-represented, innoucuously read fossil, referred to in a line or two which does no justice to his nuance and often multi-faceted and vibrant delivery. The disfigurement of Lakdas is so acute that even his name has, over the years, changed in its vowels: from Lakdas, to Lakdasa (refer to his Luster Poems for Wikkramasinha’s preferred spelling of his name).

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The result of having the wrong people in the wrong places

I also suggest that a second – if at all a more forceful – factor that dictates Ranasinghe’s regal presence as an icon of Lankan English poetry is her non-Lankan origin. In his scathing poem Talking of Michelangelo Richard de Zoysa scoffs at the English literary hood of Lanka (himself included) as a double-faced, hypocritical entity that has its windows tight against social reality. The English literary sphere is often equally the bearer of colonial hang ups, and one that assigns fetish price tags to Caucasian expatriates. The adoration of average white-skinned B.A (General degree) holders by upper middle class, new capitalist parents in choice international schools in Greater Colombo often collapses the compartments of time, stringing in one extending chain of events the coffee and tea-cultivating Brit, the long migrated writer whom we still like to call “ours”, and the white-skinned educator we  hunger after to make the Principal of our otherwise half brown-skinned school. Ranasinghe’s work, I suggest, has been more readily accepted owing to her “past” and the survivor tale with which she arrives. While Ranasinghe has been a readily included choice across syllabuses, it is intriguing how writers such as Gamini Seneviratne, Rienzie Cruze, Asoka Weerasinghe, Regi Siriwardena (from the 70s and 80s), or (for instance) a more versatile, perceptive and hard-hitting expressionist such as Tarzie Vitachchi have been grossly under-represented or never featured in the national curricula.

Anne Ranasinghe, to her merit, is evocative of powerful graphics and vivid images. Often, her writing transports us to a realm deeply resonant and “alive” with the confusion, chaos, blood and cold-blooded violence she frequently illustrates through her work. But, that alone is no arsenal for greatness, or for progressive representation. Anne Ranasinghe has now crossed the proverbial river. Who, now, will take her place?

South of Kandy, North of Complacency: the South of Kandy Literary Forum, 2016

South of Kandy Literary Forum 2016 (SKLIF 016), an independently organized mini literary forum, was held on the 10th of December at the Hindu Cultural Association, (500 meters south of) Kandy, to which I was able to contribute as a writer and in a minor organizational capacity. The platform was set up by a group of literature enthusiasts, as a way of breaking the shackles of tedium and inaction that often accompany the progressive approach to art. When first approached, I was told by the organizers that the platform would be a “non-politically correct, non-decorous” deal, where progressive opinions and ideas, no matter how ugly or bitter, will be given the pulpit. My commitment to the event went well rewarded, as a full fledged eight panel assortment of creative artists and critical commentators from a wide cross-section of the arts and humanities left all ends covered and all stones turned.

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Free of the best medicine, from Vishnu Vasu and Bevis Manathunga (not in pic) at SKLIF 016

SKLIF 016 featured four panels of creative writers, who read from their established and upcoming work, and four further panels on issues current to literature and the arts.The vocal Jean Arasanayagam and the wisely perched Kamala Wijeratne – easily, 60 publications among them – were the tone setters to the creative quarter, which also featured Krishanthi Anandawansa, Kevin Perera, Amaresh Pereira, Marlon Ariyasinghe, Anupama Godakandha and Katt Stanblazer. Kevin and Katt had braved the extended long weekend to come down from Colombo in public transport, and Krishanthi, from Horana. Amaresh read a sincere and moving tribute, hailing the memory of his mentor and  idol, the late Professor Ashley Halpe. Marlon read from poetry brewing for upcoming publication, while Katt’s reading (on later inquiry) seemed to have left a bitter-sweet imprint in different sections of the audience. Anupama’s delivery, again, was said to be from a forthcoming collection, quite enigmatically titled, “I am a Racist”. In all, SKLIF 016 seemed to hint at 2017 going to be a particularly good year to look out for, where poetry publications are at stake.

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Bevis, Vishnu and Chrishain

Of the critical forums, the highlight was Bevis Manathunga and Vishnu Vasu discoursing on “Kandy’s arts scene in the 70s and 80s”, in a panel chaired by Chrishain Jayalath. Both products of Kandy’s flourishing literary and arts scene of that era, Bevis and Vishnu blended anecdote with recollection, and opinion with banter. Bevis, the proverbial “Maara Man”, who until 2013 used to be a city sight under the tree near the Bake House, along the main pavement, had come from Dambulla, where he is now into eco culture. Vishnu was returning to Kandy after a longer absence, and had coincided his “homecoming” with a screening of his acclaimed short film “Butterfly” at the Jana Medura, the day before. That, however, is a thread for a different essay.

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Jean, Kamala, Marlon and Stephen 

Praveena Bandara chaired a panel on “Literature in Education: where it is, and where it should head”, in which I spoke along with the lit veteran Liyanage Amarakeerthi. Amarakeerthi, quite admirably, had brought in much theoretical input, and quoted from decades of meticulous study on the subject, including from his translation of Martha Nassbaum. Quite irritatingly, this panel was hijacked by two vocal members from the audience, who, like two Elizabethan dramatists, crossed the line between the stage and the audience with the ease of moving from the pantry to the dining room. A second panel chaired by Manikya Kodithuwakku, featuring Thyagarajah Arasanayagam and Ayathurai Santhan on “Mapping Conflict and the Role of English Literature in Reconciliation” was taken for a walk by Arasanayagam, who, in passionate outbursts, out-voiced his more soft-spoken, mild-mannered counterpart. Santhan, in fact, seemed to have a few important points to make, had he more space and time. Santhan was also felicitated by his publisher (and mine) PawPrint, for a fruitful partnership over the past year and half. He had earlier bagged the coveted double of a Fairway Literary Prize and a Godage Awards for Rails Run Parallel under the PawPrint label. PawPrint was represented at the event by its co-founder and former senior editor, Manikya Kodithuwakku.

The forum also featured internationally acknowledged photographer Stephen Champion, whom I had the good fortune of chairing, as he discoursed along with Danesh Karunanayake on “Art and Technology: from pre-digital times to the present”. Both panelists came across as persons with a knack for conversation, and good conversation too, which made the chairman’s job quite a treat. The duo synchronized well, Stephen going into technical detail, and Danesh resorting to practical wisdom, courtesy of a prolong involvement in trade union and left of center politics.

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Perera And Hussein. Pensively. 

In all, SKLIF 016 housed 16 writers, artistes and critics, in 6 hours worth of pow-wow on matters literary and social. A welcome presence were Ameena Hussein and Sam Perera, who drove down from Colombo, giving the audience a sneak peek into Ameena’s forthcoming work. It was a very warm gesture on a very warm day, further warmed by lack of A/C in the Hindu Cultural Association’s somewhat stuffy conference room.

The central nerve of the organizational body were a small group of young men and women who are brought together by a thirst for literature. When I was contacted, all they wanted me to do was to help draft a plan and to get the chosen artistes on board. It was a clinically executed programme without finesse or filigree, and was carried out without pomp, and with the stern focus on art and art alone. The organizational set up taught some of us artistes (myself included) the ground you can cover by having a clear, central agenda, where your funny egos don’t get involved. The talent spread about Kandy, largely in small pockets and clusters, reminiscent of small formations of fat, is Gulliverian. The tragedy is that these energies cannot be meaningfully pooled together to synthesize a progressive vision for Sri Lanka’s literature and the arts. In that way, Kandy’s artists and the pocket groups that represent Lanka’s Left have that much in common.

 

 

“What Lies Between Us”: The Gaps in Nayomi Munaweera’s Second Novel.

img_7083-edit-200x200Nayomi Munaweera’s What Lies Between Us records a young girl’s disrupted childhood spent in Sri Lanka of the late 1970s and early 1980s, her being removed to an alien United States, where she strives to attain location, and her subsequent marriage to an up and coming artiste, Daniel, and its subsequent falling apart. Compared to Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors, this second novel offers the reader a compelling and engaging read, which often shocks and takes the audience along a maze of twists and turns. But, as a work, altogether, What Lies Between Us leaves us with many abnormalities and incongruities, that caution our overall judgment of it.In a word, the novel disintegrates as a project that opens with promise, but which loses its potential in the process of things.

Foremost among Munaweera’s “shortcomings”, is the lack of smooth synchronization among the three main time threads she deals with, in recording the protagonist Ganga’s experiences from childhood to her life as an adult. The three main threads of childhood in Kandy, in Central Sri Lanka, the crossover to migrant United States, and the life of the protagonist as a nurse and mother are very loose in their binding, to say the least. Very often, one gets the feeling that these three sections were written independently and later patched up together,. leaving behind a sense of dissonance which discomforts the reader. Of the three segments, the best written, in my opinion, is the section dealing with childhood: this, in spite of Munaweera’s unbearably orientalist preoccupations in setting out the landscape and culture that surround young Ganga in the outskirts of Kandy. The often romanticized and exoticized layout of the family home, the idyllic atmosphere penetrated by Eden-like descriptions and definitions are often underlined by a sense of danger and threat, giving Ganga’s childhood an ambiguous, treachery-lurking, pastoral backdrop. Interestingly, the descriptions of the United States lack the same exotic punch, which Munaweera saves exclusively for her mapping of the non-urban, Lankan terrain.

The Kandyan setting, in spite of Munaweera’s best intentions, is a tad unrealistic for the mid 1980s. Ganga is educated in a leading girls’ school in Kandy, and is brought up according to the best interests of the walauvva tradition, but is seen to be let loose after school to wander the streets buying cheap ice palams and thoroughfare merchandise. Munaweera also refers to threewheelers in which children are being transported, which, for Ganga’s class in the mid 1980s, can be argued to be quite unrealistic. The home and the culture from which Ganga springs is marked as traditional Sinhala at an overwhelming level. Yet, we have a case where her father (later, reconfigured for us as a molester of his own child) baptizes his fellow playmate cum servant as “Samson”; and indeed, where the same Samson ponders on his isolation, claiming that he has no Delilah to couple him. The inclusion of the biblical motif is both abrupt and unrealistic, given the closed Sinhala and Buddhist ethos in which the childhood story is grounded.

nayomi_munaweera_what_lies_between_usThis very Samson is the “demon” that haunts Ganga’s life, even as she crosses continents. Her impressions of having being molested and violated by Samson leave an imprint on her which she struggles with even in her older years. Samson’s grabbing her, his hands on her person and her inability to resist his touch are graphically described through extensive paragraphs. Yet, in the concluding chapters, Ganga’s mother, through one single long distance phone call, and a decade and a half later, too, undoes all that by telling the daughter (over the phone, long distance) that her real violator was her own father, and not Samson, the servant. This, after graphic revelations of paragraphs and paragraphs of Samson hounding young Ganga. Could a girl, in her adolescence mistake one perpetrator for another: her own father, for Samson? When being “approached”, Ganga is into her early adolescence, between the ages 11 and 14. Besides, why does the mother take almost 15 years to reveal this disturbing truth to the daughter? And, how realistic or plausible is it for her to go into this detailed confession over a single phone call, when the daughter calls her to inform that Daniel, her husband, has left her? This becomes even more baffling as Ganga’s mother is often presented to us as a pragmatic “traditional-minded” woman, who operates within set boundaries. I suggest that Munaweera’s revelation of Ganga’s perpetrator to be her father, and not Samson, is a twist in the plot that undermines the quality of her narrative. It is a twist that is not supported by the build up of the narrative, nor by the logic and evidence the narrative offers us. It is a singular revelation that is meant to shock, but is ungrounded and unsupported by preceding events.

In America, the country to which Ganga migrates as an early teen, she gradually manages to find her own feet, metamorphosing into an agent who is both independent and able. Her constant childhood “demon” of Samson lurking around to grab her from behind doesn’t feature in her transitional phase, though it makes a dramatic comeback in the years after her childbirth. Where was Samson’s demon between the years 14 and 29-30, when Ganga seems to have settled down to a stride of uneasy transmission from one culture to another; one continent to a new, alien land? What makes the Samsonian demon return, abruptly, in the first year after her child birth? Ganga’s husband, Daniel, is initially presented to us as a responsible and loving individual. When Ganga is perturbed and withdrawn after their initial physical interaction, it is Daniel who sets the pace to the relationship, giving the would-be partner room and space with mature understanding. His behaviour in the aftermath of childbirth, is, therefore, all the more baffling and inconsistent, as he walks away from Ganga, asking her to “sort her issues out”, on her own, while deeming her too dangerous to live with or to have around their child. If inconsistencies infiltrate Munaweera’s script in the migrant setting, the most notable is the turnaround seen in Ganga’s mother’s. Her migraines and aloof spells, which dominate her Kandyan days, are never seen to bother her in  the US, where she invests long hours at work and is seen to be perfectly functional and efficient. This transformation is both inconsistent as much as it is intriguing.

Munaweera, in the novel, has reinforced a series of hacked stereotypes that are often located within “traditional Lankan” culture, when it is accessed from an outsider’s periscope. This alone is one of Munaweera’s achievements in representing a Sri Lanka through her trans-continental stance. The stereotypes and traditional readings of customs, rituals and cultural figures, as Munaweera presents them, are valid and present, but are showcased as trivializations and without a depth that may assist in the representation of the complexity of cultural practice. Stained clothes sought by mother-in-laws after wedding nights, puberty rituals, taboos and prohibitions, as well as the in group gossip among women at a friend’s party are presented merely to chastise those acts; and are not seen within a  context that is culturally meaningful. Neither education, exposure nor westernization seem to affect the “traditional-minded” in Munaweera’s text, such as Ganga’s mother, who resort to the “heirloom of culture” as a fossil to carry and maintain. The sections set in the United States are also hampered by a sense of hurried urgency and awkwardness in movement, which set them apart from the carefully meditated prose of the Kandyan chapters.

Munaweera has several memorable moments, too, which have to be acknowledged as part of high points in her delivery. Ridden of the gross exoticization and embellishment, the Kandyan chapters come across as engaging reading: specially, as records of a collation in retrospection. The re-visit to childhood and the detail of recollection are triumphs that satisfy the reader, keeping her engaged and inquisitive. In the same way, Munaweera has also evolved as a writer from her Island of a Thousand Mirrors, daring to be defying and uncompromising in her delivery. The earlier novel, in spite of international awards and such, was a disaster and a let down: a laboriously strung story, all undone within the last quarter of the narrative. Similarly, What Lies Between Us ends weakly, and imploding the groundwork of the early sections of the novel. Ganga’s “metamorphosis” to being a shade of her mother in her post-natal years is sudden and contrived. The sudden withdrawal of the otherwise supportive Daniel is equally unexplained. Moreover, the decision to kill Bodhi, the daughter, a decision taken in a hazy state of mind, is as much a shock tactic as a pair of boots bought at a garage sale. Outside the courthouse where Ganga is put on trial, there is a placard being held by a protester equating Ganga to a modern day Medea. The crucial difference here is that Medea’s killing of her children are logically explained and grounded in Euripedes’ text, while the impetus behind Ganga’s actions do not come out satisfactorily.

What Lies Between Us is a novel that opens promisingly, but freckles up and snaps off at the half way point. The childhood story of Ganga has in it the grip to hold the audience, but Munaweera fails to convert this impetus to a meaningful end.

 

 

Sriyani Hulugalle’s “Cherry Blossoms”: Movements Between the Past and the Present.

untitled-449Sriyani Hulugalle’s Cherry Blossoms: A Collection of Short Stories and Poems collates 25 short stories and verses on a range of themes and preoccupations. The bulwark of her writing deals with personal issues set in a restricted, private domain, and often draw nostalgic, yet sensitively human moments while scissoring through a range of intense sentiments from longing to losing, from desiring to letting go, in a rendition that is rich with memory and sincere feeling for “almost moments” in a  past the narrators are nostalgic of. While it cannot be clearly stated as to whether the memories Hulugalle looks back on are actual biographical sketches, the sense of time, space and feeling are palpable and vibrantly felt.

In terms of Hulugalle’s craft, she follows the tradition set down by the realist writer, with close attention paid to verisimilitude, logical progression and so on, with a patient hand for detail and deliberation. The realist approach, as Hulugalle uses it, leaves very little room for the narrative to break free from a spatially linear pattern which, by the by, reads as a tad monotonous and tiring. But, that is not necessarily  a weakness of the work, as much as it is a personal response in my reading of Cherry Blossoms.

The collection has a balance in its location of society closer to the present time, as well as its nostalgic search for a time now lost. For instance, stories such as “Grass is Greener”, “Beyond my Reach” and “Farewell” attempt at framing in experiences closer to contemporary time, while the title story “Cherry Blossoms” and “A Request” are earnestly meditated returns to a time, space and experience from a past the writer / narrator strives to nostalgically retrieve in memory. “No Heart is Free”, though hurried and failing to capture the depth of character, is a take on the unexpected change of heart in an LTTE cadre, Raju, who, unexpectedly, befriends and feels for the child of a military officer on whom he is assigned to spy. The story in itself is loose and incredible at times, but shows an attempt in Hulugalle to offset set stereotypes which are often assigned to militancy, in a search for the human and the fallible in the often impersonal game of war.

“A Request” – made reference to earlier – is said to have been written in 1987, in Netherlands, in response to a poem by the Canadian resident poet R. Cheran. Voicing thoughts which Hulugalle ameliorates with Cheran’s own sentiments, she prays for a secession of hostility and an end to militancy:

I still walk barefoot
On the sandy temple grounds,
Holding a lotus, praying for peace.
Though my brothers of Yalpanam
Gunned down innocent people
Praying for peace
Years ago…

… You and I both love
Our sweet home, Mother Lanka!
Let us all throw our guns aside
And walk on the sandy, golden beaches
Under the palm trees once again”.

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at FT quote of “Cherry Blossoms”

Underneath, Hulugalle adds in parentheses that, in 2016, she is “happy that her wishes have come true”. Clearly, Hulugalle has not taken into account the great humanitarian tragedy that the Northern Tamil community had to undergo to in a prolonged war of two decades and a half, and its genocidal endgame in 2009, in which the lives of an estimated 350000 citizens were exposed to brazen heavy-armed attack by the state military and – to a much lesser extent – by the LTTE. The lives lost in the final months alone are variously estimated to be between 50000 and 90000, and whether the “sandy golden beaches” could have seen lesser blood and human remains has fed the post-2009 political discourses with much controversy that left the Lankan government in the state of the proverbial ostrich in the face of the global floor. This, in a context where writers / activists such as Cheran have evolved in their own political opinion in the last 25 years or so, to represent the Left-oriented ideological nuance of the national struggle.

Hulugalle’s is an unambitious work, and one that seamlessly moves from snapshot to snapshot, from past to present; from the personal to the national. Her strength, however, in my opinion, lies in the recapturing of the past and in retrieving memory and the pulse of personal (or, personalized) history. Her collection is a pleasant, easy read, much like cherry blossoms in a calm, tranquil eve.

Chamali Kariyawasam’s “Sylphlike Ether”: Poetry on Motion.

32ba1fdIn Chamali Kariyawasam’s collection Sylphlike Ether (2009) there are several deeply intriguing poems, like “Duende”, “Eternity”, “September in the Sun”, “Journey”, “The Guises of Parvati”, and “Indian Evenings in June”. In a 64-page anthology of poetry, the above poems demand our close engagement, as they leave a strong imprint and an echo of originality. The tone set by poems of the above definition, however, is often neutralized by entries that fail to make the mark, thereby, injecting Sylphlike Ether an inconsistency of sorts.

One overwhelming motif in Chamali’s poetry is movement – be it dance, walk, movement between spaces, migration, or displacement. This is the common thread that permeates her work, as its veracity is tried out in different ways, at different levels. Dance and music, in particular, are recurrently seen, indicating a close link between the twin creative forms and Chamali as a person. This, perhaps, is one reason why her poems generally betray an easy, fluid rhythm, from line to line and between stanzas.

Travel and movement are at the heart (and in the mind) of the personas in poems like “September in the Sun” and “Journey”. The ceaselessness of movement and the absence of settlement not only encapsulates the changeling within the human spirit, but also the longer, indefinite route we take in life, lacking guarantee or assurance even in our most comfortable moments. Lines from “September in the Sun” grow on you the more you read and reread them:

“You and I watching –
A constant drone in your mind that
I am leaving;
Understanding edged by certain petulance;

Yet, this traveling across the seas,
These hideous dregs that litters the journeys,
I am yet to come to terms with…
… The concept of home ceases to be a place,
But a feeling;
I am but a speck of dust,
In the wayward wind”

The journeys often continue without end, and parallel to the journey the larger metaphorical movements in life, such as intimacy and relationship, evolves. In “Journey”, the tiring, ceaseless travelling of two companions of sorts is seen to them in a rustic backwater, far away, as suggested, from the concrete of civilization:

“This road cannot end;
We shall travel without the faintest notion as to
Where all this leads,
Who we shall meet and at what expense we journey;
We have found no other answers than to continue
Despite our weariness…

… There is that withering star again, I point out;
Over those rooftops lies lovers’ paradise;
You still charm me;
All this way and I have still not tired
Of your face”.

Passion, in Chamali’s poetry, is multifaceted: it is, in an instant tranquilized, sedate and dormant, while in poems such as “Indian Evenings in June” the palpability of desire is located with earnest evocations:

“When your body touches mine –
So much like the rain;
My breath rises like the scorched earth
Come to life;
So much like the lightning, my body glows in your arms;
Your loving gives me the rages of the skies,
The incessant laughter
Of rain crazed wind
And then peace of living seeds slumbering beneath”.

9789553016218-usThe imagery of the all receiving earth and the rain-like transmission of desire, alike the strategic use of pathetic fallacy, however, are a touch clichéd. These are motifs that have been flogged by a two thousand year corpus of literature set in India from the key epics to the minor strains of Bollywood. The significance, however, is in the juxtaposition of these expressive, extrovert tensions with the bottlings in of emotion and desire seen in some other passages, including the sections cited earlier.

The following lines come later on in “Indian Evenings in June”, again, brimful of spoken and reciprocated desire, and an afterword to the intimacy hinted at in the above-quoted:

“At the end of all our wet, wild, conscious and unconscious loving –
So much like the silence before and the silence after the storm,
There is a ‘mixed peace’ in our soft words and laughter;
So much like evenings caught in unyielding monsoons,
I tremor, I awake, I live – awash in
Your love, your touch, your words”

Perhaps, my most favourite poem of the collection is “Eternity”, which, in comparison to the rest of the line up, disarms us with its deromanticization of human interplay. The poem presents to us a marriage (if not a domestic relationship) cemented by vows and rings and all, taken to a violent and abusive end. Domesticity itself is an effort; coexistence, a task:

 

“You wound me with your words
And otherwise;
Language fails to make connections;
Suddenly, a smile becomes an achievement;
Your sweat, your breath and your eyes alight in distaste;
Your force, your pretexts and unwelcome
Exploitation of my being;
All these wreck me;
What holiness remains then in this union?”

Set in sequence with some of Chamali’s dreamy, wishful, romantic expectations, “Eternity” is swift in undressing euphemism and in annihilating the very essence of mutuality and intimacy the bulwark gradually builds up. But, in the collection, “Eternity” is one of the early poems, placed before some of the other pieces that celebrate interlocked intimations.

Chamali’s sense of imagery and the set pieces she formulates around them often betray a repetitiveness and a lack of originality. This is not a drawback, per se, but a hurdle that restricts Chamali from pushing back the boundaries of her craft. However, her capacity to explore and hold to scrutiny diverse patterns and nuances of close human relationships is well demonstrated in Sylphlike Ether. This, in fact, can be said to be Chamali’s chief strength and, perhaps, her main focal point in the anthology. She is a writer, she makes us feel, for whom rhythm matters much in life as much as it does in her writing, and one for whom the brevity and ceaselessness that tamper our lives are an anchor and a fascination.

 

 

“A Long Watch”: Ajith Boyagoda on a Decade in LTTE Captivity.

Looking back from the vantage point of 2016, the events Boyagoda recounts of that decisive exchange – a symbolic moment of amelioration that, in reality, didn’t transform into a meaningful drift – where the government officials, the military officers and LTTE frontliners all assemble in one pseudo-hopeful / pseudo-anxious conference leaves the reader with a deep sigh for an initiative lost and a possible path not taken that may have written the history of our times in a different way. The most significant contribution of Boyagoda’s story is that it feeds and nourishes a growing discourse of post-war literature, and for its tangibly humanist approach, reflection, and definition of the parties locked in battle.

A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka, bracketed by HarperCollins as “memoir”, is the story of Commodore Ajith Boyagoda’s eight years spent as a prisoner of war, held by the LTTE from 1994 to 2002. This story is documented, as “told to” Sunila Galappatti, a metropolitan individual with trans-continental credentials and coverage, who in this instance works as the medium between Boyagoda and the world, in “telling” what she is “told” by the former Navy heavyweight. A Long Watch, at many levels, provides interesting if not intriguing reading, and chief among them is Commodore Boyagoda’s extremely liberal and facilitating response to the Eelam cause of the LTTE: the extension of which he himself battled against for over a decade as a ranked officer of the Lankan navy. Of many “stories” told by service personnel of the Civil War, Boyagoda’s is perhaps the first I have in my limited experience come across that hails the call for Eelam as justifiable; if not as reasonable.

downloadAn interesting point to ponder on is as to when Boyagoda exactly began to see the substance of the basis and ideological foundation of the LTTE struggle: did he already see it as early as the late 1970s, when he was a fresh recruit in whites? Or did he enlighten himself upon reflection, experiencing what he did as an active combatant in the 1980s? Or, was this a dawning upon his own turn of fortunes and his incarceration in the 1990s? Or, alternatively, are Boyagoda’s convictions of the Eelam struggle to be just a more recent assessment, upon retrospection of all that had happened in his life? This, however, is not very clearly locatable in the story “told to” Galappatti almost two decades since the actual events. The only tangibility is that the thesis Boyagoda is seen to channel is one of amelioration and amity – one that looks at the LTTE through a rare humanitarian lens – when compared to narratives of war written by other servicemen such as, for example, Boniface Perera (who wrote a novel in 2012, as an officer of a victorious army titled අවි බිමක හද ගැස්ම). The only cause for caution here, however, is that Boyagoda’s narrative is channeled through a medium. Boyagoda doesn’t speak for himself, but is spoken for by an agent with cross-continental, cosmopolitan, urbane credentials. The only cause for caution would be that the said medium’s voice may/could intermingle with Boyagoda’s own, purifying the story and straining it through a liberal strainer of sorts; but, this cause for caution does not bother me at the present moment.

As a story, Boyagoda’s narrative is an eyeopener for anyone who juggles oranges in the “humanitarian debate” in the context of the Lankan Civil War. For the average Sinhala Southerner, tempered (if not stuffed) by state narratives of pro-military “truths”, Boyagoda offers a humanized and de-demonized profile of the Liberation Tigers, at a time where they were trying to capture the world’s imagination as a capable and responsible de facto State of their own. Boyagoda, through Galappatti, submits the minutiae of his imprisonment along with his fellow Navy cadre Vijitha and 22 other army personnel over a period of 8 years. From Commodore, Boyagoda is overnight shrunk to the rank of Prisoner and the story is also one of endurance and resilience, adjusting to climates and being courageous in the long wait in the face of a hopeless future.

Boyagoda’s captivity is naturally a life-changing, decisive chapter. It makes him rethink life and transform into a “different person” altogether. However, there are two further additional forces that shape Boyagoda’s thinking and outlook, against which he speaks out in the narrative. One is the perceived mistreatment he feels he had to undergo at the hands of his employer, the government of Sri Lanka who, among other things, is the least in alacrity to effect Boyagoda’s release. President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the Ministry of Defence are frontally charged by Boyagoda on this point. Secondly, the military / navy is scorned for holding a trial against him in his absence and for condemning him for negligence of duty. In a very intriguing passage, Boyagoda gives accounts of how he was put before an LTTE inquest, and was acquitted of any criminal charges based on the evidence presented and examined through a reasonable process.

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Boyagoda, upon release after 8 years of incarceration.

Are Boyagoda’s views and outlook of the LTTE and the Civil War, then, also influenced by his own disgruntlement and apathy towards the government and the Lankan militia? This is a reasonable question, as prior to captivity we see Boyagoda as a righteous solider, but not one who necessarily went the extra mile to question the misdeeds of his own party. For instance, Boyagoda speaks of military killings of its political enemies carried out in times prior to his captivity. Though he personally distances himself from such misconduct, he does not openly lobby against these crimes either. He remains a passive loyalist of the regime he is employed by, though in the narrative (“as told to” Galappatti twenty years later) he chooses to pin them down as acts of will by the state military: “I think at that time the forces handled the LTTE and the JVP in the same way — they did some killings, then came back and said ‘job done, everything under control'”. He speaks extensively of military looting of Tamil homes in Karainagar, and of the efforts he made to try and discourage such plundering. A calculated naivety at times takes over the narrative when referring to murder of civilians carried out by the military, as seen in the following passage:

“Sometimes, trying to stop refugees fleeing to India naval boats would open fire on the vessels in which they were travelling. I believe these were killings that began as misjudgments not as murders. But then sometimes, afterwards, not knowing what to do with the evidence, they would pour petrol on to the boats and burn them, with the people in them… I would ask one of my crew over the radio if something was happening and the reply would come… ‘No sir, it’s a barbecue'”. As and when and as it happens, Boyagoda indirectly is complicit of the crime in making no issue of it, though two decades later these accounts are spoken of with implicit disapproval.

An organization that is stripped by Boyagoda’s narrative is the Lankan government, whose arrogance and selfishness in policy, and its indifference to its own employees detained by a political enemy is well documented. The years of his captivity coincide with the Chandrika Kumaratunga government, with Anuruddha Ratwatte as Deputy Minister of Defence. Boyagoda, as a prisoner, feels that the government does very little to secure his release or sustain his welfare (and that of the other 22 detained along with him). The ICRC and the families of war prisoners are given the credit for maintaining the prisoners’ morale, whereas the government is seen not to care for soldiers taken as prisoner, as the government bureaucracy considered them no different to “soldiers that are dead” in battle.

Says Boyagoda of the Lankan government: “through thirty years of conflict the government prioritized what the Southern people wanted”, which is not entirely a flattering assessment of the country’s ruling elite, though he hits the nail dead on its head in a general way. “If Tamil people were not safe in the South and were safe in the North, then that was their homeland — the government had conceded that”, he argues. Even more disarming and focal of government corruption is where, fresh in captivity, the LTTE navy chief Soosai points out weapons and military vehicles to Boyagoda, adding: “gifts from Premadasa” Allegations of the government providing the LTTE with arms and infrastructure to fight the IPKF – one of the most controversial open secrets / allegations – is given a rounder shape thus. Are these liberal and accommodative sentiments of the Tamil plight ones which Boyagoda always had, from his formative days as a soldier? Or, are these prison-hardened feelings, of a Commodore who felt abandoned by the system? Are these among the revisions he would have made in adjusting his outlook in the course of a tested life of detention?

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Galappatti

Subsequently, Boyagoda’s release is secured by an “exchange” of prisoners, as the government — after what is hinted to be several false starts — agrees to release LTTE Black Tiger “Kennedy”, who had been in government custody, being trapped during the attack on Palali air force base. Contrary to Boyagoda’s experiences with the LTTE, Kennedy is reported in the Asian Tribune of 2002-09-30 as having said to have been “tortured…and treated with contempt” by the Lankan military. The swapping of Kennedy with Boyagoda and the release of other prisoners – from both sides – were “news-making” headlines in a time where a stalemated peace process was nearing its inevitable end. Looking back from the vantage point of 2016, the events Boyagoda recounts of that decisive exchange – a symbolic moment of amelioration that, in reality, didn’t transform into a meaningful drift – where the government officials, the military officers and LTTE frontliners all assemble in one pseudo-hopeful / pseudo-anxious conference leaves the reader with a deep sigh for an initiative lost and a possible path not taken that may have written the history of our times in a different way.

The most significant contribution of Boyagoda’s story is that it feeds and nourishes a growing discourse of post-war literature, and for its tangibly humanist approach, reflection, and definition of the parties locked in battle. Boyagoda cedes how the Sinhala army/navy prisoners – who were being moved from place to place depending on the security situation – and their jailors of the LTTE gradually form a dynamic and an easy-relationship dictated by circumstances. He showcases the maturity, discipline and application as well as the humanist outlook of cadres like Selvaratnam, Mudalvannan and Newton. Though fighting on opposite sides, the LTTE cadre and the Lankan military support the same Cricket team and exhaust each other playing Cricket and badminton in the camp. Upon their ultimate release, both parties – the jailers and the prisoners – bid difficult farewells to each other. As Boyagoda tells us, this is not everyone’s story, but his story alone. But, it is a story that urges us to see the complex and unobvious moments and transactions – ones that fall outside the absolute narratives we are dealt with by uncompromising nationalist agendas and so forth – and the ultimate human aspect configured into the context which we for convenience call the Civil War. It also moves us to reassess the unnecessary and meaningless excess of the carnage, of the lack of remorse and compromise with which the final touches were put to the Civil War in May 2009, where a mature and civilized approach could have redeemed much for a post-war future and posterity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Fifteen”: Where Ameena Hussein Must Return.

fifteenOf Ameena Hussein’s work, I had earlier read Zillij (2005) and Moon in the Water (2007) which are later publications of a career as a writer that is said to have started in 1992. My encounter with her volatile and extremely engaging collection of short stories Fifteen (1999) happens after my reading of her later work, which left me with one pertinent question: what – what – happened to the spirit of Ameena Hussein who wrote Fifteen? What became of the raw, insistent, unabashed, unaffected, frontal voice that is so unaware/unconcerned/unheeding of an audience out there, tolerating no obstacle between herself and her delivery? Fifteen, I would say, is the best of Ameena Hussein to date. For people who may think Moon in the Water is her ultimate – as it has been more internationally read etc etc – well, Fifteen is more like the almighty water in the moon.

So, what became of Ameena Hussein? The voice of the penetrating upsetter of norm, and of narrowminded, inhibiting patriarchy? I think, what happened to that voice is that in subsequent publications – and with the inevitable awareness and consciousness of an audience afoot that accompanies recognition – it got tamed and domiciled: that the voice got domesticated and lost echo of its own self amidst the suffocating parameters of “good-book, good-storytelling”. The dynamo of Fifteen is Hussein’s personality and her inner spirit – in each observation that is made in that book, in every criticism that is leveled and every snarl made, what we hear is a personally concerned, personality-wielding voice that can be closely linked to the writer. In Moon in the Water and – maybe, to a lesser extent – in Zillij this possessiveness (a word I borrow from thovil, and not from love) between the writer and the writing is untraceable. The text is rendered bland and impersonal. The most vital ingredient that makes Hussein’s writing work is drained, and is substituted by a chemical that makes books go “international”. For a writer who can write as true and as honestly as Hussein does in Fifteen, this is an anti-climax: a sad one, at that.

unnamed-2A writer’s ultimate success and/or failure is not necessarily decided by the quality or the relevance of their prose or poetry. I would even say that the recognition of their work is least assessed by the quality of the produce, but by other negligible accessory factors. This is relevant to both Lankan and non-Lankan writers. There are committed, serious, dynamic men and women who write among us who are spoilt by premature adulation and laurels given dime-a-dozen, as much as they are automatically placed in the canon owing to the circles and triangles to which they belong. One such writer who has been corrupt by the people and fans around him is Ashok Ferrey – a fellow who takes his writing seriously, but who has been/was garlanded by undue glitz and glamour too early and too soon. All his books, since late, being published by Random House India is not necessarily a reflection of Ferrey’s genius, but of something randomly gone wrong in the publisher’s estimate of Lankan writing. The same fate is, to an extent, shared by Vivimarie VanderPoorten, who is, arguably, the most lyrical poet composing in English (published in Lanka) over the last decade (2006-2016), who became a “celebrity” on magazine covers and sundry after a single volume: Nothing Prepares You. VanderPoorten’s subsequent anthology was, in comparison, quite anti-climactic, and she has since undergone a poetic silence of sorts. A more honest and critical accolade would have helped VamderPoorten to grow and expand her craft.

Hussein is often located in the heart (if not the periphery) of the kind of mechanism that often is responsible for “overnight” literary icons, for whom Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, is the central vein of Lankan English creativity. In fact, Fifteen itself is published by ICES (where, I believe, Hussein was employed at one point), a Neelan Thiruchelvam initiative, but an icon for a closed non-governmental sector set up whose studies in ethnicity and related politics is a yard ahead of its occupation with literature. Hussein is equally identified with Galle Literary festival-like projects (periodically) and with other Colombo-English-speaking NGO activism. What I am striving to point out here is that over the years, the virility and energy of Hussein’s voice – as we encounter it in Fifteen –  has been drained or stunted, and that her being tamed and domesticated within the NGO-run literary spaces of the metro has not helped her in building up on the platform she lays out for herself with projects like Fifteen. This is not to say that Hussein has an alternative. This is merely a theorized observation.

Perhaps, Ameena Hussein should go back to Fifteen. At times, the voice we hear there is repetitive and reveals crevices of the amateur. But, this is not a problem, as only a “desirable book” should have a formula that sells: the kind of book that heeds no repetitiveness or an amateurish streak of the person, even at the expense of it scything off what is honest and true in the expression. Soul-searching and time-travelling is essential for any writer who desires to find his/her stride or beat, and Hussein can prosper by where she ceremonially buried her ashes: in Fifteen. If the phoenix is to rise, those ashes may be of crucial significance.

“An Almond Moon and the White Owl”: Madri Kalugala’s “must-read” Debut.

pawanMadri Kalugala’s recent collection, An Almond Moon and the White Owl is without a doubt the most powerful volume of poetry to emerge out of the Lankan English literary circuit in recent years. For a slim volume of 78 pages, Madri’s work is a roller-coaster of emotions, moods, anxieties, antipathies and so forth, chipping away at the writer’s own surface flesh, carving for us the melancholy and agony of a person/persona in a passionate and earnest struggle to come to terms with herself: a sentence dipped in dramatic words there, but each word true to the vibrant journey Madri invites us to take along a memorable channel of powerful verse.

Earlier, I had said (almost offhanded) that with the arrival of An Almond Moon and the White Owl “all charlatans, fake and delusional poets can now finally start thinking of a suitable retirement scheme”. By this I meant to identify the positive challenge Madri throws at the fellow rhyme-vendors of our time (myself included), pushing back the boundaries and creative horizons of verse composition, almost declaring a poetic war on substance and quality of what people initiate as “poetry”. One decisive factor Madri has to her advantage seems to be that she has delicately studied and taken under her wing poetry as a craft and expression, and her writing hints at an in depth reading of poetry as a “tradition”. Her erudition as a “studied writer”, someone who has internalized the range of forms and style, is among the first observations a reader would make: which quality, unfortunately, is not the strength of all good poets among us at the present time.

Madri’s work are often introvert and excavations of the soul. Her sensibility and anxiety are often channeled through a Romantic modality: a poetic consciousness that seems to have deeply influenced Madri. Madri’s work have the distinct echo of a Keats and a Shelley, while at strategic moments, they are reminiscent of pastoral landscapes evoked by writers such as the younger Tenneyson, in poems such as In Memoriam. Her gift in economically sketching out deep, complex sentiments – which she does through a casual (sounding) phrase, or an artlessly thrown half a line – and her rich choice and careful, meditative use of words are to her advantage.

An Almond Moon and the White Owl is a canister of surging passion that is seen either in motion or in suppression. Powerful, overwhelming emotions are often seen suppressed and held back, while occasionally – in poems like A Tree Speaks to the Rain – there is a masochistic outlet of tumultuous energy:

Lay me bare. Strip me of my leaves, green innocence
As I struggle to grow, to breathe in this pain,
Eat at my heart! My disease. My pestilence.

Wet hard bones, brown and cold – do I not tempt you again?
Naked, glistening, arms outstretched to an unseeing sky.
You whore. Cleanse me, then! Your insanity keeps me sane

Through your strange sadistic pleasures I do not cry
Beat me livid, till I’m numb, whiplashes on my face
My veins turn black but I do not bleed.

The painful, pathetic symbiosis between the raging power / force of the “rain” and the equally surging resistant-submission of the “tree” (the inverted commas come naturally) ends with

But I grow from you.
I grow from you.
And beaten,
Broken,
Ravished by your hate,
I break into flower
With flourish.

The synthesis of opposing energies – the conflict and consummation of dialectical beauties – dictate many memorable passages of the collection, and is among the factors that detained my attention:

When I pressed my lips
Did you hear the hiss
Like steam, escaping
From a shut lid –
Between our souls
Snake-like, something passed
In secret,

And I knew you knew
For your head jerked upwards, wild
Startled bird,
And in your eyes
Was all the fire of raging hell and
Electrifying heaven
Your teeth were sharp like flint
Your hair, loose black river
Something compressed
Broke free –

357acb0fa990ddc9d2c09a02b06974d1This is a mere hint of a thread in the poetry that appealed to me, and is not to by any means define and limit the scope and range of Madri’s expression. Her experimentation also enmeshes forms such as the couplet (as seen in poems like Seven Couplets for a Yellow Dusk), the Sonnet (Shall I Compare thee to a Moonbeam) and a poetic rendition of the elaborate toccata form (A Toccata of Galuppi’s (II)). Memorable intertexts include Dostoevsky’s Raskalnikoff (in Rodion) and Tennyson (in To My Lord).

Madri’s is a resigned, recluse world far away from the day-to-day and the mundane. It is a self-absorbed and self-centered universe, wound by Gothic and Romantic energies. The one exception – a rare moment that bridges Madri’s enclosed space with real time and space – is the poem Seya, of which the title is self-evident:

… Did he hurt you, my shadow
Did those black eyes shimmer in dark
Deep as still water,
Wide pools of pain.
Did you gasp with the hurt

Of not knowing
What you’d done
And that baby’s mouth open
In shock,
While the stars dimmed out one by one.

Did you smell milk, my baby,
A memory of milk the warmth of the womb
The smell of your mother’s hair
New-washed and spread in the sun
Did you taste grass instead
And the stale stench of fear
As those eyes closed, little one?

Madri Kalugala’s poetry will be best appreciated by a student of that subject – by one for whom form, craft and temperament of an artiste adds to the superficial reading we do of words and impressions. Though it might most likely go unnoticed, her offer to the sphere of Lankan Literature is of promise, and as to what seat she will occupy of this largely under-studied domain has to be seen with time and further critical engagement.

Professor Ashley Halpe: An Appreciation

downloadRough winds do shake the darling buds of May
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date
(Shakespeare: Sonnet 18)

My last meeting with Professor Ashley Halpe was while he was out on a walk, assisted by a helper, along Riverdale Road, quite close to his residence, sometime early this year. It must have been late January, or even early February. I was driving that way, and at the bend just after his house, I spotted him, cosily clad and walking, though assisted, quite steady. I stopped and spoke to him and he quipped that he was out to get “some air” as it were. Professor Halpe’s health had been a concern for some time, for those who knew him up close, and I was myself happy to see him up and about.

The demise of Professor Halpe last week had prompted numerous accolades and appreciations from the pan-English academy, the membership of which was known to him at multiple capacities, which includes his students of over three generations, a phalanx of colleagues and so on. The national media had been generous enough to facilitate these eulogies and words of kindness to a teacher, a lover of the arts, a drama enthusiast and a gentle person whose direction and generosity – as highlighted in most such appreciations – testifies to an indelible mark he had left in the academy.

My first meeting with Professor Halpe dates back to my Advance Level years at Kingswood College, as I happened to enroll in a tuition class for A/L Literature that he conducted, which – for reasons outside the scope of this essay – I had to after a while discontinue. It is in these classes that I for the first time came across Professor Halpe reciting poetry, as he had that memorable style of reciting the work with the full toolkit of the dramatist – how, I would say, poetry has to be taught to begin with – which I would later encounter at the University of Peradeniya, too, where he taught me Chaucer, Shakespeare and Sinhala Literature in Translation. Of the three, the latter course, in particular, left a deep impact in me at that point, in which Professor Halpe shared with class his views on a range of topics from Classical Sinhala Literature to modern writers such as GB Senanayake, Martin Wickramasinghe, Nissanka Wijemanna, Ajit Tilakasena, Buddhadasa Galappatti and so forth.

Professor, from the earliest I knew him, was encouraging of my endeavours in Literature and the arts: an encouragement that was given in an almost unseen, subtle manner, but which – in retrospect – has meant a lot to me. Still in high school, I won the Best Actor in the inter-school Shakespeare Drama contest organized by the YMCA in 2001 for my stint as Henry in Kingswood’s production of Henry the Fifth. Though I didn’t know it at that point, Professor Halpe had been a judge that year, and his recognition of my performance remains very special to me. In fact, it was sometime during the Third Year in university that I knew of his judging that competition a few years earlier, when he suggested that I take the university stage for DRAMSOC events. I told him that I “retired young”, and he genially reprimanded me that “laziness” and “retirement” are not necessarily the same thing.

My first literary venture solo was a collection of short fiction when I was in the Second Year at university, which also courted some luck in being shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize in 2006. Professor Halpe and Professor Carmen Wickramagamage were among the gathering at the small scale “launch” of sorts a few of us organized for that book. He would also periodically invite me for readings he organized at his residence, to which I have been on three or four occasions. He also unhesitatingly recommended my candidature to several universities I sought admission to for postgraduate studies in 2009: a mission I had to abort half way, for personal reasons. These recommendations meant a lot to me at that point, and I am ever grateful to him for his kind words about me.

In a broad definition, there are three kinds of academics we often come across. The first type are those who are more focused on their research and reading, digging trenches into new areas of scholarship. The second type includes those who are more honed as teachers, disseminating knowledge and excelling at instruction and guidance (The third type, of course, are those who fall into neither category). In my estimate, Professor Halpe can be more easily located in the second category, and he is remembered – at least in the classroom of my generation – for an insight he channeled in the class on Hamlet or Lear, than for the rigour of his papers and essays.

In an appreciation written for Professor Halpe, Tissa Jayatilaka, in his grief-sharing words, had made the observation that the only post the Professor may not have held in the University is perhaps the post of warden in a residence hall. This amply illustrates the commitment and investment Professor Halpe had made at Peradeniya – a commitment that at times have moved people to make his name interchangeable with that of the English academy. He was also one of the most unassuming and gentle persons in and off the classroom, attempting to unlearn privilege when and where he could. Some of his writing, specially, stimulated by campus culture and the Sinhalization of socio-cultural spaces from the 1960s on, testify to this effect. As Halpe himself once explained to a class, though from a “postcolonial age”, his background cast him more “colonial than post”; and that his journey in life was a conscious effort to neutralize the disparity he felt between whom he was and the larger society and currents around him.

In his farewell speech given to the University of Colombo a few days back, Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda had quipped, urging his younger colleagues that the struggle in education should not end in the University car park, or the entrances to the nurseries of Royal and Visakha Colleges. Uyangoda’s “bouncer”, I believe, is partly influenced by the pop-fication of the academic culture we see, with material and superficial aspects taking over from the academic concerns and commitments of the scholar. In such a context, where we see some rock n roll scholars changing their automobiles at a greater frequency than one borrows and returns library books, Professor Halpe will be remembered for a lifestyle and academic practice of an altogether different pace, if one may visualize him driving his old wagon, as wise as he was in years, down the road to Peradeniya. In fact, as a student, I had once the chance to hitch a ride in that vehicle which, as he told me, was purchased in 1971: a car that runs on three gears.

Even with ailing health, Professor Halpe honoured us by participating in two reading sessions some of us in literature had organized in 2014 and 2015. One of these forums, in which Aslam Marikar, Dhanuka Bandara, Pawan Madri Kalugala and I read, the Professor read for almost half an hour, exhausting a corpus of his writing that was a delegate of his mind at work from the 70s to the present. The second of such readings was organized by Aslam Marikar and Sri Theater, which pooled in a larger number, in which the Professor also participated.

I am sure, depending on the scale each one of us hold for measurement, the significance of Halpe and his estimate as a don may vary and differ. But, as a teacher who walked the corridors of Sri Lanka’s premier academy – and its English Department – I feel that he leaves behind a memory and a legacy that would metamorphose into legend at some point down the line. Whatever he shared with us as good and progress should be preserved and passed down the line of scholarship, as the promise of one generation to another. May his memory and his gift be appreciated and retained!