23 October, 2021

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A Book Review: Thun Kal Ratā

By Jagath Asoka

Dr Jagath Asoka

On a Sunday morning, holding a book written by one of my colleagues, reading his poems, while having a cinnamon bun with a cup of coffee, well, that is my idea of heaven.

I just finished reading තුං කල් රටා by  Athula Seneviratne. These poems belong to three stages of his life. It seems like his entire life is a poem. Yesterday, with my newfound confidence and vigor after getting my Pfizer vaccines, I decided to leave my cave, my troglodyte life, and my reclusive habits to say farewell to my dear friends—husband and wife—who were leaving New Jersey to enjoy their retirement, probably in our putative paradise, Sri Lanka. My dear childhood friend who hosted the dinner, gave me a little book of poetry තුං කල් රටා written by our colleague Athula.

It took me less than three hours to read this little book, which is a big achievement for me. So, with enormous pleasure, I immediately treated myself to a cup of tea with a very thin slice—my definition of thin is relative—of brownie to match my sweetened mood.

It has 58 poems. By the time I was done reading, I had picked 13 poems; these two numbers—58 and 13—are very close to my heart, but I think it is just a coincidence.

I can only share my feelings with you; if you want to feel what I felt, you need to read it yourself. To read anything written by anyone that I even remotely know is a blessing. 

I noticed the influence of Buddhism and Athula’s own life experiences in his poems. I picked these 13 poems because of their novelty and the impact they had on me.

God is in Hell, දෙවියො අපායට ගිහින් (p 42), is a novel idea, an idea that I have not seen before even though lately I have been obsessed with God, Heaven, and Hell. We all know what Nietzsche said about God—God is dead. But Nietzsche did not tell us what happened to God after his death. Did God go to heaven or Hell? Athula tells us that God is in Hell for creating this world; a world full of suffering created by an omnipotent and omniscient God is something to ruminate and cogitate on. I think, I will remember this poem, this idea—like Nietzsche’s idea of God’s death—forever. This is why I love literature, novels, writers, and poets because they open doors for us to see a world that we have never imagined or seen before.

If you talk about God, of course, you must talk about the devil, too. රජකම උරුමය (p 38) is a lament by the devil. The devil is complaining about his position because he is tired of seeing non-ending torture and suffering. He is blaming us for committing sin and putting him in this predicament; not only he has to watch people suffer, day and night, but he is also blamed for their torture and suffering for the sins that they themselves have committed.

හිම කබාය (p 45) is a poem about having too many choices, which becomes an impediment when you have too many things to choose from. Simplicity is frowned upon even by ascetics and monks nowadays.

කදුලු කතා, සිනහ කතා, sad stories are always about suffering and compassion, yet we prefer humor and gossip, even when it is sarcastic and insulting. This is the mystery of human nature.

අද අවුරුදු (p 52) is the saddest poem in this potpourri. It is about old parents who are living with their old habits. Their old habits are signs of their tender and urgent longing to see their children who are scattered all over the world. Yes, it is sad.

අපේ පාර (p 58) is about our struggles, battles, and competitions for a better life regardless of where you live, whether in our own countries where we were born or in our surrogate countries where we are adopted.

I love Indian gods, both anthropomorphic and theriomorphic. Skand is typically represented as an ever-youthful man, riding a peacock, with six heads and twelve hands, reflecting the legend surrounding his birth. In Athula’s poem කද සුරිදුනි he is comparing himself to the different masks that he must wear at home and work, in various social surroundings.

කුලී නිවසි ගෙහි හිමිය (p 62) is satire with sarcasm. Even though some of us are blessed because we have inherited certain things without earning them, we are not fortunate enough to enjoy our blessings.   

Poetry is all about life, but a collection of poems is not complete without a poem about death. In මරනය (p 66) Athula asks us, what is more important? Death, which happens only once and brings sadness to others, or living in this world which brings non-ending suffering to you?

In උපන්දින සාදය (p 68), I am not sure whether Athula is making fun of Sri Lankans who love to sing in public, especially in birthday parties, even though some of them sound literally like a cacophony of crows. Well, this is one of the curses without disguise!

I think you will enjoy this poem නා ගෑනිම (p 69) if you have enjoyed bathing outside, whether it is a water stream or a river, not inside a tiled bathroom.

New Temple, අලුත් පන්සල, now, here is a poem that is highly pertinent. The fate of Buddhism, especially in Sri Lanka, where there are monks—a dime a dozen—who claim that they have achieved sainthood. These monks are building their own statues for their devotees to worship them while they are still alive because they are too busy to appear in front of their devotees. Now, we are in a new world, a world that we have not seen before. 

අලුත් පන්සල is about these cyber temples where people can participate and listen to discourses until they literally go insane; I am not making this up; I have heard of such people who have gone mad because they kept listening to certain Buddhist monks, without paying any attention to their daily physical, mental, and emotional needs.

Birthday, උපන් දිනය, is my final pick; instead of having a big party, receiving trinkets as gifts, you can try Athula’s idea of celebrating your birthday.

I think Sri Lankans in New Jersey—perhaps in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut— should have a British style tea party to celebrate Athula’s poetry.

Also, I wish Athula had written the stories behind these poems; surely, the stories behind each poem would have enhanced and multiplied my enjoyment. On the other hand, it is perfect as it is because I cannot imagine where I would end up after drinking so much tea and eating so many brownies to match my enhanced enjoyment.

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