26 March, 2019

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Lost Evenings, Lost Lives: Tamil Poems Of The Sri Lankan Civil War

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

This bilingual anthology of fifty poems is by the very nature of its subject (ethnic conflict) political, and yet it would be inaccurate and unfortunate to describe the volume as a political work. It is about the experience of politics: politics as experienced not by the makers of History but by those who endure it; politics not as an abstraction but as something personally felt by ordinary, sentient, human individuals. As several of these poems attest, whether we are interested or not in politics, it affects us. Indeed, tragically, often the victims of politics are the poor and the innocent; those with no knowledge of or interest in politics. I suggest that poets do not go searching for a theme: the subject chooses and compels them through personal experience. And “experience” here includes what the poet has seen, been told or read. ‘Tamil Poems’ does not mean poems by Eelam (see Endnote) poets only, and there are several works by Indian Tamil poets. Many chose to write under a nom de plume.

Lost Evenings, Lost Lives: Tamil Poems of the Sri Lankan Civil War -edited, translated and introduced by Lakshmi Holmstrom & Sascha Ebeling,                        UK, 2016.

Lost Evenings, Lost Lives: Tamil Poems of the Sri Lankan Civil War -edited, translated and introduced by Lakshmi Holmstrom & Sascha Ebeling, UK, 2016.

If of the three traditional genres of Literature (Poetry, Drama, Fiction), Poetry is the most literary, it is also the most difficult to translate. Apart from other qualities poetry, associated with song, is mnemonic: we remember lines from poetry and song but rarely from prose. In translation (particularly when, as with the present collection, it is into another language that is completely different) inevitably much is lost. And it is not only musicality; cadence and rhythm, but cultural connotation. Literature emerges from, and in turn reflects, a specific way of life, a culture; when translated (trans-ported) into a foreign language and culture, rich nuances of significance can be lost. (In Shakespeare’s comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when a character is turned into an ass, it’s exclaimed: “Thou art translated!”)

While a poem must stand on its own, background information can throw a different light, enhance appreciation. For example, in Nuhman’s ironic poem, ‘Buddha murdered’ (p. 25), the Buddha and his teaching have to be obliterated in order to burn down the Jaffna Library. On 1 June 1981, the Library which housed well over 90,000 works, one of the biggest in Asia, was destroyed including irreplaceable ancient manuscripts and scrolls. Similarly, Rashmy’s ‘The inscription of defeat’ (pp. 129-131) requires some knowledge of the history of the ethnic conflict, and of the LTTE leader. However, Lost Evenings, dealing primarily with violence and its impact – death and destruction; sorrow, pain of body and soul – attempts to transcend specificity and be universally comprehensible. It must be admitted that, as George Orwell wrote in his essay ‘Writers and Leviathan’ (1948), though we have “an awareness of the enormous injustice and misery of the world”, our response to literature can be coloured by loyalties which are non-literary.

The translators give a brief outline of events during the course of nearly thirty years of war: the savage 1983 pogrom, “the brutal intervention of the Indian Peace Keeping Force”, the increasing violence of the Tamil Tigers, and so to “the last terrible months of war” (p. 9). The poems are given in chronological order of publication and so parallel; arise from, and reflect, this history.

The irruption of brutality destroys what was once normality in Nuhman’s poem, ‘Last evening, this morning’ (pp. 17-19). Last evening, we popped into a bookshop, idly watched the crowds at the bus terminal, took in a film and then cycled home. This morning, bullets pierce bodies, the terminal is deserted, the market shattered.

And this was how

we lost our evenings

we lost this life.

It’s when we fall ill that we realize how wonderful it is to be free from pain and disability – a normality otherwise taken for granted. And so it is that when violence irrupts into an otherwise placid pattern of life. (I recall many years ago being asked in Jaffna by a man in genuine puzzlement: “All we want is to be allowed to lead our lives as we want. Sir, why don’t they leave us alone?” He thought it was a simple wish and, therefore, a fair question.) Jesurasa’s poem, ‘Under New Shoes’ is a ‘meditation’ based on Jaffna’s old Dutch fort. Three hundred years have passed since the imperialist, occupying, Dutch left; colour (now not white) and language (now not Dutch) have changed but for Tamils “the same rule of oppression” (p. 21) continues.

The compulsion to communicate with a loved one makes the persona of Urvasi’s poem, ‘Do you understand?’ (pp. 29-31) write a letter though there isn’t an address to send it to. (A poignant work, it recalls Ezra Pound’s beautiful rendering of the Chinese poem, ‘The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’, available on Google.) Urvasi’s poetic persona includes in her letter what one could call home details: the jasmine is in bloom; the small puppy runs in circles, its tail raised; I dust your books. But a different reality (menace) throbs beneath the lines: they haven’t come to “interrogate” me – as yet!

‘I Could Forget All This’ by Cheran (pp. 33-4), a post-1983 poem, remembers ghastly sights such as a thigh-bone protruding from an upturned, burnt-out car; a socket empty of its eye, and a pregnant (Sinhalese) woman carrying off a cradle from a burning Tamil house. One thinks of what has been described as the shortest story ever written in English. It consists of six words: “For sale, baby shoes. Never worn.” (The story is attributed, though without evidence, to Hemingway.) Cheran concludes with a powerful use of symbolism. But

How shall I forget the broken shards

and the scattered rice

lying parched upon the earth?

A related poem is ‘Oppressed by Nights of War’ by Sivaramani (pp. 45-6) showing what happens to children in a time of protracted and “total” war: children, with their childhood destroyed. Biographical information heightens our response to Captain Vanathi’s ‘My Unwritten Poem’, a work that repeatedly urges the addressee to complete what she couldn’t accomplish. Vanathi was killed in action shortly afterwards, and this is her last poem. The year is 1991, and there is still the belief that all their suffering and sacrifice will not be in vain: As you walk freely in an independent Tamileelam, I and the thousands of other martyrs will smile with joy (p. 57): her poem will then have been written. Metaphorically, freedom is the poem that must be ‘written’ (achieved). It is indeed very strange, to read these lines in the present context.

The editorial note to Aazhiyaal’s poem, ‘Mannamperis’, explains that Tamil Koneswari Selvakumar was gang-raped by soldiers who then blew her to bits by exploding a grenade in her vagina (p. 75). But the poem, broadening outward – hence the plural Mannamperis – encompasses other instances of “man’s inhumanity to man”; more particularly, man’s inhumanity to women. During what in Sri Lanka is known as the Insurgency (the violent uprising of Left-leaning young men and women against the government) Padmini Mannamperi, a Sinhalese beauty-queen, was raped and killed by members of the Sri Lankan army (April 1971). The editorial note does not elaborate that, in an avowedly Buddhist and conservative country, Padmini was stripped naked and forced to walk down the street; that she was buried even before she was dead. One thinks, for example, of William McGowan’s Only Man Is Vile: The Tragedy of Sri Lanka (New York, 1992). It may be added that, whatever the sins and crimes of the Tamil Tigers (and they were several and grievous; destructive and, as History shows, finally fatal) I have not read of them indulging in rape or in the sexual humiliation of women. On the contrary, women seem to have enjoyed an unprecedented degree of emancipation; of equality. See for example:

The theme of exile finds expression in poems such as ‘The Lizard’s Lament’ by Solaikkili (pp. 67-69); ‘Identity’ by Aazhiyal (p. 99); ‘Goodbye Mother’ by Jayapalan (pp. 105-107) and in ‘Photographs of Children, Women, Men’ by Cheran (pp. 149-151). In the last mentioned poem, documentation is demanded of the refugees but all they carry are “burning tears”, and memories of murder and ethnic cleansing. Estrangement, to a greater or lesser degree, awaits the first-generation refugee. As Doris Lessing wrote, once you leave your first home, you have left all homes forever.

But to leave behind the one room

where you have lived all your life…

that is tragedy.

(Solaikkilli, ‘The Lizard’s Lament’, p. 69)

2009 marks the year when the Tigers were totally annihilated, and the poems following reflect this reality. Indian poet Ravikumar in ‘There Was a Time Like That’ (pp. 119-121), using the refrain “There was once a time”, reflects on a time when things were very different, both in Sri Lanka and in Tamil Nadu. Latha in ‘Empty Days’ (p. 147) writes that “the last little fragment of land that was ours” is lost; our people and their dreams destroyed. There is not a sign that they ever existed. The persona in Sharmila Seyyid’s ‘Keys to an Empty House’ (pp. 143-5) has only her memories and the rusting keys to her father’s house: the little house itself has been totally destroyed. But though the triumphant enemy celebrate; dance and mock “our overflowing tears” (Cheran, ‘Forest Healing’, p. 133), the father in Jesurasa’s poem, ‘The Time Remaining’ (p. 123), comforts his son: Life has destroyed our dreams; your path forward may now seem blocked but your time will come: does he mean in another country?

To go on but now leave it to readers to come to terms, each in her own different and differing way, with these poems. After all, a reviewer must gesture towards, and then step aside: s/he must not stand between the reader and the text. That would defeat the purpose of a review. To learn the ‘facts’ of the 30-year conflict, one turns to history books and articles, boring or interesting, biased or objective. But if one wants to gain something of an insight into that experience, one turns to Literature.

If I may conclude on a personal note, I never met Lakshmi Holmstrom but we corresponded; I considered her a friend, and write this introduction with deep regret at her passing.

Endnote

The Editors’ clarification, bottom of page 109: “Eelam is the name in Tamil for the island of Ceylon, or Sri Lanka. This term has been in use since the classical era of the second century AD.” More recently, the term has been used “specifically to define a particular territory, the traditional homeland of the Tamils”.

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Latest comments

  • 5
    0

    Where can one buy this book?

    Did that horrendous crime against Koneswari Selvakumar really take place? Her death cries out for acknowledgement and retribution.

      • 3
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        Thank you Paul but I was hoping it might be in a bookshop in Sri Lanka where I live.

    • 3
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      Manel
      The Konesvari event occurred in the 1990s and much was written in Tamil.
      ‘Sarinihar’ the Tamil journal of MIRJE carried a powerful poem on it and there was much controversy abut the language of the poem, but not the essence of it.
      I am not sure about what the sister journal reported.
      But that was a time when people were too shell-shocked to respond to anything.

      • 6
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        Thank you Sekera. Unfortunately I DONT read Tamil but I hope this case will come up before a judicial body investigating such matters. One cannot comprehend the mindset of people who do such things – though who knows what takes over people once they have been accustomed to killing and being killed.

  • 4
    3

    The end note says:
    The Editors’ clarification, bottom of page 109: “Eelam is the name in Tamil for the island of Ceylon, or Sri Lanka. This term has been in use since the classical era of the second century AD.” More recently, the term has been used “specifically to define a particular territory, the traditional homeland of the Tamils”.

    Words acquire new meanings as much as they lose older meanings.
    Eelam was a classical name in the time of Silappathikaram (Circa 5th century), but, by the time of Kamba Ramayanam (circa 11th Century) partly owing to association with the Ramayana, Ilangai (Tamilized Lanka) became the preferred name and remained so for all official and day to day usage.
    Eelam has been used in literature without any political connotation until first used by C Suntaralingm with a separatist motive. The backroom boys of the FP too used the term, more liberally after the flop of the Satyagraha campaign.

    Eelam was used by writers and critics at times to contrast with Sout Indian Tamil writings; but not to refer to the “the traditional homeland of the Tamils” but the whole island. it was Tamil Eelam that referred to the N&E region since the 1970s.

    Since the separatist agenda got centre stage in Tamil politics, Tamil nationalists deliberately avoided the word Ilangai (the officially accepted Tamil name of the country from pre-independence times). They preferred to call the country Sri Lanka (and at time Sinhala Sri Lanka as opposed to Tamil Eelam).

    ‘Lankan’ has been a common preferred adjective to refer to literary matters and would have sufficed for the anthology. The term ‘Eelam’ means different things in English (referreing to the N&E) and Tamil (where it generaly refers to the Island and to separatists a part of the island).

    Thus there is more than meets the eye in the use of the term Eelam in a historically incorrect way. There was no state of ‘Eelam’ in the pre-colonial era and there was only the Jaffna Kingdom.

    • 4
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      “Thus there is more than meets the eye in the use of the term Eelam in a historically incorrect way.”

      Unnecessary comment.
      Eeelam was the name Sri Lankan Tamil poets used for their country in ancient times. e.g. Eelaththup Poothanar. So what is the fuss? Sarvan’s comment needs no correction

      You are still not at Peradeniya sucking up to the Sinhalese to become Senior Professor. According to Professor Hoole when you were made senior professor there were only two routes to the position:
      1. Eight years as Professor whereas you had only 15 years as post-doc n London, and,
      2. By sucking up to the Sinhalese against your Tamil colleagues.

      At Peradeniya everybody knows that you came purely by route 2.

      Now that you are retired please spare us Tamils from your Ettappan work especially at the Jaffna University Council.

      • 2
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        Please read the text and respond to inaccuracies if any.

  • 3
    6

    This man will never return to Sri Lanka. This man will keep funding LTTE rump to start war but will never sacrifice himself. Another charlatan.

    • 5
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      Kekirinadan,

      An unfortunate and outrageous comment. I have followed Prof. Sarvan’s excellent contributions here and elsewhere. I find them of high educative value. How do you know he has not returned, he will not return again to the country of his birth – a country and people whom he loves immensely despite the many horrific crimes against close members of his family in 1958, 1977 and 1983. There are many like him.

      I respond to your bestial comments because I don’t want Prof. Sarvan to think good and decent people – Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and other – no more live here.

      Do you have the decency and strength to apologise to a learned and cultured man like Prof. Sarvan suitably.

      Kettikaran

    • 6
      1

      Kekirinadan

      “This man will keep funding LTTE rump to start war but will never sacrifice himself.”

      You sound like a patriot. As a patriot, you should gather all the necessary information with evidence of his funding activities and report to the local police and alert the Sri Lankan Embassy/High Commission.

      Will you do it for the sake of the former king and country?

      Do you have any information on his total contribution to LTTE?

      ” This man will never return to Sri Lanka”

      Why not?

    • 5
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      Kekirinadan

      Either you are writing this to us from beyond, after shuffling off this mortal coil, having made the sacrifice yourself, OR YOU are the charlatan of the piece.

      I stand behind the comment Kettikaran has made.

      I look forward to reading this sad anthology.

  • 2
    1

    Documentation and publication of Poems are very urgent to understand the experience and understanding of FREEDOM beyond freedom.
    Let me state one of my poem for the search of truth and true freedom today:

    Spirituality of our times:

    God of existence,
    Enlighten us to experience you in everything.
    Equip us to realize everything in you.
    So that we may co–exist without harming here and now.

    God of justice,
    When I see you in the victims of war,
    How can I keep silent without voice for them?
    God of justice,
    When I meet and realize you,
    How can I forget the victims of war?
    Because I see you in them and see them in you.

    God of the nature,
    When I hear your cry from the Palmyrah which became a martyr due to multi barrel shelling,
    How can I sleep without lament?
    God of the nature,
    When I read and listen the scripture,
    How can I forget your call to protect the nature?
    Because I hear you in them and hear them in you.

    God of the humanity,
    When I touch your wounds in a school boy who got severely injured due a bomb blast,
    How can I smile without shouting to civil society for ‘crime against humanity’?
    God of the humanity,
    When I meditate on your life – death struggle,
    How can I forget your role & expectation without becoming as a wounded healer?
    Because I reflect you in them and reflect them in you.

    God of the vulnerability,
    Enable us to realize everything in you and experience you in everything.
    So that we all can co–exist with your net work of ‘Incarnation – Reign of God – Resurrection’ now and always.

    • 1
      2

      God, I made you in my image
      Then I suffer and blame you

  • 3
    1

    There is a famous Sinhala lament-Colombatta Kiri,appatta Kekiri!
    So,Kekirinadan is lamenting that he does not have the scholarship of Prof:Sarvan!.

  • 4
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    Dear Prof. Sarawan,

    I have heard much of you, but there has never been direct contact between us: I was in the same school as you ten years later, and in the same University Department, perhaps 25 years later!

    I’ve just tried, but failed to post this as a comment on your article that appears here:

    http://transcurrents.com/tc/2009/07/post_385.html

    “That school slang that you have forgotten, was it not ‘gopal’? As for not sneaking, not many seemed then to understand why, although I refused to participate, I also didn’t inform anybody of what was going to happen on the 22nd of February 1965; so soon were the Hayman principles forgotten.

    I hope that you’ve been following what has been happening in the school recently. Some of my contemporaries have contributed munificently during the past five years, and the new swimming pool is magnificent: but the the wording on them plaque begins with a tribute to Dr Hayman – who taught me Physics.

    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/the-thomian-pharisees-are-unrepentant-why-this-matters-to-all-sri-lankans/

    I was in the school from 196o to 1965; my daughter from 1980 to 1984.”

    It may interest you to know that there were two Hoole brothers at Gurutalawa: Michael Rajan was my classmate for four years – Guru and Mt Lavinia, and has for almost thirty years been documenting the politics of the Eelam Wars; the late Charles Muthan was in Gurutalawa for just one year – 1964.

    I know that you were wanting to return to Sri Lanka, and that you have been helping the community here in various ways. Let us hope that positive developments happen fast enough for your return to be possible.

  • 4
    0

    Dear Sinhala-Man

    Thank you for this kind note. By the way, I wonder if you read my recollections of Gurutalawa: Sunday Island, 5 July 2009? If not, let me have your email address, and I’ll send you a copy. The school remains very very dear to me.

    My not returning to Sri Lanka has entirely and only to do with my health – or the lack of it! I am an octogenarian and have various problems: heart operation, pressure, sugar etc. I who was a paid talker all my working-life (that is, a teacher), now find it difficult to talk because I quickly get out of breath. This is by way of explanation and definitely not a complaint: the Buddha, wise and compassionate, urged acceptance. I am more fortunate than many.

    With good wishes

    Sarvan

    • 0
      0

      Dear Pro. Sarvan,

      I feel that if I put down only my address, it’ll get edited out! So here goes: paniniedirisinhe@gmail.com

      Two Thomians whom you may have known – and who both taught me a lot: Oliver de Soysa, and Prof. Thiru Kandiah in Perth.

      The sadness in the poems: I knew that, but still am shocked by some of it. However, more than that, I’m sorry to hear of your “lack of health”.

      I hope that there are a few things that still bring you joy.

    • 0
      0

      I submitted a comment last night incorporating my e-mail address. That was before the response to Plato about etymologies. paniniedirisinhe@gmail.com Why doesn’t it say, at the very least that it was edited out?

      I feel that it is important to provide some response to Prof. Sarvan given what he says about his health.

    • 1
      0

      What is all this nonsense about Sarvan’s place of domicile and his reluctance to visit Sri Lanka?Does it mean that to review a book of poems — or for that matter to write about the bleesed isle one must live in the Island and visit it periodically?What balderdash!
      I am surprised that Sarvan took it seriously enough to mount a defense…

  • 3
    1

    Sinhala Man.

    GOPAL was a noun as well as a verb.It had its origins,in Mt.Lavinia shortly after the school moved out of Mutwal.
    Gopal means eating by yourself without sharing,especially goodies from the tuck-shop,or the stuff brought from home and tucked away in the Boarding cupboards!
    Perhaps,Gopal is the short form of the guy who was a past-master of Gopalling!

    • 0
      0

      OMG! Such hoary vintage!!

      And you’re some wizard with etymology; you gave me “Chasidim” two weeks ago.

  • 2
    0

    How about translating these into Sinhalese and publishing them for a wider audience? There has been so much suffering and sorrow. Whether it was 1958, 1971, 1983 or 1988-90 period and the war; usually it is the children and women who suffer the most. I wish that SL will have at least 50 years of calm to rebuild and not lose more years to carnage. Sir, this is a song by one of my favorite Rock groups: Pink Floyd. It has some powerful lines and I remember this song and the album because it is my favorite album. I believe it should apply to all war mongers be they LTTE or nationalists or fascists. It is called “gunner’s dream”.

    “Gunners Dream”

    floating down through the clouds
    memories come rushing up to meet me now
    in the space between the heavens
    and in the corner of some foreign field
    i had a dream
    i had a dream
    goodbye max
    goodbye ma
    after the service when you’re walking slowly to the car
    and the silver in her hair shines in the cold november air
    you hear the tolling bell
    and touch the silk in your lapel
    and as the tear drops rise to meet the comfort of the band
    you take her frail hand
    and hold on to the dream
    a place to stay
    enough to eat
    somewhere old heroes shuffle safely down the street
    where you can speak out loud
    about your doubts and fears
    and what’s more no-one ever disappears
    you never hear their standard issue kicking in your door
    you can relax on both sides of the tracks
    and maniacs don’t blow holes in bandsmen by remote control
    and everyone has recourse to the law
    and no-one kills the children anymore
    and no-one kills the children anymore
    night after night
    going round and round my brain
    his dream is driving me insane
    in the corner of some foreign field
    the gunner sleeps tonight
    what’s done is done
    we cannot just write off his final scene
    take heed of the dream
    take heed

  • 0
    0

    Eelathu Kavignan..

    Is Prof:Sivasegaram[That much loved Academic?! of Peradeniya] the Sekera on CT?
    Sekera in response,has ignored the text of your response!

  • 2
    1

    “I have not read of them indulging in rape or in the sexual humiliation of women”….

    for an LTTE’er to rape even a Sinhalese woman would have meant his sure death by his comrade’s hands or higher ups.

    for all the border village attacks they committed in retaliation, they could have done it but their codes were too strict.

    it is their personal killings and the fratricidal wars that weakened them and ended them the way they did. they were more ruthless than barbaric.

    • 1
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      Rahul
      How do you know the LTTEr’s were not raping their own female caderes freely, to have the impulse, stamina or daring to rape Sinhala women in border villages?
      LTTEr’s were utter cowards weren’t they? What strict code of theirs are you on about?

      • 0
        0

        “LTTEr’s were utter cowards,” says you. The Leaders, perhaps.

        I hope you’ve seen that YouTube ‘story’. I discovered a new dimension to the tragedy there.

        And I guess that some Sinhalese soldiers really believed that they were fighting a necessary war.

        Let us not allow these nightmares to be repeated.

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