By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Tamil Short Stories From Sri Lanka – Translated by S. Pathmanathan –
It was after well over 30 years that I went back to Jaffna for a literary event. I have been well over a dozen times to the peninsula over the last 5 years, but it was for Reconciliation work, beginning with the Future Minds Exhibition held in December 2008 to encourage youngsters to take advantages of the educational and employment opportunities that would open up with the impending end of the conflict. Since then I have been to Business Development meetings, discussions on Education, and most frequently for meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings.
But the last visit was special, for it was in connection with Literature, which had been the reason I last visited Jaffna. In 1981 I had lectured at the University at the invitation of Chelva Kanaganayakam who then headed the English Department. It was a strenuous two days, for as usual on such visits I had six lectures each day. But, despite exhaustion, compounded by having travelled up by train the previous night, I was gently but firmly cajoled by the students at the end of the first day’s sessions to go and visit the burnt out shell of the Jaffna Public Library.
It was a seminal moment, for it was only then that I fully understood the bullying of Tamils the government, led by J R Jayewardene but propelled by Cyril Mathew, was engaged in. I realized then why my uncle, Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, had been belabouring his brother Esmond, who was a good friend of both J R and Mathew – though like Lakshman I do not believe he shared their racism – about solving the problem soon, else there would be disaster.
The resigned bitterness of the students is a memory that still troubles me. It was refreshed when, over a decade later, on a visit to Kattankudy, my Sabaragamuwa students who lived there, and looked after me lavishly, insisted I visit the mosque where the LTTE had massacred Muslims at prayer.
So much anguish. This comes out through the poetry in ‘Mirrored Images’, the collection I went to Jaffna to launch. It brings together writing by Sinhala and Tamil and English language writers, and was published by the National Book Trust of India. When they asked me a few years back to do a companion volume to the collection of short stories I had edited for them, ‘Bridging Connections’, I was diffident, but then decided I could get help from those who knew about poetry in Sinhala and Tamil.
Chelva Kanaganayakam proved a tower of strength, as did Mr Padmanabha Iyer to whom he introduced me, while Lakshmi de Silva shared her great knowledge for the Sinhala section, along with Amarakeerthi Liyanage of Peradeniya and Sandagomi Coperahewa of Colombo. But in the course of preparation I also got to know Sopa Pathmanathan, who had been Principal of the Palaly Teachers College, and both writes and translates.
He kindly came down to Colombo for the launch here and read most movingly from his poetry. Remarkably, as with most of the poetry, there is no recrimination, only, when the conflict is the subject, a deep sense of suffering. The same was true in Kandy, where Prof Nuhuman read, along with Amarakeerthi, and also Jean Arasanayagam and Kamala Wijeratne, two writers in English who have also evoked the human cost of the conflict.
For Jaffna I asked all those writers included in the book who were able to attend to read, and they did so, with great emotion as well as dignity, while Sopa read the English versions for a couple of them. Unfortunately, though Aiyathurai Santhan was there to read in English, only one writer from Colombo accompanied me. But this was Ariyawansa Ranaweera, whose voice I find strikingly original, and thought provoking. The manner in which he was welcomed, and the interactions between writers of different backgrounds, were most heartening, and suggest one way in which we should move forward, to create greater understanding, and appreciation of what we have in common.
While we were there Sopa gave me a copy of his latest book, a collection of Tamil short stories that he had translated. It is published by S Godage & Brothers, the most enlightened publishing firm in this country. Their collection of English translations of Sinhala poetry by A T Dharmapriya, my old colleague in the Sri Lanka English Language Teachers Association (SLELTA) had proved invaluable in the compilation of ‘Mirrored Images’, but I had not thought Godage extended to translations of Tamil writing too. That he has ventured on this book too is a tribute to his deep commitment to letters, and I could only wish government recognized what he is doing and supports him.
The book is a slim volume, containing 12 stories by 11 writers, with biographical details and also an illuminating introduction by Chelva. Two of the writers are Muslim, while two others are from the East. Two stories, including one by Al Azoomath who was born in Badulla, are about the hill country Tamils, and one, by Rajeswari Balasubramaniam, who lives in England, is about Mahadevan, an émigré student haunted by memories of his sister who had been raped in the 1977 violence, and who had committed suicide.
I had known Rajeswari as an indomitable opponent of the LTTE during the days of conflict, which is why I have been saddened that people like her should have felt so disappointed after the war. She had assumed the government, once the Tigers were overcome, would move swiftly on reconciliation as well as development. This has not been the case, and our failure to understand the suffering the Tamils went through, and how so many of them did not hold it against the government or the Sinhalese, seems to me culpable.
One problem of course is the language barrier, and even though I now realize that few decision makers read in English any more, I hope that those who are bilingual, like Ariyawansa and Amarakeerthi, will read these stories, inaccessible before, in English translation, and expound them to a wider populace. Above all I hope they will stress the sense of common humanity that emerges – most obviously for instance in Rajeswary’s story, where Mahadevan is told by his landlord that the ghost he senses is that of a girl who committed suicide in the room he lodges in.
‘”She too was from Sri Lanka. She was working as a nurse in the hospital nearby. She was living with an Englishman. Pregnant. No one knew where he went…..” Barnard went on. There was no coment.
“To some honour is more important than life.” The old man reflected.
My sister was one such person….
He didn’t tell the old man that.’
Half the stories in the book deal with the conflict, but from many perspectives – an old schoolmaster terrified that the boy with a parcel who gets into the bus that is taking him to a funeral may be a terrorist; the leader of a herd of deer unable to get to water when soldiers occupy the tank bund; a boy watching his brother, who has been tortured, wasting away; another boy vanishing, caught up in the ‘internecine conflict’ between the various militant groups, ‘resolved by a few bullets. In just one night, twelve men were expelled both from the party and the world’.
There are moments for immeasurable pathos. The boy turns out to be the son of the woman who had died, ‘killed at the Sellasannithy temple two days ago, when a shell landed on the temple’. A pregnant doe cannot bear her thirst and walks towards the tank, and steps on a mine; the villagers kill her as she tries to limp away, in the moment of calving, and ‘hesitated for a while and then carried her to the village’. The young boy whose older brother had always taken him on the bar of his bike has, after an attempt to relive those happy days, to take ‘Annachi on the cycle…for the first and the last time’.
But there is also pathos of a different sort. The two stories about the desperation of Tamils from the hill country seeking a better life are particularly moving, one finding only grinding poverty in the Wanni, the other doing reasonably well in Colombo but still tied to his Matale home – ‘Matale was like my mind…The Gombiliwela stream had been rejuvenated by the Mahaweli Project – like an old woman returning from Saudi Arabia. I was pointing out to my son the Government Dispensary where I had never taken medicine, the friendly hills, the open spaces that refreshed me, the crematorium which I had visited – everythin, with a kindled consciousness.’
And then there are simple tales, without drama, that enhance our understanding of the limited and limiting world of those without position and privilege. ‘Faces’ is about a man who has to dun villagers defaulting on hire purchase payments, with a leitmotif of the escapism offered by Hindi films, an escape desperately desired since ‘He, who threw up a job because he couldn’t tolerate an inspector, was now a prisoner in another cell! Is the whole world made up of cells?’ And there is an extraordinarily telling story by Chelian, who wrote two of the most delightfully whimsical poems in ‘Mirrored Images’ about an uncle working in the south who seems important but turns out to behave abjectly before his boss in the Deparment of Highways.
The book is a compelling read and will provide much illumination to those who wish to understand the feelings of our fellow citizens, whose voices have long remained unheard because of the language barrier. Both Sopa and Godage Bros are to be congratulated for this venture, and I could only wish that, as the National Book Trust of India does, we had an agency in this country that would translate this book also into the other national language.