19 October, 2017

Tamil Short Stories From Sri Lanka

By Rajiva Wijesinha

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha MP

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.

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Latest comments

  • 0
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    Judging from this article Prof Wijesinghe appears to be a decent man with feelings and views that are seen in a decent human being.

    The man is educated and intelligent. I am unable to comprehend what on earth he is doing in the Rajapaksa regime and more importantly being an apologist for the regime.

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    These short stories appear to be ‘tall’ stories.
    Rajiva should relate some tall stories from the old days in Old Blighty.
    He is qualified as his PhD thesis was titled “Women and marriage in the early victorian novel”.
    Now he is a ‘tall story teller’ on behalf of his boss MR as a backdoor MP.
    He has good company in Karuna who too was ‘thrust’ into parliament.
    But the poor chap had to go to jaffna by train – unlike other MPs who travel in luxury limousines or helicopter.
    Are his tall stories not good enough?

  • 0
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    Nice to see Prof. trying hard to be a learned man. You need that to change the color of your nose.

  • 0
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    Thank you for sharing this information with us. I must get a copy of this book.

  • 0
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    wonderful impartial critical account of trilingual modern anthology.

  • 0
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    Rajiva you are a misfit in the current regime. And hanging on to your post makes you a hypocrite.

    Half of the article talks about your credentials than about the topic. The rest is ok but I was confused as to whether you released an anthology of poems this time or was it short stories? Or did you release both?

    So, if you submit this article for an assignment at the Dept of English I must say I will have to ask you to resubmit….

    On a serious note you are just skiving the surface of the Tamil literature that arose during the war. An energized diaspora is responsible for producing a lot of these creations. While some were downright propagandist, there were many works that depicted the human sufferings and aspirations of a community that has been torn apart by war and displacement.

    If you really want to understand what is out there you need to be more inclusive of the diaspora.

    Anyways good luck in your endeavours to build bridges.

  • 0
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    Tamil short stories are all hate filled disgusting stories.

    Not worth the paper they are printed on.

    Tamil is not a language native to SL. It belongs to Tamil Nadu. Let Tamil Nadu people look after the Tamil language. Leave it out of SL.

    No one in India outside TN learn this Tamilian language.

    Any junk is good junk for some Srilankans.

    If Arabic is a national language at least SL people will get more jobs in rich Arab countries. Tamil is useless.

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      chingalam is an international language and it’s about to replace english as the commercial language of the world. stock exchanges from tokyo to wall street have adopted chingalam and the brokers say chingalam is the most effective and pleasant language to use in commercial transactions. all arab households have adopted chingalam as their first language in order to communicate with chingala black and ugly maids like aryawathi. it’s well known that dubai has adopted chingalam as the first language in dubai toilets as an incentive to maintain hygienic and clean toilets by chingala toilet cleaners. on the whole it’s very promising for a dialect spoken by only about 17 million primitive people. 17 million came about after the adoption of an accelerated birth rate policy ( at times even faster than sewer rats) to increase the numbers. the effect of all this is that chingala race is producing modayas in large numbers. it appears that chingala modayas have started teaching cricket to italians. i won’t be surprised if cricket replaces football as the major sport in south korea because of the large scale influx of chingala toilet cleaners. when chingalam is in such a strong position, i simply can’t understand why fathima worries about tamil. if there is a well founded fear that tamil will compete with chingalam at international level then probably there is some truth in what he is saying. but chingala after all not even a language. it’s a dialect. chingalam came into this world as a flat pack. assembling chingalam took ages as it had to borrow, rob and steal from languages like tamil to make it into a semi finished product. chingalam is an inferior, barbaric, uncivilised and primitive dialect. fathima you can’t sell chingalam anywhere in this whole wide world. it’s a stupid dialect like you. you are a stupid, thick and uncivilised barbarian who should be put to death by putting a tyre around your neck and set it alight.

    • 0
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      Have you taken another look at your mother these days? She may be a useless Tamil too?

    • 0
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      Very soon Arabic will be. Will you allow reasonable use of Sinhalease in the Islamic Republic of Sri Lanka.

    • 0
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      Fat ” Mama” Fuk U Shima

      You are suffering from Dementia which has reached a very advanced stage and I am sure even at this late you will understand the following. First of all your language is not a human Language but an Animal Language and the following confirms it.

      “Sinhabahu or (“Lion-arms”), was the son of a Vanga princess and a lion. He killed his father and became king of Vanga. His son Vijaya would emigrate to Lanka and become the progenitor of the Sinhala people.”

      Now then:
      As for Tamil Language:

      We make music ( A R Rehman, Ilayarajah ) and the rest of India copies it including you lot which is a fact. What do you sing baila songs

      Adareta Kiyana Katha in other words Crap.

      Ilaiyaraja makes music with Andrew Lloyd Webber.
      We are in a different league.

  • 0
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    If you are the nephew of Bishop Lakshman Wickramasinghe you are should not be
    part of this genocidal regime.

    • 0
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      It is a bit too late for that. Rajiva Wijesinha and Dayan Jayatilleka strenuously defended the Rajapaksa regime even as the regime abducted and disappeared people, and committed massive war crimes and crimes against humanity. When the time comes for the regime to face the music, RW and DJ cannot escape justice. No amount of conciliatory noises can change that.

  • 1
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    Thank you Rajiva. I have always known – perhaps hoped is a better word, that there was another side to you that many of us have failed to see through your image portrayed in the recent past. The future of SriLanka depends on all communities living in that beautiful country existing together with mutual respect. The ‘para demala’, ‘moottu singalavan’ and ‘kunu thambia’ model has failed in the most spectacular fashion and was responsible for the carnage that we have seen throughout the country during the past 30 years. The challenge is how do we get the different groups of people – who are all individually justifiably proud of their own heritage, to truly respect that of the others. How do we celebrate “Pal Kavi” with all its nuances without denying the existence of ” Nattu padalgal” in all its glory? How do we celebrate Lester James Pieris without denying the genius of KS Balachandar? How do we respond to the soothing melodies of Amaradeva without ignoring the bliss of Balamurali Krishna? How do we evolve as a Nation to see “Kandian dance” and “Baratha Natyam” as two sides of the same coin? How do we even start explaining to our children that Budhism and Vedantic Hinduism cross fertilised each other and nurtured each other for several centuries from the dawn of Civilisation? …… that is the challenge and people such as yourself have a special role to play in this.
    There are clearly people from all sides of the ethnic divide who have a vested interest in preventing the emergence of a collective Sri Lankan identity, forged through mutual respect. In this context the silent majority are the really guilty ones for they remained blissfully silent in their own worlds while the illiterate, ignorant and the vicious set the agenda…….it should not be allowed to happen again.
    My most sincere thanks to you for the first step you have taken in this direction.
    Dr Mahesan Nirmalan, University of Manchester

    • 0
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      Dr Dr,

      Don’t delude yourself. If you want to know this man is let me tell you he is the mouth piece of Mahintha Rajapakse.
      He works for MR , he speaks for MR, he breaths for MR and the only thing he doesn’t do for MR is breed.
      If he had a chance he would have done that also.

  • 0
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    “..para demal,mootu singalavan,kunu thamby model has failed..”.
    “when are we going to celebrate “Pal Kavi” with nattu padalgal or celebrate Lester James Pieris without denying the genius of K.S.Balachander…” etc., etc.

    In the sub-continent this fusion process is continually still taking place in the field of literature,art,drama,music,films etc.,despite the differences in language,traditions,and culture because racial differences have taken a back seat there.
    A good example is the Bangali version of India’s national anthem.
    But in our island where people insist on viewing the world through the wrong end of the telescope and force a particular version of the country’s national anthem down the throats of school children who speak a different language in the North,not so long ago and with silent majority blissfully remaining silent without any agenda about dealing with the impasse,me included.What chance is there for any such fusion or enrichment?

  • 0
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    Prof,

    At least I know that you have some Tamils who are willing to Translate for you. But you are shedding Crocodile tears and it is too little too late.

    Let me ask you a few Questions:

    1)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.

    *** You have been Part of the Establishment which is responsible for the Genocide and You cannot be a part of RECONCILIATION.
    So for me your involvement in that field is an Insult.

    2) 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.

    *** If what you are saying above is true what have you done to check MR when he was and still is engaged in a programme of Ethnic Cleansing.

    3)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.

    *** You are a clever individual and do you now understand why the Tamils took up arms. We were not born terrorists but forced to become Freedom Fighters which you conveniently call terrorism.

    4) 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.

    *** I take issue with you on the above and say the following. It will be a waste of time and effort as there is sadly no Sinhalese Audience to hear the sufferings of the Tamils.

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