Of resistance and loss
|Sri Lankan Tamil writers tried to capture the trauma of the violence that gripped the country from 1983. The songs of the vanquished show how poetry can be a way of coming to terms with the despair of defeat.|
Rudramoorthy Cheran, perhaps the most clairvoyant among the poets of the Eelam movement.
There can be two opinions about the politics and the tactics of the Eelam movement in Sri Lanka, but there cannot be two about the brutal massacre of Sri Lankan Tamils at Mullivaikkal which was the culmination of a series of smaller, indiscriminate attacks on the Tamils —including women and children—that had gone on for years since the beginning of the movement and had taken a bloodier course from the latter half of 2008 to May 18, 2009, when it was officially announced that the war on Eelam Tamils had finally been concluded.
The atrocities have not gone unrecorded, thanks to the meticulously researched 158-page document produced by the Jaffna-based University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) titled, “Let Them Speak: The Truth about Sri Lanka’s Victims of War”, based on eyewitness accounts of the brutalities perpetrated on the entire Tamil population in the localities declared as “war zones”. The report exposes the tactics of the state that always came up with false figures about the victims as well as the refugees in the camps. The figures of death between January and March 2009 vary from 3,000, given by some human rights organisations, to 37,000, ascertained by a lady doctor working with the Health Department of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Even after the massacre, the detainees in the camps were subjected to extreme human rights violations in the name of “investigations”. The case bears many similarities to both the Nazi atrocities in the German concentration camps and the quantitatively smaller yet equally brutal treatment meted out to the refugees in the camps in Gujarat—in the wake of the post-Godhra genocide—to which this writer had been an eyewitness. This included sexual exploitation of women and diverse kinds of torture during the interrogation of “suspects”, who could be any Tamil in the area. Even those in the hospitals were not spared and many young inmates were just taken away, and they “disappeared”, if we can trust the testimony given by some of the doctors at Vavuniya hospital.
Hundreds of people were killed in aerial bombings supposedly meant to clear out the people living in Sampur, a place the Sri Lankan government seems to have tactically chosen to set up a thermal power plant helped by India’s NTPC Ltd. It was declared a High Security Zone, and the evicted people were never allowed to go back. The UTHR report is full of testimonies by eyewitnesses from different localities like Killinochchi, Iranapalai, Anandapuram, Valaignarmadam, Pokkanai, Vattuvakal and Mullivaikkal where women and children—not to speak of men—were subjected to indiscriminate shelling and shooting that maimed them, with no place to go to for treatment of any kind. The stories are really chilling and clearly involved the violation of international war conventions and protocols. Even the unarmed soldiers who carried white flags in a gesture of compromise were shot to death, and people who had taken shelter in the bunkers were buried alive using bulldozers.
The Sri Lankan Tamil writers tried to capture the trauma and anguish of this unimaginable violence in their vibrant poetry that declared like Ceslaw Milosz that “the poet remembers”. Right from 1983, the year of the first major ethnic riots in Sri Lanka, the tone and tenor of the Tamil poetry on the island began to change. Magazines like Alai (Wave) and Serinigar became the platforms of the new literature of resistance. Poets like M.A. Nuhman, Sivasekharan, A. Yesurasa, Rudramoorthy Cheran, V.I.S. Jayapalan, Latha, Ravikumar and Vilvaratnam have been voicing their protest against the atrocities on Tamils from the beginning, though their positions vis-a-vis the movement were at times at odds with one another. Sivaramani, a pioneer of Eelam women’s poetry, committed suicide on May 19, 1991, after burning all the copies she had of her poems to mark her protest against the denial of freedom to her and other writers, but not without making a poetic statement before she took her own life: “ You cannot snatch away/my days from me./ I will continue to exist for sure/ like a little star /descending between your fingers/ that cover your eyes.” If she ended her life, many others simply stopped writing and courted the other form of death: silence.
Caught between extremes
Cheran is perhaps the most articulate and the most clairvoyant among the poets of the Eelam movement. Even an early poem of his like Apocalypse reveals his far-sightedness. (“ In our own time we have seen the Apocalypse….We have all gone away;/ there is no one to tell our story./ Now there is left/ only a great land/ wounded./ No bird may fly over it/ until our return.”) Cheran’s name as a poet has become synonymous with the vicissitudes of the Eelam liberation movement in Sri Lanka though he himself has never been a member of the LTTE nor a votary of violence. He had to leave his country having spoken against the violence of the Sri Lankan army that culminated in the infamous genocide as also against the violence of the Tamil Tigers when it turned against the innocent Sinhalese civilians of Sri Lanka. (I recall how this moral consistency mistaken for political ambivalence was criticised by an angry Indian Tamil after a reading of his poems at Thiruvananthapuram—where I read my Malayalam versions of his poems.) Caught between the two extremes—that remind us of the state of the people in our own Kashmir or Manipur—he was forced to move out to Canada, where he is presently teaching at the University of Windsor. In between, he survived a helicopter crash and a tsunami, both of which gave him poems, testifying to James Joyce’s belief that writers yield their best in times of crisis: “Squeeze us, we are olives.”
Cheran’s poetry—a selection of which, A Second Sunrise—is available in English ably translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom and Sascha Ebeling (Navayana, Delhi, 2012)—grew with the conflicts in Sri Lanka, which were not necessarily always ethnic; they had to do as much with economic inequalities, cultural identities, different ideas about the nation, questions of class and caste and region. Cheran’s poems and plays tried to address all these dimensions. The disturbances had begun far back, with the ethnic conflict in 1958; the brutally suppressed insurgency of the People’s Liberation Front (JVP) in 1971; and the burning of the Jaffna Public Library by the police in 1981: all these helped shape the aesthetics of Cheran’s poetry. Having matured in the 70s and the 80s of the last century in Sri Lankan history, his consciousness, imagination and idiom came to be moulded to a great extent by politics and violence, though his style did undergo changes, especially after the genocide when he found he could no more employ his old forms for the new poetry of the vanquished, the poetry of erasure rather than of witnessing. Cheran had been influenced in his early poetry by his father, “Mahakavi”, known for creating a people’s idiom that had some elements of the tradition as different from the esoteric modern Indian Tamil poetry. Marxism was another early influence.
It is difficult to categorise Cheran’s poetry as “revolutionary”, “modern” or “postmodern”; it is deeply human, direct and moving without being sentimental; it is political without being loud and hoarse. The poet is not dogmatic, making his range wide, his idiom flexible. His approach to issues and events too is open and uninhibited. The trauma of loss, exile and defeat has not turned his poetry cynical; it has retained to this day its tenderness and concern for the suffering. Cheran uses everyday language, his rhythms coming from the spoken idiom. Lyricism and irony have been his hallmarks.
V.I.S. Jayapalan, one of the poets who voiced their protest against the violence on Tamils from the beginning.
The sea is a major presence in Cheran’s poetry; he says the sea that surrounded his native village defined his imagination when he was growing up. His first poem was titled “The Sea” ( Kadal), and one of his latest collections carries the name “To the Sea Again” ( Meendum kadalukku). The sea symbolises vastness and security while it can also turn into their opposites: isolation and vulnerability. Water is the primary element here: his poems abound in references to wells, ponds, rivers, rain and tears. His images are mostly taken from nature, a quality he must have inherited from the tradition of ancient Tamil poetry. The heron practising austerities, the flowering ironwood, water lilies and jasmine vines, coconut fronds swaying in the wind, the many blues of the Lankan sky, the fire breaking out in the bamboo grove, the deep-rooted forest trees: simple things assume symbolic significance in his poetry.
The poet chronicles the terror and violence in Sri Lankan life in sober, matter-of-fact tones. An example: “ A body by the sea,/ head split open./ In the straight glance of the eyes/ that refuse to close even in death/ there float: resistance, surprise,/ distress, struggle, agony, despair/ and an endless dream” (“Body”). He sees the bridge burdened by a thousand tales collapse within a single tear (“Chemmani”). A coffin moves by itself to the cremation ground, followed by a multitude of legs without faces or bodies (“The Trace of a Dream”). Looking at the face of a hoarse-voiced Tamil migrant girl in a street demonstration, he comments: “ The trail of tears has erased/ her countenance, but I see/ her other faces unfolding” (“Generations”). He advises a mother whose husband was shot dead the moment their baby had been handed over to her, spilling blood on her taali lying in the dust: “ Tell him the story of the spreading blood/ tell him to wage war/ to end these cruelties (“Amma, Don’t Weep”). A torn American flag flutters above a sleeping god (“Journey to a Volcano”). He can be epigrammatic at times : “ The sea is without water/ Tamil is without land/ Kinship is without name” (Untitled). “She heads for the shore; I am still amidst the waves” (“The Seashore: Three Notes”). His final advice is: “Fling away the footprints, the voice./ Only sow words.”
Another poet, Jayapalan, sums up the experience of the struggle in a long poem like “The Song of the Defeated”. The songs of the victors after the “battle” seem to spit on the face of the vanquished; but “like the shoots of grass/ growing from the ashes/ of burnt pastures, we too/ have our songs”. (This and the following translations are from Waking is Another Dream, Poems on the Genocide in Eelam, translated by Meena Kandaswamy and Ravishankar, with inputs from Sascha Ebeling, edited by Ravikumar and published by Navayana, Delhi, 2010.) Injustice, he says, is a pestilence and having robbed the Tamils of whatever they had and eaten them, now they will start eating one another. “The anger of our raped women/ will be reborn as fiery goddesses.” The forest is charred, but the roots remain: “Our songs will continue/ As a dirge for the dead/ A call for the lost/ A reclaiming of home.” The Tamils are the lost children of The Pied Piper of Hamelin and the Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels: they will again rise to conquer. “Let justice descend like the fire of apocalypse.” He calls himself “yesterday’s poet singing of today” and asks the poets of tomorrow whether they will yield to despondency or continue to dream of liberation. He assures the motherland, the “imprisoned mother”, that they are not running away: “hall always be the magic lamps in your hand”. Yesurasa finds his dreams full of the smoke from cluster bombs, artillery missiles and Kfir jets. His bitterness born of impotent rage however soon gives way to a feeble smile (“Face”). He wants the present situation to be reversed: “You submit first. I will, then.”
Latha in her untitled long poem recollects the struggle sunk in the past like mapping a lost country. Suddenly, the land had turned alien, every landmark gone. Even the ancient wind, drained of its hues, speaks a new language: “ The uniformed guide/ standing on the first step/ delves deep into the month of May/ and rambles on about/ artillery guns and landmines/ hand-grenades rifles/ blood tears fear./ As it comes to a grinding halt,/ he speaks of the time when/ Tamil Eelam Welcomed You/ here. Face flushed by the harsh sun;/ I shade it with a scarf/ The check-post lies worn out./ Tamil lies under Sinhala/ all along the way.” She finds her unrelenting vengeance buried in the silence of the Buddha raging in the karthikai flower adorning his hair. Even the headless palm trees that showed the way are gone. “ The hero stones have been bundled away for interrogation.” Houses have been blown to bits “in weird shapes like an art fair”. People have learnt to pose for long clutching the barbed wire without getting pricked. “ The swords of the victors and/ the eyes of the vanquished have been buried.” They say all are back to normal, “ Yet/ when I say/ that Eelam is where I was born/ they growl more than ever.” In another poem (“Kurukshetra”), Latha compares the deserted battlefield to Kurukshetra: Karna and his soldiers are languishing in prison, and the gods, having listened to the Gita, have begun to raid the villages. In “Celebrating Remembrance”, she shows how the end of a race is celebrated with speeches, photos, conferences, essays, fables, poems, music and web links. “ The only bit of worry is/ whether the barbed wire fence/ will be wrenched out.” She can look at the whole episode in ironic detachment: “ You became wrathful/ and set fire to my house./ Fine./ I am sending you my sparrow/ untouched by the fire till now./ May your cell/ be suffused with light.” Time does not heal, and no one can stop the dead coming alive in one’s dreams (“Forgetting Death”).
Ravikumar’s untitled long poem is like an ironic stocktaking of all that had happened during those turbulent years. With a heart heavy with guilt, the poet speaks for all those who were indifferent to what was happening. They were dining and smoking and drinking in the safety of their homes or were eager to see their faces on the TV screen when the war raged outside. It was just hearsay. “ When the child/ with bandages/ in place of hands,/ looks at us with smiling eyes,/ why do we turn our faces away?” he poignantly asks. There are no diaries; poets and artists have failed to record the misery; the dead in the mortuary have a grinding stone in place of the heart; the man without legs, the woman with cotton wool for eyes and the old man with ripped cheek are silent. “ I have become a cannibal./ There is no scarcity where I live/ But I am now used to eating people…. The home sparkles/ When the floors are washed/ With blood./ It is even better if it is/ The blood of children.” The end of the poem is also intensely ironic: “ Chant the names of God/ So that those howls escape your ears./ It is even good for them/ To listen to the name of God/ At the time of their death.” These songs of the vanquished, full of irony and anguish, demonstrate how poetry can be a way of coming to terms with the disgrace and despair of defeat.