Thursday, September 17, 2009
A life of letters
Apparent in Siriwardena's works, but never intimidating the reader, was the depth of his learning and experience, whether it was about literature, politics, art, or film.
India seems to have little time for the literature, films and art of any of its neighbours... The loss, unfortunately, is India's.
Selected Writings of Regi Siriwardena: Literature and the Arts - Volume 1, edited by A.J. Canagaratna, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo, 2005, p.131, price not stated.
IT is a pity that little is known in India about Sri Lanka other than its conflict. In any case, India seems to have little time for the literature, films and art of any of its neighbours, except for the few works that have attracted international notice. The loss, unfortunately, is India's, underlined by this book of selected writings by Regi Siriwardena, the first of a projected two-volume set that brings together the work — spanning more than half a century — of a writer, poet, activist, journalist, playwright and critic. This volume collects his writings on literature, films and the arts.
From a different era
Siriwardena belonged to a generation of Sri Lankans that was born and grew up in the pre-independence years and that was fired by the hopes and possibilities that the country offered at its freedom in 1948. Though Sri Lanka never quite managed to live up to that promise, Siriwardena's inspiration never deserted him. Aside from publishing several collections of plays and poetry, he helped found the civil rights movement in Sri Lanka, counting the 15 years that he worked as editor at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Colombo as his most fruitful.
With his death in December 2004, Sri Lanka lost one of a rare breed of intellectuals who stood firm against Sinhala majoritarianism, was not afraid to criticise Tamil chauvinism and militancy, and could not suffer hypocrites, fools or social pretensions. Apparent in his works, but never intimidating the reader, was the depth of his learning and experience, whether it was about literature, politics, art, or film. He was fiercely critical of inaccessible writings.
Reviewing a compilation of essays on Sri Lankan poetry for the Lanka Guardian in 1996, Siriwardena called for the democratisation of literary criticism. "We should write literary criticism in the way George Orwell wrote it, so that it's open to any intelligent and generally educated person. Of course, that would be the end of academic criticism as we know it and have always known it, but then, all the better."
His own work was completely accessible. Whether it was a discussion of Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman or of Yeats's right-wing politics in his poetry, or telling readers why he hated free verse, there was nothing abstruse about Regi's writing; rather, it was written to draw in even the uninitiated but at the same time, never dumbed down. Until the end, his work sparkled with a never-ending supply of energy, wit and irreverence.
Take for instance the poem he wrote on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2002 — 80 pentameters in all. Titled "Birthday Apology and Apologia", the poem begins by expressing embarrassment at such longevity, and mourns the passing of those younger, snatched by Sri Lanka's violence. The poet holds his mother's "sturdy peasant genes" responsible for being able to witness the planet's "eighty revolutions around the sun" but gripes also of the diabetic legacy of his father.
But I shouldn't complain: to compensate,
I have acquired immunity to some
Infections — post-modernism, for one,
And free verse, for another. I'm glad, too
I never caught, as my late brother did,
The Sinhala nationalist flu. An early shot
Of Marxism, perhaps, took care of that.
In her introduction to the book, Radhika Coomaraswamy, the director of the ICES that has published this collection as a posthumous tribute, notes that Siriwardena "signified the creative imagination of Sri Lanka for much of the latter half of the twentieth century, an imagination, rooted in the national but universal in aspiration; an imagination that was openly political but also deeply spiritual".
Feet in two worlds
It was this that gave him his leftist politics, made him learn Russian at 15, seek out the "untranslatable" Pushkin in the original, and Yeats, Blake, Eliot, Edward Said and Shakespeare, while at the same time enabled his authoritative grasp on Sinhala literature, drama and cinema. Siriwardena captures his East-meets-West legacy poignantly in the poem "Colonial Cameo":
In the evenings my father used to make me read
aloud from Macaulay, or Abbot's Napoleon (he was short
and Napoleon, his hero; I his hope for the future).
My mother, born in a village, had never been taught
That superior tongue. When I was six, we were moving
house, she called at school to take me away.
She spoke to the teacher in Sinhala. I sensed the shock
of the class, hearing the servants' language...
A notable essay in the collection is "A Borrowed Tongue", written in July 1979, about sub-continental writing in English. He concludes that the Sri Lankan mastery of English was "disabling" when it came to describing the social environment from which the writer drew his inspiration. "The barriers are most evident when Sri Lankan novelists in English try to write about the village... I find in the prose a betraying quaintness and false poeticality when it seeks to express the thoughts and feelings of peasant characters".
The vast material included in the book has been thoughtfully arranged and grouped by the editor, A.J. Canagaratna, a long-time associate and friend of Regi's. A little more attention to the proofreading, and corrections to the irregularities in the setting would have removed unnecessary distractions in a valuable collection.
Monday, September 14, 2009
(Poetry Anthology-July 2004)
Poems of S.Sivasekaram in translation
Butterflies of my dreams
Countless butterflies flapped their wings
In my childhood’s sleep
Butterflies that my mother saved for me
Butterflies that my mother’s mother saved for my mother
And I saved for my children
In these nights that reek of gunpowder
My children scream in their dreams
Who stole my children’s butterflies?
And who but I could restore them
To the hours of sleep of the children of my children?
S. Sivasekaram (1997)
A tribute to trees tall and erect
You love to tread on grass,
Short shrubs, you kick and trample.
Trees tall and erect refuse to bow.
Sword in hand you cut them down
Fools you know not the wonder of trees
That rise from root and fallen seed.
The day your weapons weigh you down
And metal yields to make a rope
That binds your hand and wrings your neck
The fallen will rise-
Like a forest around you
Above the earth, beneath the earth,
hillocks and mountains,
rocks and fragments,
standing upright, fallen down,
Her husband, the sage, was a stone.
The god was a liar, but
no stone he,
only a male deity he lived
to survive the curse.
And she who had lived like stone
coming alive for that instant alone
truly became a stone.
On a day much later,
a god who crossed the seas to rescue a lover
only to thrust her
into burning flames-
who feared the town’s gossip
and exiled her-
a god, yet unworthy of touching a stone-
stumbled upon her.
Had she not changed again
Stone becoming woman
To live like a stone with a stone,
Had she remained truly a stone
she might have stood forever,
a mountain peak, undestroyed by time.
Translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom
Saturday, September 05, 2009
Friday, September 04, 2009
"Third Eye" is concentrating on creative writings in English and
theoretical debates on them.
It gives equal importance to translations and also reproduces earlier
writings in English by Thamils.
It will try to identify and establish a literary tradition in English among
Like almost all literary critical terms, ‘realism’
is very elastic. A curious feature about the noun ‘realism’
is that magnet-like it seems to attract all kinds of
qualifying adjectives which only help to make confusion
One such adjective is ‘magic’ . Under the rubric of
‘magic realism’, one finds lumped together such diverse
writers as Brogues, Marquez, Salman Rushdie and Gunter
Grass. Literary labels such as ‘magic realism’ and ‘absurd
drama’ tend to be somewhat misleading as they are
likely to blur the specific differences between writers who
operate broadly in the absurdist mode, produce works
which possess their own distinctiveness; one is hardly
likely to mistake the work of one for the other. For instance,
Genet’s plays have a political dimension which
Beckett’s don’t have. Similarly, though Salman Rushdie
and Gunter Grass are categorised as ‘magic realists’ by
some critics, along with Marquez, neither Rushdie nor
Grass traffics in the supernatural, as Marquez does in
One Hundred Years of Solitude. Besides Grass and
Rushdie use fantasy for politically satiric ends. This dimension
seems to be missing in “One Hundred Years of
Marquez’s novel is regarded as one of the
ur-texts of magic realism and a whole cult has grown
round it; It has won the plaudits of so many renowned
critics so that any one who tries to query the claim that it
is one of the ‘undeniable classics of the century’ feels
like the boy who pointed out that the emperor was naked.
Undeniably the narrative is like a tidal wave
which swaps the reader off his/her feet. It’s only on a
second reading that the nagging doubts take firm root.
It’s not the supernatural element that necessarily disturbs
All literature depends on conventions and certainly
one can have no objection to a serious writer
structuring his/her work using the conventions of the
supernatural. I’m not referring here to ghost stories, horror
stories and such like genres or types which make no
claim to operate in the realistic mode, though the successful
ones are chillingly real.
Rather, I’m thinking of the restrained use of the
supernatural element in Hilary Mantel’s “Mr.Fludd.”
In that novel, Mantel resurrects a long-dead person
(Mr.Fludd) who rescues a lively novitiate from the con-fines
of a constricting convent, settles her in a hotel and
disappears after paying all the bills. Here the ‘supernatural’
has been so successfully assimilated and integrated
with the mundane that one willingly suspends
one’s disbelief. Mantel uses the convention of the supernatural
to point up the soul-destroying routine of an Irish convent.
As far as I’m concerned, the trouble with
"One Hundred Years of Solitude" is that the magical/
supernatural element seems to have taken the bit between
its teeth and run away. The effect, on this reader at
least, is that the ‘magic’ has gobbled up the ‘realism’.
The pervasive effect of the larger-than-life characters and
happenings like the heavenly ascent of Remedios the
Beauty ( an irreverent parody of Mary’s Ascension) is to
make the massacre of over 3000 people during the strike
of the workers of the banana company sound like the
stuff of legend. And it so turns out that except for Jose
Arcadio Segundo and one or two others, no one else in
Macondo believes that this massacre really occurred.
Someone could argue that the success of the company’s
propaganda campaign in brain-washing almost the entire
population into believing that the massacre never
took place is a pointed political indictment of the manner
on which foreign capitalist companies operated in the
‘banana republics’ of South America. But this is rather
specious as the overall political thrust ( if any) is deflected
by the over(?) -indulgence in the magical / supernatural
element for its own sake and the sex orgies
which serve no other purpose than an exhibition of Spanish
‘Machismo’, this word makes one realise that
“One Hundred Years of Solitude” is really an epic novel
in which Marquez celebrates, albeit in a muted key, the
Conquistador’s conquest of the new World. Buendia’s
founding of the republic of Macondo is a miniature replay
of the Spanish conquest. Buendia himself seems to
be a literary mutant of Don Quixote. Aaron Norgrave
writing about the “Piano in Race and Class” (Vol.40,
No.3,July-Sept.98’) states that the epic novel depicts the
totality of relations as naturally given but rounded from
without by a controlling ideology…. The epic novel celebrates
a society in the face of both theoretical and practical
attacks by presenting heroes who are lone champions
of the system’s values who, locked in their myths,
embody society’s contradictions and thereby overcome
them.” Buendia and his son the Colonel are two such
The controlling ideology seems to be
Hispanism: hence the celebration of machismo and the
flaunting of sexual prowess. The reverse side of this
ideology is the bit role assigned to the autochthonous
people and women; as if to compensate for this, the gypsies,
especially Melquicades who is endowed with al-most
mystical powers, are glamorized and the matriarch
Ursula who is Spanish, naturally looms larger than
The air of exoticism is so all-pervasive that
it makes one feel that “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is
the literary equivalent of orientalism. It is the product,
to use Raymond Williams’ phrase of a ‘Residual culture’:
a rich existing amalgam of legend, religious mysticism
and prodigious feats ( especially sexual) . This
novel makes one feel that, whatever its provenance,
magic realism is a specifically Latin American phenomenon
and will wilt if transplanted wholesale elsewhere.
For Tamil writers ( and readers) who in their
disillusionment with socialist realism are in danger of
being seduced by ‘magic realism’, which in my opinion
is a mode pregnant with reactionary possibilities, a
comparison with K.Rajanarayan’s “Kopallakiramam”
will be illuminating. The CO-presence of the legendary
and quotidian actuality in that novel is accepted by the
reader without any sense of strain because unlike in "One
Hundred Years of Solitude" where the chosen strategy
of authorial narration leaves no space for the author-narrator
to distance himself from the events he is narrating,
Rajanarayan recounts the legendary/ miraculous
through the mouth of the matriarch and her account is
ironically counterpointed by the unspoken thoughts of
Akkaya who thinks the matriarch is exaggerating. This
counter-pointing makes it possible for the reader to accept
the co-presence of the legendary and the mundane
actuality, without any sense of jarring incongruity.
How then account for the fad ( for that is what
I think it is ) of magic realism? Perhaps the reading
public fed up with photographic naturalism and the introverted
inspection of innards, longs for escape into an
exotic world filled with improbable heroes and prodigious
events. Above all it longs for narration, a long
lost art. Marquez has very skillfully tapped into the readers’
subterranean lodgings and through his gift for
fabulation and by projecting the self as the other has
cleverly concealed his real project of celebrating the
Hispanic conquest of the New World.
Even a work which creates a world that is not
subject to ordinary realism must possess its own inner
imaginative logic and consistency, this is lacking in
Marquez’s novel whose narrative laws are entirely arbitrary,
unlike in Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” where
once the initial assumption that children born at midnight
on 15 August 1947 are in telepathic communication
with each other is granted, the rest holds together
through its competing inner imaginative logic ( Regi
Mr.A.J.Canagaratna is one of the few Tamils in Sri Lanka,
who has been writing essays and criticism in English for decades.
His translations from Thamil to English is considerable.
'Third Eye' Magazine (Januray 2000).
Thursday, September 03, 2009
Mr. R. Kandiah holds a Masters Degree in English from the University of Calcutta and a Diploma in Education from the University of London.
He took up to teaching as his favoured vocation and has taught English Language and Literature at several levels including in educational institutions like Mahajana College, Tellipalai, the Jounier University College, Palaly, The Teachers' Training College, Palay and in the Collgiate Section (Department) in Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai.
Well versed in both Tamil and English Literature, he has shared his knowledge, experience and wisdom with his many students and lovers of literature.
Deeply philoshophical, he is an ardent admirer of Jittu Krishnamoorthy, the well - known world teacher and had taught in one of Krishnamoorhty's Schools in Chennai.
A pacifistby nature he is never confrontational, ever when he is personally affected. He would rather more away than put up a fight- he understood that violence never resolved any problems.
He is married to SAHIDEVI(SAHITHEVI) Thiyagarajah, a product of Ramanathan College, a tamil scholar herself and keen social worker.
WHY SHOULD I
With borrowed plumes why should I decked my bride
When beauty unadorned in her excels
The glossy glory of invented spells?
To sing her grace why should I need a guide
When in her wondrous mind and form reside
The spring of all the muse that ever swells
Within my soul and other passions quells?
If yon ethereal light is cast aside
Can there be life and beauty on the earth?
If but the flower fair be hid away
How can the brush a perfect picture paint?
The bloom and gleamy orb possess the worth
That art inspires, and not the dye or clay:
Why then should I with stolen rhymes her taint?
D. J. B. JAGANAYAGAM (1930)
FREE-WHEEL (Collection of Poems)
First Published in 1950
Second Edition: 6-8-1966, Batticaloa.
Some Opinions on the 1950 Edition
R.H. Wickremasinghe, C.C.S., M.A. (Oxon):
“I think some of the poems excellent. English poetry I have always been greatly interested in and I hope you will write more in the future”
Fr. T. F. Long, O.M.I., M.A. (Cantab):
“This is poetry as distinct from facile versifying ‘More o’ that strain, an it please you’”
Review in the Messenger,
“Witness the magnificence of the concluding sestet…
One feels here is the authentic voice of the true poet”
Review in the Times of
Printed at the Catholic Press, Batticaloa.
Wednesday, September 02, 2009
Cover design of the little magazine "Kalam" published by Varithamby of Akkaraipattu.
The 10nth Special Issue was edited by S.jeyasankar.
The cover painting is the creation of K.Kularaj. Kularaj is best known for his traditional paintings.
The painting depicts the legend related to Kokaddicholai Thanthonri Easvarar of Paduvankarai, Batticaloa.
After Lewis Carroll
“You are old, Prohibition” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white
And yet you incessantly stand on your head –
Do you think, at your age it is right?
“In my youth” Prohibition replied to his son
“I feared it might injure the brain.
But, now I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”
“You are old” said the youth “Your stomach’s too weak
For anything stronger than milk
Yet nightly for whiskies and sodas you creep
- your inwards will change to pulp!
Said prohibition, “you’re wrong, my boy,
It’s arrack and toddy that’s bad.
Whisky’s the stuff you can jolly well enjoy
It’s the slinkiest drink I’ve had.”
“That’s why we must close the arrack and toddy
Taverns, the East’s dissipation.
We’ll live then on whisky. What ho!, Everybody!
A wiser and soberer nation.”