Literary historians tell us that Sri Lankan Tamil poetry has a distinctive tradition which begins from the Sangam Age, and the name Eezhaththup Poothanthevanar has been cited in this regard.
This tradition continued uninterrupted during the period of the Jaffna Kingdom circa 12th century A.C.
While this tradition continued uninterrupted, one should also bear in mind that the hegemonic poetic conventions of South Indian Tamil poetry did have a great impact on the Sri Lankan Tamil poetic tradition and conventions.
Modern Sri Lankan Tamil poetry had its beginnings in the nineteen forties, with the self-styled renaissance. In the nineteen sixties, the Progressive Writers’ Association launched a movement to stress the ‘Ceylonness’ of Ceylon Tamil Literature. In Ceylon Tamil poetry this took the form of the speaking voice, rooted in the rhythms of speech, verse drama etc. In the nineteen eighties, responding to the political travails of the Tamil community, Ceylon Tamil poetry began to speak of the loss of life, the destruction of property and the anguish of displacement. Thematically, ethnicity began to supersede class and caste, and there are poems which searingly indict state terrorism and barbaric military operations. This phase also throws up armed militants, especially women who also wrote poetry. Translations from English to Tamil and Tamil to Sinhala add a further dimension. This, in brief, is the context in which Sivasegaram’s transcreations should be viewed. (I am indebted to S. Pathmanathan for helping with this contextualisation).
This collection of Sivasegaram’s transcreations is political in the best sense of the word. He is a fluent bilingual who is equally at home in English as in his mother tongue, Tamil. His characteristic tone is a withering sarcasm and his poems go straight for the jugular.
As a committed Marxist, he can see the integral connections between tyranny and oppression in different countries; they are all manifestations of the same phenomenon. He writes (About another matter):
It is true that
when I speak about one thing,
it seems to be about another.
It is hard to avoid one
while speaking of another.
Writing about Pinochet is
also writing about Suharto, Marcos and Hitler.
The man who went missing in Chile
remains buried in Chemmani.
The mass graves in Mirusuvil and Sooriyakanda
were dug as one pit.
And the crowbars that demolished Babri Masjid
were forged in the fire that engulfed the Jaffna Library,
the heat of whose flames
blasted the statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan.
The poem The killing hands refers to the same phenomenon:
The very hands that buried young boys at Sooriyakanda
buried young men at Chemmani.
In God bless America, the poet dons the person of an American citizen caught in the inferno of 11th September who addresses the President of the United States of America:
Your Excellency the President
of the United States of America,
I, an American citizen,
speak from a room in a burning tower
where lights suddenly went off
following the impact of an air plane
that struck like a thunderbolt.
The poem is a scorching indictment of America’s crimes against humanity, beginning with the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima:
But my vision pierces through the darkness and
the walls of the building:
half a century of history unfolds before me.
I see bloodstains on the military hands
that uphold American domination.
The poem does not confine itself to a mere expression of righteous indignation. It ends in a note of hope:
I do not lose heart,
for the liberation of America is interwoven
with that of the world.
Let the collapse of this tower be a symbol
of the fall of a terror
that made America the enemy of the world.
Let it be the beginning of the end
of a goddess of evil bearing the trident
of exploitation, oppression and war.
This powerful poem concludes on an ironic note:
Your Excellency the President
I love America
more than I love my life that will soon depart:
not the America that you seek to save,
but the America that strives to save itself from you –
an America that the whole world would love.
God bless that America!
If I have given the impression so far that Sivasegaram is obsessed with America, today’s sole hyper-power (In Castro’s vivid description), I must correct it. If America looms large, it is because that is \today’s political reality; it is the sponsor and fount of global state terrorism today.
A poignant poem like The prison focuses on gender oppression and suffering:
I attained age.
Eggs, head bath, sari, imprisonment,
broker, donation, dowry, thaali.
I ended imprisonment at home
to be imprisoned elsewhere.
Did not my mother know?
Did not my sisters know ?
Did someone forget
to tell me something?
These lines bring home to me the nugget of truth in the cliché: the personal is the political.
His poems on the Trincomalee Harbour and the Kelani River do not dwell, as conventional poems would have done, on scenic beauty, but link them up, respectively, to people waiting for days on end to travel by ship to the North (at a time when the A-9 highway had been closed), and to the bodies of youths killed during the 1987-1989 insurgency and thrown into the river.
Sivasegaram’s is decidedly a Third World Voice, the voice of the oppressed and the downtrodden everywhere clamouring for justice and freedom. His poems do not play hide-and-seek with the reader, who knows immediately where the poet stands.