Yaazin Avali: A Review of Lutesong and Lament - Tamil Writings from Sri Lanka

 by Na. Kumaran

You and your thoughts
the load of your thoughts
like lengthening shadows
in fading dusk,
grow in my mind
and burden my heart.”
 - MA Nuhman, “Passion”

The reading of Lutesong and Lament - Tamil Writings from Sri Lanka proved to be an epiphanic moment for at least one member of the Diaspora, namely this writer. Edited by Chelva Kanaganayakam, Professor of English in the University of Toronto, the compilation of translated verses of vernacular Tamil poetry and prose from Sri Lanka is a glimpse of something altogether spiritual. The editor catches your mind’s eye and guides you to look at this seemingly impossible world of people, places, voices and experiences, which mounts successive assaults on your visual and auditory senses. The experience leaves you trembling in awe, realising that in the presence of a kind of divinity, you are left tongue-tied, unfairly unable to verbalise the experience. Nevertheless, this severely belated review shall try to do just that. 

The title is misleading at first glance. As inheritors of an oral tradition, the creation and affirmation of myth as fact is a birthright of anyone and everyone in Sri Lanka. The origin of the word yAzpanam (Jaffna) is misted by myth as well. The popular version remains that yAzpanam was gifted to a blind lutist who impressed a Chola king with his skill on the yAz, a stringed instrument. Therefore there is an initial, albeit hasty, appearance of the anthology being Jaffna-centric in content. However, this quickly dissolves as authors and poets from various walks of life begin to populate the anthology’s breathtaking landscape. There is S Ponnuthurai rubbing words with NSM Ramiah and Dominic Jeeva with A Muttulingam. There is the diasporic poet VIS Jayapalan, whose verses run onto those of Colombo-based M Ponnambalam. There is the fiery feminist S Sivaramani sharing the pages with S Sivasegaram. Just as Ki Pi Aravindan’s (Christopher Francis) “Stare at the Sky” finishes, Solaikkili’s (AM Atheek) “On a Wet Day” begins. Even generations are not restricted as R Cheran shares the anthology with his father, Mahakavi Rudhramoorthy. It is an eclectic sampling of regions, religions, castes, generations and genders that leaves one gaping with wonderment at its sheer intellectual honesty and literary talent to look beyond these superficial differences and offer a multi-faceted look at the common human condition. 

In his far worthier review of the anthology, K Sivathamby writes that the book is a deafening lament. In unison, a chorus of voices rage against social oppression, ethnic discrimination and at having been rendered refugees in their own places of birth, forced to flee to foreign imprisoned existence overseas. Either consciously or unconsciously wishing to contextualise Salman Rushdie’s 50 Years of Indian Writing among those of his ethnicity, the editor attempts to trace a similar pattern in Sri Lankan Tamil writing with Mahakavi’s “Ahalikai” and Sivasegaram’s “Ahalya” appearing to form two ends of this literary timeline. However, as Sivathamby notes, more than fifty years have been covered in the editor’s choice of writers, as those of the likes of Ilangayarkone (N Sivagnanasundaram) and Mahakavi had begun writing in the 1940s. While the editor’s necessity to demarcate literary boundaries in an anthology is understandable, the spirituality of the experience cannot be contained within any physical or metaphysical timelines. There is neither beginning nor end. It just is. Despite this being the case, the obvious theme of the anthology is that of change. A change that was and continues to be imposed by the Self as well as the Other, and one that finds anguished expression in the furrowing of words on paper, eking out a testimony of the travails and hardships of a people.  

Nevertheless, the anthology begins gently. The sensuous verses of Mahakavi’s “Ahalikai” based on the popular legend of the sage Gothama’s wife extramarital but short-lived affair with Indran, the celestial king, beckons you to inquiringly peer forward: 

“…She gasps with pain, yet loves
the hands that hold with love;
he buries in her the passion he brought
she sees him not but feels the joy. 

Like one possessed his lips seek
the eyelids and the sensual frame
his body hot he makes her his
as she gently opens her eyes…”  

In the midst of their love-making, the cuckolded Gothama returns, catching the lovers off-guard. Angered, he curses Ahalikai to be transformed to stone while Indran’s body “erupts in a thousand sores.” This darkening mood of the poem foreshadows the darkening of themes in the rest of the anthology.  

However, for the time being, the anthology leisurely ambles forward. The idyllic settings of the Vallai plains dotted with its hardworking but quick-tempered Chelliahs and diminutive yet dominative Nallamas in Ilangayarkone’s “The Silver Anklet,” the seemingly mundane family matters in Ponnuthurai’s “The Chariot,” and KV Nadarajan’s humorous anecdote of caste hypocrisies in “The Cadjan Fence” come to a crashing halt in “Ancient Burdens” by R Murugaiyan:  

“Twenty centuries of ancient baggage
heaped together, slung across
our backs,
we began our long journey.
Fragmented lyrics, broken and shattered,
torn, tattered and rotten remnants;
all those we gather together
our backs bent, our eyes narrowed
we began our journey through the world…  

…To sift the unwanted, collect the gems
to move ahead, we do not know
twenty centuries of burden
conflicts in the name of culture.”  

It is a rude awakening.  

The lonely cart carrying its young amorous load, tinkling down the uneven road lined with trees gently swaying in the soothing moonlight breeze is far behind us now. A different time dawns on the same world. A time filled with uncertainties, of oppressive interrogative stillness, of broken dreams and parched hopes, of crushed genitals and ripped vaginas rushes to meet us, forcing us into its despairing embrace. The mood turns increasingly darker as the anthology painfully shuffles through the conflict-ridden 70s and 80s. This conflict manifests in prose and poetry. In K Saddanathan’s “The Strike,” the very human protagonist chooses to shy away from union politics while two radically different brothers, Kulam and Seelan, in Ranjakumar’s “Kosalai” find commonality in their induction into militant warfare. The poems are more evocative. The turmoil of the Estate Tamils is captured in “Tea Baskets” by Kasturi (Vasanthy Ganeshan), powerful in its brevity:  

“On greedy scales
baskets of tea;
the bushes
yearn for tea
when will they rise
to burn their torments?”  

The political turmoil of the Tamils of the North and East find expression in many of the poems including A Jesurasa’s “Your Fate Too,” P Akilan’s “Exile Days,” Oorvashi’s (Jhuvaneswari Arutpragasam) “Do You Understand What I Write,” B Balasooriyan’s “When Our Peace Is Shattered,” S Vilvaratnam’s “The Grief-Stricken Wind,” and in “Express This Grief in Song?” by AM Rashmy:  

“To war
we’ve offered
our necks and our lives;
our poems then must
reek of the slaughter house?”  

Several important events of this period, which left an indelible mark on the Tamil psyche, also find expression in the anthology. Nuhman’s “Murder” is written in the aftermath of the burning of the Jaffna Public Library (“Last night / I dreamt / Buddha was shot dead / by the police, / guardians of the law. / His body drenched in blood / on the steps / of the Jaffna library”) while the Indo-Lanka peace accord is criticised in Shanmugam Sivalingam’s “The Gutter of Peace” (“Seated for days on end / Thamil doves and Muslim doves / defecate in the gutter of peace”).  

In his perceptive introduction to the anthology, Kanaganayakam laments that, to some extent, literature is left out in the translation. However, the translators including the editor, AJ Canagaratna, S Pathmanathan, S Rajasingham, S Thirunavukarasu, Lakshmi Holmström and S Canagarajah acquit themselves admirably. They successfully capture the cultural nuances and the “depth of experience” of the original works. The fact that the reader is able to identify with the piece in spite of the translation, speaks volumes for the powerfulness and permeance of the original compositions. We sympathise with Ranji’s painful choice of home over heart in Ramiah’s “Among the Hills.” We cluck our tongues in disapproval over the treatment of Granddad in Thamaraichchelvi’s “The Gap.” We embarrassingly understand why Ganeshan is ashamed of his uncle’s dress and mannerisms in Muttulingam’s “Butterflies.” These writings engage us just as much as we engage in them. From the world of deserted villages with bullet-riddled homes, we reincarnate in another one. This, the still-born world of the Diaspora. Jayapalan’s “A Night in Frankfurt” paints the lonely picture of the refugee (“Wandering mongrel / dog-tired, prone in bed, / scavenge for a living / his days crawl”) and Cheran’s “Meeting and Parting” fleshes out this theme:  

“These separate us:  

            Long mountain ranges,
            a rainbow,
            an invisible sun
            endlessly falling
            winter rain,
            the proud light
            of my dark face.  

These unite us:            

            The heartbeat of waves,
            an endless telephone wire
            which falls across continents and oceans,
            too frightened to question the future,
            a tender heart.”  

This myriad world, then, that is created by the anthology’s forty-five writers in their fifty creative pieces seems alien and yet at the same time, instinctively feels like home. There is something familiar about the lonely cluster of Palmyrah trees framed in the blood-stained Jaffna sunset that adorns the book’s cover. Whether it is Ponnuthurai’s sleepy village life, Sivaramani’s oppressive war-torn nights that drove her to suicide or being stuck in Jayapalan’s migratory limbo, these images ring of the familiar. Like a cool jasmine-scented summer breeze, realisation dawns amidst the rustling of memories in the subconscious. This is not new. None of this is new. Gently, memories raise their heads.  

The press of bodies at a festival, the Maththani Kandaswamy Kovil bells chiming and a grandfather muttering “Siva Siva.” Tales, tainted with awed hypocrisy, of an ancient patriarch ripping a blouse off a lower caste woman while years later, a progeny eagerly drinks toddy harvested by those same arms. Yawning off cobwebbed dormancy, memories sit up bright-eyed and awake. “Three servings of Pittu with brinjals fried in sesame seed oil” fed by loving hands while a bemused grandfather at his gates, scolding away bearded podiyangal. Memories resolutely stand up, clamouring to be picked. Shirted and shorted on the floor, learning nursery rhymes. Blades slashing the sky and fleeing the red soil before it darkens. Colombo comes and goes. Chennai hems and haws. Memories begin to hunt down the nomad.  Dozing off in the dusty mirages of Arabia and finally, rudely awakened by the frost-bitten present. The anthology, then, is not a microscope but a mirror, reflecting ourselves and our condition. But it is a shattered mirror and a splintered condition and as you pick your way through the shards, a sigh settles in the bottom of your heart. Despite the smudges of time, there is a glimpse of home as you pick up and stare into each piece and you unconsciously mutter, “I am Home.”  

By the end of it all, as we collectively turn over the final page, the lute mournfully plays on. Will a new generation of listeners heed its call?  

Lutesong and Lament: Tamil Writing in Sri Lanka, Chelva Kanaganayakam (editor), 2001, TSAR Publications, Toronto, www.candesign.com/tsarbooks, ISBN 0-920661-97-1