Poetry Wire Books

A whole new worldview

Sri Lankan Tamils at a refugee camp in Vavuniya in 2009.

Sri Lankan Tamils at a refugee camp in Vavuniya in 2009.   | Photo Credit: AP

An anthology that pushes the limits of language and boundaries

The Tamil diaspora is probably next only to the Malayali diaspora in scale and numbers. The genocidal war in Sri Lanka has given a tragic fillip to the exodus. Hence, Tamil poets write from all quarters of the globe. A fine volume, In Our Translated World: Contemporary Global Tamil Poetry—edited by Chelva Kanaganayakam, a professor at University of Toronto—has landed on my table. It is as comprehensive as such a volume can be. A major share of the book is taken up by Sri Lankan Tamils, and one can’t grudge them this, plagued as they were with trauma and displacement. The next shareholders are obviously poets from Tamil Nadu, followed by Malaysia and Singapore.

The Sri Lankan section is slightly predictable with poems on killings and displacement. The very first poem is ‘When Someone is Killed’ by Alari (Abdul Latif Mohommad Ribaz). When someone is killed/ what’s the big deal?/ Blood will flow/ turn the green grass/ into a field/ of red Hibiscus flowers. Later, the jasmine scented air/ will then carry the odour of/ the rotting corpses..., and so on. The next poem, by Ahilan Panckiyanathan, talks of an abandoned village — the echoes of war are obviously around. My only complaint with the poem is the stanza The wounded moon/ cowers under the clouds/ and sobs. This is a no-no. There is a term for this sort of writing — ‘pathetic fallacy’. Rains shouldn’t weep, moon shouldn’t sob. In a poem by Abi (Habibullah), a professor of Tamil in Chennai, the sun ‘grazes’ on a forest that has been burnt into ‘a heap of charcoal’.

Echoes of history

A poem like ‘The Alienated Land’ by S Vilvaratnam reads like the history of Tamils in Sri Lanka. It starts: With the coming of the Outsiders/ that night/ rooted lives were plucked/ all the people left./ At dawn the village looked/ like a land/ emptied of the floodwaters of life. Near the end, we get the stanza: The harbour fading behind,/ covered in the sorrow/ of the elder/ who had not come/ even to say goodbye. The old wouldn’t leave the land. In Tamil, the poem must be more searing.

‘A Baby in Cap and Boots’ by Solaikkili, whose name is Uthumalebbe Mohommed Atheek — why must everyone write under a pen name? Is it fear or a fad, as it was with Urdu poets — starts with a bang: There will be a time/ when babies will leap/ out of wombs wearing/ everything:/ military caps, trousers, boots, moustaches/ A knife at the hips. Slowly, the poem drifts into excess: The coconut trees will bear/ bombs in bunches. And later: If you planted watermelon/ land mines will sprout. Yes, fine striking images these, but you can’t help thinking the poet has gone over the top. Keep something in reserve and leave a bit to the imagination.

Poetry can’t escape reality. Poet, critic, and poetry itself seem small against the backdrop of Jaffna.

Some of the Serendib poems are not up to scratch, like ‘My Arrival from Ancient Times’. First, the translation is clichéd: I have been appearing/ from time immemorial. Then we have lines like this: my vibrant feet dipped and dipped in the fire... One does not know whether to fault the translation or the poem itself. Burnt forests appear in many poems. Poetry can’t escape reality. Poet, critic, and poetry itself seem small against the backdrop of Jaffna.

It is silly to make generalisations, but the Indian section is more about moving away from home. Devathachan starts his poem ‘My Century’ with a woman sobbing as My bus moves away. It ends with the lines: How long am I to be absent?/ As far as possible—/ as long as this century. Why are the poems in the Indian section also so terribly bleak? T.K. Somasundaram, who writes under the name Kalapria, has a poem, ‘Immortality’, which is all about a corpse, and no one comes near the house except priests and pall bearers. What is the poem trying to say?

The women poets come off worse on the bleakness scorecard. Malathi Maithri from Puducherry tells us in her poem that every organ of my body/ turned into an animal or bird/ and started moving away from me. The poem ends with the lines: Women who went into the jungle/ to gather firewood/came back and told me/that they saw my vagina/roaming the hills/like a butterfly.

What’s all this in honour of? As a critic, I could have dug for meaning and metaphor in the poem, but sorry, I am in no mood to make the effort. Smile in a while, madam, life ain’t that bad. Relax and write.

As if this was not enough, Kutty Revathi, social activist, holding a degree in Siddha medicine, has a poem entitled ‘Yoni Growing Teeth’. She writes that she is not a stupid bird, nor an animal from a world of wild dreams/ spreading my vagina to the seeds of power. If declaimed well, this kind of thing could elicit applause. But I am not convinced of the intrinsic value of such verse.

H.G. Razool plays with Islamic theology in a fine poem ‘The Word of Allah’. Sukumaran has a magnificent poem titled ‘Kabir is Weaving’, regrettably too long to be quoted. There’s a lot of good poetry from the Tamil diaspora in Canada, Singapore and France. In a poem from France, Vasudevan brings toddy and a Mozart requiem together. Ants and their dispersal become a metaphor for the diaspora in a poem from Canada by Thirumavalavan: Exile is not easy/ even for ants. And when Ilavalai Wijayendran from Norway asks an elder about his children, the answer is: They have gone to Canada/ to harvest fields of cash.

To conclude, as Kanaganayakam points out, it is the need of the last three decades of Tamil poetry to “push the limits of language to express a whole new worldview,” and “refashion the future”. That’s what we get here.

The writer is a poet and novelist.

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 9:58:12 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/a-whole-new-worldview/article18436104.ece

Next Story