Let the healing begin

A delegate makes a point at the conference. Photo: Meera Srinivasan  

The A9 highway, connecting Jaffna with the rest of Sri Lanka, runs parallel to the new railway track. The shrub jungles on either side are dotted with the strong presence of the Sri Lankan army. A man without legs crawls down the street. A blind woman with a paralysed child in her arms asks for help from anyone who looks like a tourist. New blocks of houses are coming up quickly like mushrooms after a shower. These are grim reminders of the past, like the series of check-posts at places like Omanthai and Elephant Pass.

I was in Sri Lanka for the 41st Ilakiya Santhippu (July 20-21). Earlier editions of the literary meet had been organised in European cities and Canada by writers and artists who faced the strong arm of both the State and the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Writers, artistes and activists who expressed views different from the dominant one paid a heavy toll for exercising their freedom of expression. Those who lost their lives include Rajini Thiranagama (author of Broken Palmyrah) and Sabalingam Sabarathinam. In fact the edition of the meet held after Sabarathinam’s death was dedicated to “Writers who were killed and also who are likely to be killed.”

This edition also gave rise to arguments about what the Ilakiya Santhippu would bring to the poor, the displaced, and the victims of Sri Lanka’s war. But should art take a backseat after a defeat? What is the role of writers and artists in the time of crisis and social upheavals? When people’s identities have been destroyed individually and culturally, who will voice the conflict? Can literary production heal the trauma? I believe that these questions have to be kept alive even if we do not have immediate answers.

In one of the poetry sessions, young poet Vijayaletchumi read “Photographs/hang in all houses amidst/joss sticks smoke/and floral offerings/ of village youths/ eclipsing the portraits of gods” (‘Paled East’). These lines reflect the loss of family members in almost all Tamil households. In such a situation — in the middle of suffering — what do words like ‘reconciliation’, ‘progress’, ‘development’ and more importantly, ‘nation’ mean?

The aspirations of a war-ravaged community to build a civil space for a plural and open discourse were evident in the sessions on caste, gender and sexual minorities, the nationalist literature of North and East Tamils, the writings of Malayaga (hill country) Tamils and Muslim Tamil nationalists, secular Sinhala literature, diaspora writing, and traditional art and folklore, with speakers from the respective regions and ethnicities. But the literary community also struggles to locate an inclusive Sri Lanka as the majoritarian Sinhala Polity triumphantly declares that minorities no longer exist post-war Sri Lanka...

Novelist Liyanage Amarakeerthi, while discussing Tamil characters in Sinhala literature, pointed out the fragile sense of guilt within the Sinhala writer community with examples from Jayathilaka Kammellaweera’s short stories “Poy SollaVendam (Need not lie)” and “Are you alright?” He remarked how Sinhala writers are generous enough to share love with Tamils but not the State. Writer and translator So. Padmanathan, who chaired the session, shared his dilemma in translating poet Nufman’s resistance poem about the burning of the Jaffna Library. With his deepest respect and love of Buddha, he could not translate “Butharin Padukolai” as “Buddha’s Assassination.” He titled it “Murder”.

Poet Sumathy Sivamohan discussed how to generate meanings outside of a poem’s immediate site of writing, especially in the context of Sivaramani, who killed herself after burning her poetry. She stated that the violence in Sivaramani’s poem “Kuzhanthaigal (Children)” — “ When a gun is pointed/at the umbilical cord/of this society/the dream of a butterfly/that can balance itself/on a thin flower bud/is only an incident/that I cannot relate to/ I, in my effort to live as human/prefer to leave the flowers to the tree” — is not symbolic but is about a real gun and that the gun belongs to the LTTE.

Writer Lenin Mathivanam proclaimed that “Malayaga” Tamils, who were brought by the British to work in tea estates, were the first to write Diaspora literature and that poet Meenatchi was the pioneering voice against the repressive Sinhala Buddhist regime. Presenting his research on Tamil literary history, Nawaz Soubi proved that Asabe Sarithiram did not get its due as the first Tamil novel, as it was written by a Muslim.

In a session on Dalit literature, veteran writer Theniyaan briefly described the repertoire of Daniel and spoke about how the LTTE silenced Dalit issues. Writer-activist Chithralekha described how Tamil women were free to carry a gun but could not write on sexuality, religion and critical politics. Poems like ‘Koneeswarigal’ by Kala and ‘Krishanthy’ by Vinodhini give us ‘her’ stories.

Transgender writer-activist Living Smile Vidya, from India, presented a historical session on transgender life and literature to a community in which sexual minorities are still afraid to come out. Writer Stalin from France traced the history of diaspora literature since the 1980s when the refugee phenomenon started. War had displaced hundreds and thousands of Tamils internally and externally and that has had a direct impact on literary production in Tamil.

Is freedom possible at the cost of humanity? This question was asked repeatedly by writers, journalists, poets and artists from the Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese communities across the island and from India, Canada, Germany, France, United Kingdom and United States of America who gathered in Jaffna. Everyone contributed in trying to come to terms with the despair of defeat.

Disclaimer: The author, Leena Manimekalai, disagrees with the editing changes effected in this article. Her original version may be read at: >

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Printable version | May 13, 2021 1:42:48 AM |

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