Elsewhere man

Indran Amirthanayagam.

Indran Amirthanayagam.  

AN almost imaginary conversation with Indran Amirthanayagam would conceivably begin like this: "Indran, tell me something about your family — Pappa, father, autistic brother and the others." And Indran, presumably, would politely deflect me from my profound intentions and gently draw attention to his poems, which speak eloquently enough about his family and many other things. Two expressions from his poems, I believe, define his work and more or less answer the questions I would want to put to him. In one place he speaks of "putting order to nostalgia" and elsewhere he speaks of his art as one of "gathering essences".

For Indran there are two nostalgias — Sri Lanka, which he left when he was only eight, and the United States where he is a citizen but perpetually in some kind of voluntary exile as a diplomat in the American Foreign Service. Indran considers himself both Sri Lankan and American and this comes through in his verse. You must love the land, Indran declares of Sri Lanka, love the tongue which gives expression to one's feelings, which is English, and now more frequently Spanish, and love also "the other side of the sea" which is New York from whose vantage point Indran observes Sri Lanka, the U.S. and the world at large. But New York is also a memory for Indran who has just exiled himself from Chennai to Monterrey in.

Indran's first volume of poetry was Elephants of Reckoning. It won him the 1994 Patterson Prize. More recently he published Ceylon R.I.P. Two volumes in Spanish are getting readied but whatever Indran's linguistic medium, he is a poet of roots, loss, exile and the need to connect. Elephants have mattered a great deal to Indran. They represent a past associated with Sri Lanka. The image of a herd of elephants symbolises family, community, rootedness and security. Elephants are genteel vegetarian creatures with sharp memories of past happenings. When roused, gentility goes and roguishness takes over. Indran is like that rogue elephant who has been rejected by the herd. A Jury of elephants seems to ask him why he left Sri Lanka. The "reckoning" in the title of his first volume is the settling of accounts. Indran's whole volume suggests that his only answer to the Jury can be that he left home in order to write poetry better, and through poetry settle his dues.

The task of the poet, Indran would presumably answer in our imaginary conversation, is to preserve. Indran's gathering of essences is a way of preserving through poetry images of Sri Lanka and images of the past. Poetry, for Indran, is a distillation, a packing of experience in a capsule, and we the readers swallow that capsule which literally explodes within us reaching all parts our being. I have experienced this explosion when reading Indran's poems.

Indran's poems begin with dissatisfaction, a sense of unsettled conditions, a feeling that important matters have yet to be resolved. Indran's poems articulate his responses to war, pain, and loss. Usually a poem begins in a conversational manner and modulates into intense lyricism. "There are many things I want to tell you" begins one poem. Another opens with an admonition "When you reach the crossing point do not come with doubts or photographs". Yet another begins like a Caesarean pronouncement at an inaugural of a gladiatorial contest. "My friend, the poet says, let the games begin, again", and quickly changes into an agonised reminiscence of his old home, Ceylon. This lyrical preoccupation with Sri Lanka, with apocalypse and expulsion from Paradise is the central issue in his poem "Beyond the Beautiful House" where Indran declares" "I do not know if I will see Jaffna/ Again, the North Pole of my cosmos/ where my father was born; this poem/ has become a speech before the mirror."

Quite naturally, then, the elegiac strain is central to Indran's oeuvre. Indran is profoundly disturbed at the loss of his Tamil roots — a wicked Governess he has persuaded himself to believe though her punishments silenced his brother, Chutta, into autism, and he himself lost his mother tongue at her hands. This is of course, not strictly true but one of those personal myths one makes up to give meaning to experience.

A myth of that sort allows him to consider public themes and how Tamil boys are being butchered in his old home. He, therefore, celebrates the Tamil boys "in small boats/ the first craft of the young wood called Ealam,/ the boys who left their mothers/ by night in silence in fate/ to creep by the lanes of Jaffna town/ arm in arm, by twos and threes, alone/ to run to the boats and training camps, of the Tiger, The Cobra, the young boys/ come back to meet the metal whips/ tails, lashing bullets, helicopter/ gun ships flying their mandate/ to level the sea, (and tear the eyes out/ of a few `dirty' boys... )."

Indran, the gatherer of essences is convinced that it is only his Americanness, his commitment to the values of his country of domicile, America, and his diplomatic career in the American Foreign Service, that allows him the space and the freedom to articulate his agony at the cruelty of man to man, of Sinhala to Tamil and, yes, also of Tamil to Sinhala, because for Indran cruelty is cruelty whichever way you look at it. Like Octovio Paz, Andre Malraux and Pablo Neruda, all diplomats like Indran, all men of letters Indran adores, poetry is the second nature he has grown. Indran is active and creative and in celebrating him one wishes him prosperity in Monterrey where his Spanish poems will not doubt add and include his Chennai experience and speak of these vital connections as well in carefully chosen phrases and colourful imagery for which his poems are noted.

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