Is Poetry a Solitary Expression for Ethnic Peace?

Kapila Kumara Kalinga

Ethnic unity is a popular theme among writers and other artists in Sri Lanka, like in the case of many other countries affected by ethnic conflicts. A large number of creations have been made in the Sinhala, Tamil and English languages around this. These include dramas, teledramas and cinema. In this text, my immediate attention is on poetry. 

Once, a few friends and I discussed the problem that might arise if the child of a poet who wrote poems about ethnic unity would ask permission for a mixed marriage. What will be the poet’s reaction? During the discussion, many poets revealed that they could not endorse such a marriage due to societal and family contexts.   

Although the poet has a conscience, he, too, is a social animal. It is not easy for him to get free from the box he is caged in. In such a context, what is the practicality of the poems he creates? Is it a mere expression of soul? 

My memory goes back to school time whenever I think of ethnic peace and unity. I learnt in a traditional Buddhist school in the hill country. I had two Tamil and Muslim friends in my class. They were with me from kindergarten up to Advanced Levels, but I rarely met them after that. 

Such Tamil and Muslim students learning in Sinhala medium in a Buddhist school was very normal in the 1960s. They learnt not only Sinhala as a subject but Buddhism also. 

Tamil boy Vasudewan (not real name) was very close to me because both of us were book lovers. We read like competitors. After Grade 8, I joined the public library and encouraged Vasu too to get a membership. We often discussed the books we had read when we met at the library on Saturdays.

In 1983, communal violence affected Kandy city. The cigar shop and its owner in front of Pavilion Hotel in King’s Street was never seen after that. I used to buy  a Sarasaviya newspaper from that stall when I was a school boy. I spoke only a few words with the owner of the shop. However, I was so sorry when I heard the stories of brutality against him when he was killed.  

Vasudewan lived near Kandy city. I heard that they, too, had faced trouble. I did not meet him for two years after the incidents. Then, I met him one day in a textile shop in the city. Vasu was a sales assistant there. He was wearing a shirt and a sarong called Vetti. He smiled shyly when he saw me. He was brief in his answers. Meanwhile, he answered a query from the manager of the shop in Tamil language. It was the first time I heard him speaking Tamil. 

When I visited that shop again after some time, I learnt that Vasu had left. Sometime later, when a friend of mine was looking for Sinhala poetry on the ethnic issue to translate into Tamil, he asked me whether I had any. I did not like to appear as a poet, but I wrote a poem in a notebook. I did not know whether it had been translated to Tamil. The title, however, was “Find Vasudewan”. 

I am looking for
Who learnt with me
Sitting next to me
In the primary section
Of the school in Kandy

I am Sinhala and he was Tamil
We did not care
We were the of best friends
Who shared one pencil
Broken into two

When we were in senior classes
We went to library together
Read Sinhala novels
And talked about them

I watched Tamil movies with him
And he muttered to my ear
The parts of the story
I was struggling to understand

After he left the school
I did not see him for a long time
Suddenly one day
I found him in a cloth shop
Wearing Vetti sarong
With Vibhuti on his forehead
Working there

He identified me
And smiled but
It was not full
A strange half-smile

I know that
He has many things to say and hear
Like myself
Vasu, where are you?

(The previously explained experience is written as a poem here) 

Newspapers and periodicals published many creations of the poets whose hearts had felt the repercussions of Black July, civil war, youth revolt in  the south and terror. They were published in anthologies of poetry as well. Some of them were direct expressions of sentiments. However, all of them shared antiwar feelings, the need for ethnic unity and humanity. ‘Mother’s Milk’ by poet Rathna Sri Wijesinghe is one of the best creations against war. The poem shares the view of a mother from the north and says in its last verse:  

What is the use of setting ablaze the Pandi Rata*?
Are there mothers in the world who killed their sons instead of brining them up?
Give my two sons back to me
I will breastfeed both of them alike 

(Suba Udasanak, Rathna Sri Wijesinghe)

*Pandi Rata is a country in the traditional story of Goddess Pattini

In this story, the mother does not see any difference in sons who are Sinhala and Tamil. She is ready to feed both of them at her breasts. 

Children of mothers both in the north and south died untimely due to war and revolts. The poets on the two warring sides revered their heroes in their poetry. 

Unfortunately, Sinhala poetry was limited to the Sinhala people, and the same thing happened to Tamil poetry. The poets of the two languages in this tiny island are strange to each other. No need to say anything about the readers. The problem of the use of such poetry echoes in my mind. That poetry was a mere literary cross-section of an era that had no political value. 

A saying by a Sinhala poet comes to my mind at this moment. “I repent for not learning the Tamil language. My poetry is of no use for Tamil people. If I could speak Tamil, I could have made a few of them happy.”

The practical use of poetry during primary society is no more to be seen. Poetry can do little against the dominant views of society. In the present world, cinema and television are more potent than literature in structuring human attitudes. Veteran film director Ashoka Handagama recently said that political reforms cannot be fulfilled through art and must be done through political actions. 

I cannot entirely agree if one says that poetry is a wholly useless, solitary way of expression. Poetry is the witness of humanity even during the darkest hours of a society or a country. The poet touches the darkest corners that the historian misses. 

A poet has no strength to build bridges among communities. But the poet can highlight the importance of such bridges. The sorrow is that it is understood only by people who read poetry and understand.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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