To revisit Sri Lankan Tamil poetry at a time when Sinhala majoritarianism is making an emphatic return to the island’s mainstream politics, could mean reopening old wounds with renewed vigour. It could mean fresh bleeding from dying scars. It could mean a new sense of fear slowly enveloping a community that had been growing resigned to its fate. It could also possibly portend an outbreak of new voices that would stand witness in history. Sri Lankan Tamil poetry stood in for history, when history itself failed. It remained a singular, powerful document of one of the most striking tragedies of our times – even as most mainstream media turned a blind eye, for as long as it could.
A modern Tamil poetry in Sri Lanka was established by the 1960s, but began to gain prominence in the 1980s when the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka intensified. The 1970s produced poets like Jayapalan and Yesurasa among others, who spoke about the fear that permeated the Sri Lankan Tamil community. Early witnesses of war, displacement, pain and fear, their voices were ridden with despair. Jayapalan writes,
The Sri Lankan radio says:
The affected Tamils are safe
In Refugee camps.
Will the refugee camp
Become our new nation?
…Where is my motherland?
Where is the ground on which I could hold my head high?
In one of his poems, Yesurasa rues the fate of the young, who live in danger of being branded terrorists,
There could be a sudden gunshot.
Followed by loud footsteps.
You would lay on the streets, dead.
A knife would have cropped up in your hand;
Sometimes a gun.
You will be branded a terrorist.
Nobody can ask why.
The steady loss of hope is a recurring theme in the work of many of these poets.
The 1980s gave way to a fresh set of voices, emerging with an emphasis that was hitherto unknown. Cheran wrote with poignancy and searing pain about living amidst war and death. He draws parallels between Sri Lanka and other nations in conflict:
Have you seen a man
Handing a handful of rice (or a biscuit)
To a child crying in hunger
And then sever its head?
In Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Congo,
Kashmir, Yemen, Palestine, El Salvador…
(Translated by Geetha Sukumaran and Anushiya Ramasamy)
There were others including Sankari, Nilanthan, Avvai and Urvasi whose verses powerfully documented the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict. New voices continued to emerge through the 1990s. The turn of the century saw the sounding of more militant voices, like that of Theepachelvan and Agaramuthalvan, who wrote more brazenly about the helplessness of the Sri Lankan Tamils in the face of war and ‘ethnic cleansing’.
In his poem on losing his pet cat, Theepachelvan writes:
In a country that
Hunts down the photographs,
Arrests the songs,
Imprisons the tears
And interrogates the memories,
Why did you leave home?
Will pet animals be lost too
In a country where an individual per home
Is made to disappear?
In Agaramuthalvan’s verse, the lives of Sri Lankan Tamils are no better than that of the winged termites.
Our lives are as good as
Those of the
Perhaps even more cursed.
Born on the day to die on the same day.
Like any voice produced by conflict, each Sri Lankan Tamil voice is distinct, unravelling a facet of war to the world, with the smell of raw flesh and blood intact. Each voice had a different story to tell, a different wound to show.
The decades-long ethnic conflict also brought us the voices of women who lent us their own versions of the trauma of living and dying through war. Sivaramani, who died by suicide, in early 1990s called upon the women to stop ‘looking into mirrors’ and come to the streets to fight (“Let us stop drawing kolams on ground, let us now draw kolams with our blood so our life patterns will change”). Anar, in 2007, wrote with fear on the ‘familiar’ blood stains that ‘stalked her like the images of death’. “The blood that is frozen on the mad streets/ The blood that has stained the cemeteries/ It stalks me/ Like the images of death,” writes Anar in a poem that starts with her monthly encounter with blood.
From Selvi in the 1980s to Sharmila Sayeed writing in the present, the women’s voices speak the pain of being removed from their roots. War chased people from one place to another, made them refugees in their own country and elsewhere. The poems were testimonies that many of the poets wanted to leave behind. To some, like Sivaramani, the poems were identities they were desperate to erase. Before killing herself, Sivaramani is believed to have burnt most of her poems in a bid to ‘erase all of her identities.’ What was left of her poems continue to offer that rare glimpse into the world of war.
When all else broke down, the poems held conversations with war and violence. The poems put together fragments of war, amplified frail voices dimmed by shrill war cries and brought to the fore lives relegated to refugee status. In doing so, poetry became historical record.
Nothing perhaps better illustrates this truth than Ahilan’s bilingual collection – Then There Were No Witnesses – ably translated by Geetha Sukumaran. Born in 1970, Ahilan lived and grew in war-riven Sri Lanka and has previously produced three collections of poetry – all of which bear testament to the agonies and harassment inflicted by the ethnic conflict on ordinary lives. A riveting selection of poems from these collections constitutes this bilingual anthology in which the original poems in the Tamil language are laid side by side with new English translations. The anthology chronicles the decades of ethnic conflict from the point of view of those ‘defeated’.
Essentially, Then There Were No Witnesses is a document from which we cannot turn our eyes away, a testimony we cannot pretend not to exist. It speaks of war from within war, of death from near death and of life from lived experience that not many could conceive. It speaks of love in times of war. The voice that emerges through Ahilan’s poems in this anthology is at once desperate and assertive, poignant and hopeful. It is both chilling and sensitive, and offers a naïve reader a wider understanding of life through war. Ahilan’s voice combines various experiences of a person growing with war and its aftermath, to present a full picture of its impact on a country, on a family and on an individual.
The anthology has poems written from 1990 to 2017 and is divided into sections under themes, the poems collected according to those themes even if written in different periods. The five sections – Years of Conflict, Of Love and Life, The Devastation of 2009, Aftermath of 2009, Ruminations – together build a powerful imagery of life through war: of love, loss and beleaguered hope.
The first section, Years Of Conflict, contains nine poems that begin speaking of the doubts of a lone stranger and then travels among those destined to bear witness. It ends with building a memorial ‘with air.’ This section speaks of living through war, and what it means to quietly watch the ‘rising fear’.
In ‘Days of the Bunker I’, Ahilan captures the shock of those hiding in the bunker at the onset of war – the shock abruptly interrupted by fresh spurts of blood.
darkness spread and froze
hang in limbo;
the war begins.
When bombers pause awhile,
the life in our hands
in the words
the body that
left and ducked
back into the bunker.
We turn, trembling
at the loud cry
of a body with breasts,
while another small one
spurts blood from its
‘2005’ is a poem laden with poignancy and the pain of those who survived the war, destined to bear witness.
No goodbye; there was no time.
You left –
When the houses saturate with blood,
no one will return.
The fighters are in the battlefield,
the deathless are in peace –
Among those destined to bear witness,
I sat hunched.
The three poems in the Semmani series (Semmani is foonoted as “a salt field near Jaffna, which was used as a site for executions by the Sri Lankan State during 1996-97”) speak of the vast emptiness in the aftermath of a destruction, and the abruptness of a life where ‘The daughter grew/ into a woman./ Mother plays the role/ between wife and widow.’ (Semmani 02).
In Semmani 03, Ahilan writes,
Under the billboards
sit on the edge of oblivion.
I am building a memorial,
not with stone,
not with water,
But with air
that trails me forever.
Of Love and Life – the second section – includes poems that eloquently present the vulnerabilities of love in times of war. Inevitably, it speaks of the pangs of separation, of the cruelties of being thrown apart. It speaks of the desperation and fear of Radha in having (Lord) Kannan reject her – a fear that seems to have travelled across histories. With his background as art historian, Ahilan brings imagery from a rich and varied 2000 year-old Tamil literature to build his own body of poetry.
‘The Cross’ attempts to portray the desperation of lovers,
how can I protect
the candle flame of love
in this howling wind?
From waiting for a loved one, from struggling to protect the candle flame of love in the 1990s, Ahilan’s poetry transitions to the fire that ‘flares up for a moment’ after years. Lust still burns beneath, yet time becomes another character ‘in the drama’ between lovers. From poems that held a flickering ray of hope to those now filled only with a nostalgia for lost hope, Ahilan’s poems on love over the years encapsulate the struggles of emotion to remain relevant when the struggle for survival takes over. In the process, Ahilan brings out the pain of losing a loved one with that seemingly impassionate voice only possible in conflict zones.
In Ahilan’s fractured world, sex too could only happen through the prism of violence. His poems on love are constructed through an imagery of violence – especially the four poems in the Mithunam series (mithunam, derived from mithuna in Sanskrit, refers to sexual union on both physical and spiritual levels, drawing multiple interpretations from Hindu religion and philosophy).
Under the sheet of thorns
strangers bound by fate
wear a dream
with worms squirming,
imagining a parched future,
with two pairs of tearing eyes.
(lines from ‘Mithunam 4’, 2011)
Love is a recurring theme in the work of many Sri Lankan Tamil poets – including the more prominent ones like Jayapalan and Cheran – often illustrating how war tears apart the lives of ordinary men and women, and turns them into ‘children of bitterness.’ While Jayapalan and Cheran seem to draw solace from love in the times drawn black by war, in Ahilan’s work, love conflates with the pain of war. It offers no light, it only makes his pain-ridden world darker.
Later in the collection two sections, titled The Devastation of 2009 and Aftermath of 2009 – perhaps the most important sections of the anthology – present to the reader agonising images, in a matter-of-fact voice that betrays no trace of pain or apology for life. It is in fact astonished by the existence of life – even if fragmented. In these sections that we witness scarred lives that yet continue, with the tags of the defeated hanging around their necks.
The eight poems in The Devastation of 2009 begin with one that is a revelation – that the leg in front of us with maggots squirming, also had a head and the head had two eyes. Perhaps more shockingly powerful to the reader is a poem titled ‘Corpse No.183 and Birth No.02’ In a seemingly nonchalant tone, Ahilan writes on the birth (ironically just number 2) given by a lifeless woman. His next poem titled ‘Corpse No.182’ turns even graver:
One breast gone,
on the other lay a tiny body;
they clung together.
After cleaning I wrote:
Corpse Number 182.
In these poems, Ahilan sews together several deaths and a birth to construct a larger picture of the pain inflicted by war.
‘A Frenzied Woman’ and the series on ‘A Mother’s Words’ attempt to look at the war-ravaged home-front through the eyes of a woman – dead or alive. Sometimes it’s silent, like history. Sometimes it is a void. Sometimes, it signals ruin.
The ten poems in the Aftermath of 2009 attempt to reconstruct the lives of victims, after the end of the war. The defeated continue to walk around on wooden stumps as unwanted humans, a mother in search of her missing child turns her tears into weapons and unwritten witnesses are written through the images of war-torn clothes. A shredded wedding silk, a brown checkered shirt gouged by bullets and a child’s clothing with a lacerated sleeve, turn into witnesses. Yet sometimes there are none.
In the final section, Ruminations, Ahilan’s language seesaws between hopelessness and hope. Written between 1991 and 2016, the poems in this section pause to taste the aftermath of defeat in various forms – from humiliation to death, and to sail through it in forms that include a sleepless night, striding the earth or shedding oneself. Or they simply hope that one day, the rain will wash away all the dirt.
When one day,
time washes away
the dirt in your hands
without anyone knowing
you say to her,
“Turning into pouring rain,
I will remain damp.”
In its entirety, Ahilan’s poetry constitutes the memory of the bitterness that war leaves behind in the lives of ordinary human beings. In doing so, it transforms itself in to a powerful document of a war that left, at its lowest estimate, tens of thousands dead and still more homeless. Ahilan tries to restore the normalcy, however uneasy, of post-war life in Sri Lanka in his later poems, yet they end up offering a sense of disquiet to the reader.
Locating Ahilan’s poetry in the expansive landscape of Sri Lankan Tamil poetry is a tough task, but the poet easily stands out, through the deft combination of his haunting language and lived experiences. Ahilan’s deep sense of history and Tamil literature offer him a vast ground on which he can build a formidable body of poetry that transcends the times we live in to stand, itself, as historical testimony. Travelling across more than three decades, Ahilan’s poems, like the poems of other Tamil writers in Sri Lanka, cannot be categorised only as war poetry. They raise larger questions of life, of hope, of being rootless.
These poems can leave the reader with a sense of deep shame and guilt that will linger. For readers in Sri Lanka, those that have been witnesses to or part of war, Ahilan’s poetry could well be cathartic, if not therapeutic. For those outside the immediate war-zone, who were not witnesses to it, Ahilan’s poetry presents an opportunity to realise one’s own inadequacies – those of us to whom the war was physically close yet remained distant from our consciousness. Ahilan’s poetry helps readers outside Sri Lanka understand or see war through the ordinary people who lived and died in it, so distinctly opposed to ‘the news’ that focused on the perspectives of those who led the war. It gives the Sri Lankan war a human face that many of us missed when reading about it in the media. The poems mention no names yet a corpse numbered 182 speaks of every corpse up to that point, and after. In doing so, ironically, it becomes more than just a number.
If Cheran wrote of the devastation of war leaving behind an ‘wounded land that still remains with no bird to fly over,’ Ahilan’s voice perhaps rises to be the bird. To fly over the injured land, but to show the world its pain and blood. The conviction in the blood-drenched voice is to urge the world even to see the wounded land, rather than to attempt another flight.
In her able translation of Ahilan’s poems, Geetha Sukumaran has made as few compromises as possible – handling, with her characteristic élan, the challenge of bringing into an alien language the pain and shock of the source language. Her grasp of the issues on which Ahilan writes so elaborately, her knowledge of and very evident admiration for Tamil literature and mythology and love for language, shape her vocabulary of translation and, in the process, help the new reader understand Ahilan’s world.
Known for her translation of Sylvia Plath into Tamil, Geetha’s translation of Ahilan into English remains largely faithful to the original, even while elegantly retaining its flavour. Geetha’s choice of poetry, and its arrangement – more historical than chronological – is again a testament to her own understanding of the issues, something that has immensely informed the process of her translation.
Ahilan’s poetry is, as Octavio Paz would say, an attempt to reconcile history. Ahilan’s poetry is part of a movement that recorded a tragedy in many voices, each voice compelling in its own way while speaking in a singularly painful tone. The tragedy is perhaps far from over, and as long as it keeps unfolding, poetry will remain a powerful form of resistance.
Translations of poems by Agaranuthalvan, Anar, Deepachelvan, Jayapalan, Yesurasa, Sivaramani – and Cheran’s line ‘wounded land that still remains with no bird to fly over’ – are the reviewer’s own.
Kavitha Muralidharan is a Chennai based journalist with two decades experience covering politics, culture, literature and gender. She is also a writer and translator.