Civilians walk past a burnt-out bus in southern Sri Lanka in 1989, during the second JVP insurrection. The shock of the first, in 1971, turned the world of Sri Lankan letters towards the political, and invited the country’s anglophone elite to an unsparing interrogation of themselves as the insurrection’s target. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg
Civilians walk past a burnt-out bus in southern Sri Lanka in 1989, during the second JVP insurrection. The shock of the first, in 1971, turned the world of Sri Lankan letters towards the political, and invited the country’s anglophone elite to an unsparing interrogation of themselves as the insurrection’s target. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg

“A glass of blood to drink”: The insurgent poetry of Lakdhas Wikkramasinha

A new collection presents the harsh, even brutal lyricism of Lakdhas Wikkramasinha, forged amid the violence of the 1971 JVP insurrection and still unlike anything else in Sri Lankan letters

Militant Tamil nationalists were not the first to mount an armed insurrection against the Sri Lankan state. That ambiguous distinction belongs to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, or People's Liberation Front – hereafter the JVP. The JVP was started in the 1960s, when several prominent members from the youth federation of the Ceylon Communist Party (Peking Wing) split from the main organisation over an ideological disagreement. Nagalingam Shanmugathasan, then the head of the party, believed that the mostly Dalit "Indian" Tamils in the Sri Lankan hill country, brought over as indentured labourers in the 19th and 20th centuries to build up the island's plantation economy, ought to form the vanguard of the revolution. The JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera, as well as his comrades, viewed these Tamils – distinct from the Eelam Tamils native to Sri Lanka's North and East – as agents of Indian capitalist expansion, and wanted the revolution for the Sinhala Buddhist peasantry.

In the words of the bibliographer H A I Goonetileke, the movement found its base among "an extremely left-oriented nativist militant cross-section of under-privileged rural youth in the upper forms of secondary schools, a minor army of disgruntled and largely jobless school-leavers, plus a sprinkling of university graduates and undergraduates from the forgotten backwoods of Ceylon." Their malaise was the malaise of Sri Lanka today – a failing economy, a corrupt political elite, a stagnant caste order – and their complaint directed at the same political order.

Around twenty thousand young men and women entrusted themselves to an elite leadership improvising a rebellion. On 5 April 1971, militias whose main weapon was the hand bomb attacked over seventy police stations all over the country, encroaching furiously on the South and Central Provinces, setting up camps in "liberated" villages and raising their red flag. The attacks even reached as far as the northern city of Jaffna, where Wijeweera was at the time imprisoned. From the report of a commission of inquiry set up afterwards to ascertain the facts of the insurgency, one discerns a rebellion made up of a great many small and independent mutinies, whose larger orchestration was offset by breakdowns in communication. Plans to seize Colombo and kidnap or kill the prime minister, for instance, fell flat due to scant and contradictory commands. Nevertheless, where the insurgents were strong in number and could retreat into the jungle, as in the central district of Kegalle, it took a state caught unprepared and low on ammunition (emergency arms supplies had to be solicited from the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain, India and Pakistan) nearly a year to put them down.

Insurgent deaths were estimated at between four and ten thousand, and over ten thousand were incarcerated. The rebellion sparked waves of unrest and reorganisation in Sri Lanka's universities, inspired malcontent Tamil youth in the North to form their own armed groups, and set in motion the since continual and exponential expansion of the Sri Lankan army into the budget-hogging beast it is today. The shock was felt in Sri Lankan letters too, where the insurgency forced an anglophone elite otherwise content to paint local colour with strokes of Modernism and brushings of Surrealism to turn towards the political, and invited them to an unsparing interrogation of themselves as the insurrection's target.

This period's brightest and briefest literary star, we are told, was Lakdhas Wikkramasinha – as of this year, the first Sri Lankan poet to be published in the New York Review of Books Poets series. Little is known of his biography besides that he was the descendant of Catholic aristocrats and a lecturer in English at what is now the University of Kelaniya. Before his death by drowning in 1978 at the age of 37 (it was his habit to swim in the sea drunk), he privately published eight volumes of poetry, each no sooner in print than out of it. Readers owe the present collection to sheer fortuity. In 2014, the writer and musician Aparna Halpé was in Kandy visiting her father, Ashley Halpé, himself a poet as well as a friend and contemporary of Lakdhas's. It was the rainy season and the roof began to leak. While clearing out her father's library to save his books from water damage, she found Lakdhas's manuscripts. This collection, jointly edited with the poet and writer Michael Ondaatje, provides a selection of his complete works, shaped into an arc of three distinct phases.

Lakdhas Wikkramasinha, edited by Michael Ondaatje and Aparna Halpé. NYRB Poets (July 2023)
Lakdhas Wikkramasinha, edited by Michael Ondaatje and Aparna Halpé. NYRB Poets (July 2023)

Lakdhas's death gives us a picture of a helplessly urgent man, and all accounts confirm him to have been both reckless – unable to keep his tongue or his fists to himself – and prone to heavy fits of melancholy. He was a self-styled outsider who took Federico García Lorca and Osip Mandelstam as his models, but yearned nonetheless for acclaim and acceptance. He sympathised with the revolution but remained a bystander; he proclaimed himself rootless, severed from the curses of nation and lineage, yet never quite shook off his romance about his aristocratic forebears or his people: the Sinhala Catholics.

At its best, his verse shows a gift for the visceral apprehension of violence:

On a gold plate
like ripe bananas
five fingers
red blue yellow

In verse possessed of a harsh, even brutal lyricism, Lakdhas found a language that tears apart and away from the formalistic separateness and distancing that rules the verse of his contemporaries. He plunges us into the mood or fact of violence without a map where others draw elaborate and impotent coordinates. Ashley Halpé, for instance, writes:

I do not know
the thin reek of blood, the stench
of seared flesh, the
cracked irreducible bone; I know
only the thinner reek of pity

Violence is an abstraction for Halpé, an incomprehensible communication "in dying" that he places "Beyond all our speech." His poem is a confession, an absolution that allows him to return to family and "wonted work."

Halpé's work partakes of the grave, ingenuous modernism that ruled the English writing of the time. For Lakhdas, neither was redemption so easy nor distance from the masses so acceptable. He rejected the diaristic and confessional modes of writing about violence that continue to dominate Sri Lanka's literature in all three of its languages, realising that state violence posed a formal challenge to writers.

Lakdhas's early verse is historical in theme, mainly taken up with Sinhalas converted to Christianity under Portuguese colonialism and the folklore of the bygone feudal South. Sentimental in attitude and rounded by facile pronouncements, the poems are scattered with seemingly random punctuation – interruptions that convey a stuck rhythm, a restless and even immature sensibility at odds with form.

For instance, a poem about the Portuguese poet Luís de Camões, who travelled in Sri Lanka, begins:

Luis de Camões, spitting in the sea—
slanting—the sea off Galle,
singing of frost over the Mondego: a Lusitanian breeze:
Mondego; frost (you will remember);
a very cold wind, you remember, was flapping about—

It ends:

de Camões! A poem contains nothing
but the bones of the dead.
& the bones of the dead, my friend,
do not last forever.

The disrupted motion of these lines was perhaps a rebellion against what Lakdhas deemed the "immoralist and destructive" act, the "cultural treason" of writing in English – or, put another way, to subvert the colonial language by Lankanising it. But the attempt never quite comes off, partially because – truth be told – Sri Lankan English differs little from standard English. It possesses none of the deep reserves of dialect and distortion that make, say, the English of the Caribbean a distinct language of national consciousness.

The strongest of his early works are those that look and reach closest. In 'Nossa Senhora dos Chingalas' – Portuguese for "Our Lady of the Sinhalas" – another poem on the theme of Catholicism, Lakdhas leaves the half-imagined past aside and turns to the simple present, finding the divine mother incarnate in labouring women:

And I have seen, in the eyes of these women
Burn no supernatural love; but still
Any one of them is our senhora
In the shadow of whose husked feet
The work may stop, the men recline.

Here, with a spare lyricism, the poet's persona recedes and a living landscape comes quietly but surely into view. "Husked feet" is perfect, giving the sense of something both fresh and worn, sturdy and tender, ordinary and exalted. In 'Cold of the Kumbuk Tree', written in Sinhala, Lakdhas is at his best, achieving a stunning synthesis of sight and feeling unmarred by his convoluted thinking:

green and quiet
floating under her skin
in a jacket
burning like needles

fish with tiny snouts

like a swarm of bees in a hive
suck blood

Here the extreme mood that dominated Lakdhas's work – a melancholy both tortured and ecstatic, set against a background of decay and emptiness – comes across with more sharpness and immediacy than anywhere else in the book.

Before his death by drowning in 1978, the poet Lakdhas Wikkramasinha observed the bloody convulsion of the JVP's first insurrection against the Sri Lankan state. At its best, his verse shows a gift for the visceral apprehension of violence. Photo courtesy: Shanthini Gunawardana / The New York Review of Books Poets
Before his death by drowning in 1978, the poet Lakdhas Wikkramasinha observed the bloody convulsion of the JVP's first insurrection against the Sri Lankan state. At its best, his verse shows a gift for the visceral apprehension of violence. Photo courtesy: Shanthini Gunawardana / The New York Review of Books Poets

As a lecturer, Lakdhas watched his students drift toward the JVP with sympathy and eventual bitterness. Amid increased security on campuses, mass firings, expulsions and restructuring in the insurrection's aftermath, he found himself an indignant outlier among colleagues whose jobs and families were their first priority. It was a position he took pride in and lionised in verse:

The poet is the bomb in the city,
Unable to bear the circle of the
Seconds in his heart,
Waiting to burst.

His heart did burst, but perhaps not as spectacularly as he had hoped. With the revolution's failure, heroic posturing gives way to a wall-like silence, a dead and adrift nihilism and a total disavowal of Sri Lanka, "a mindless country/ you have hung me on." The revolutionary becomes an absurd, quixotic figure, whose "arms are shredded plantain leaves" parrying "the wind/ in the hurricane." The insurrection seems inevitable but misguided – "… terrible explosions that must happen—/ And continually happen in the wrong places" – a "fugitive war" in which there are "no survivors."

As an observer, not a participant, in the movement, and as a member of the elite himself, Lakdhas had a strangely personal identification with the young rebels. He transposed onto them, perhaps, his own feelings of rejection and neglect as a poet. This may account for the ease with which he, unlike Halpé and his other contemporaries, felt he could assume the persona of a revolutionary in his poems – like in this dreamlike vision of the afterlife as a hospital:

A nurse covering her face for a joke
tells me
"Over there, in front
the person in the room
is Tota yaka—
the doctor!

He will fix anything, yes,
For a pittance." This is the ward of ghosts: life—So
that day to me—through the chest to the heart—because life
was not enough.

The nurses, smiling lovingly,
gave me a glass of blood to drink

The Tota yaka is a kind of Sinhala folk demon, often used to scare children. The scene sounds its proper resonance when we recall the Sri Lankan government's attempts to lure the rebels out of hiding by offering them amnesty in 1971, and how officials commonly referred to them as "misguided youth" and "our sons and daughters." But this is also a poem about Lakdhas himself, the unrecognised genius succumbing to alcoholism.

After the insurrection, a terminal aspect, an accursed air creeps into the poems. The curse Lakdhas bears is no longer his country but his aristocratic lineage: "ancient blood/ as ours, which cannot, after all,/ be repined." In poems of bitter nostalgia and forlorn identification, he styles himself the reluctant heir and orphan of a landed gentry long consigned to the dustbin of history, lost to their own gentility and unctuousness, surviving in crumbling houses, disused fields, faded photographs, rusted heirlooms and the vestiges of their violence against their servants.

Looking at a painting of sunflowers in a vase by his great-grandmother, Lakdhas writes that she:

… had little, if any, reason
to paint sunflowers
— which, in any case, grow wild. And
my passion
to set fire to things, derives,
perhaps, from this sad
History …

He sees himself, disassembled, in a rickety heirloom Fiat:

— like abandoned ones
in the broken glass
my limbs are reflected, a piece
of my shirt

At times he envies his ancestors, who "did not know/ the absence of so many things,/ and this feeling that one is surrounded/ by this stagnant water." He toys with the idea of them as an asylum, a sanctuary from the present. He looks to "find my roots anywhere/ Else … even/ Among the regalia of the bewitched, and/ My exiled dead."

The Sri Lankan state's racist ideology, turning the Sinhalas against the country's Tamil minority, was and still is used to make a unified majority of a group that would otherwise, torn apart by caste and class, come into internal conflict. It was not long after Ceylon gained independence in 1948 that propaganda blaming Tamils for high rates of unemployment became part of civic common sense – the accusation was that they were stealing all the jobs. The first major anti-Tamil riots came not in 1983, when the country's civil war began, but in 1956; and the Sinhala Only Act of that same year, which all but disenfranchised the entire Tamil population, had majority support across caste and class divisions.

The JVP disagreed with the state on the question of genuine socialism, but was in perfect harmony with it when it came to the Tamils. The group had, to use a Marxist term, a bad case of false consciousness. The backlash against the JVP insurrection was soft compared to what Tamil rebels would come to face. Top officials made a show of pardoning the rebels as "misguided youth", and the JVP was reformed and integrated into parliamentary politics. Despite leading a second, even more violent insurrection in the late 1980s, the JVP continues to contest elections today. On Sinhala exclusivity and chauvinism, it has been firmer and more consistent than the state. The second insurrection, a reaction in part to the "appeasement" of Tamils under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord – a short-lived, India-imposed truce between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – made this especially clear.

Lakdhas never confronted any of this. His blindness to the state's troubling foundations was the blindness of the Sinhala society of his time – and also today. In this sense, Michael Ondaatje is right to claim he represents a "self-portrait of his time." But the best poets, like Lakdhas's idol Osip Mandelstam, see past the blindness of their time. Beside the piety and certainty, the eternal calculus of Mandelstam's work, Lakdhas appears callow. Nor does his work possess the tragic weight or the vatic power of the island's great poets of war and violence – the Tamil poet S Vilvaratnam, for example. Most often, Lakdhas's poems fall prey to an aggrandised persona or an incessant and antiphonal solipsism. Still, over a literature of violence that remains trapped in its own grandiloquence, oscillating between throat-clearing and soliloquy, Lakdhas rises as a burst of pure feeling, as burnished and irreducible as a seed. Poems like 'Umbrella' deserve to be read and reread:

Shrunken in the rain
like an old man
under death

an old man
made of iron rods
in a black robe

under the sun, licking his tongue
on the main road.

Himal Southasian