02 June 2012

On the future of Sinhala literature ‘for no reason at all’

It is fashionable among certain circles to lament now and then the death of this and that.  We’ve had, for example, the nation sick, dying, dead and duly buried.  Culture is a frequently interred entity too, one observes.  Then there are political parties and ideologies.  They commit suicide, are murdered or die natural deaths and their mortal remains duly disposed.  Literature and art are also subject to this periodical death-pronouncement followed naturally by obituaries, memorial services, appreciations and pleas for resurrection. 

I’ve heard people say that Sinhala literature is dead or, if not, then dying a slow, painful death.  Looking around, though, I realized that this is far from the truth. It reminded me of the Payasi Rajagna Sutra. 

The discourse takes the form of a conversation between the Venerable Kumara Kashyapa Thero and a merchant.  The merchant, endowed with a penchant for debate and a fascination with splitting hairs over nothing, interrogates the bikkhu, demanding definition of things that resist definition, are there to be discovered and not necessarily told and certainly not internalized by memorization.  The Venerable Thero responded by way of anecdote. 

‘There was once a fire-worshipping Jatila.  He had an assistant to help him with his rituals. One day, needing to make a visit outside the village, the Jatila had instructed his assistant to take care of things and make sure that the fire does not go out. The apprentice was negligent. The fire died.  He had then begun looking for the fire, wondering where it had gone. He looked in the ash and split the firewood into tiny splinters but he did not find it.  The Jatila returns, admonishes his assistant and rekindles the fire.  Now, just as fire is not obtained by those who lack the wisdom and analytical skills necessary to discover the fate of the flame that died and to kindle flame, the truth will elude those who look for it sans wisdom and other necessary skills.’

We are looking in the wrong places, I believe.  We are now in the 21st Century. The times are being embraced by a generation that does not have the hang ups of those who came before; they grapple with different realities and play with different metaphors, but are no less or not more creative than their predecessors.  They are a confident generation, unburdened of the ideological weights that both empowered and bogged down the writers of a different age. 

I think we are in exciting literary times as far as Sinhala literature is concerned.  I am aware that there is a lot of trash being published and even rewarded. The best literature probably remains unpublished, but among that which does come out, amidst the trash, there are gems that constitute reasons for hope. 

I want to write about something else though. A new phenomenon. Blogs.  Thanks to technology and a generation which, thanks to a healthy absence of inhibition, seems to be far more adept at adopting the new, the development of fonts and transliteration-software that side steps the need to learn and master Sinhala keyboards, increasing and cheaper access to computers and the internet courtesy cyber cafes and the nena-sal (Outlets of Wisdom), we are seeing an explosion of Sinhala bloggers.  Like in the formal ‘publication’ scene, we get the entire gamut of quality, from trash to exceptional, with the key difference that the character of the genre is freeing and poverty-circumventing.

For several years I’ve browsed websites where Sri Lankans blog in English.  Colourful pages. Nice layouts.  Nice words.  Grammatical.  Words. Thousands of words. Paragraphs cut into lines to obtain poetic appearance and believed by author and reader to actually constitute ‘poetry’.  Nice thought pieces.  Again we have roughly the same ratio of trash to brilliance. The ‘Sinhala blogger’ is a new entrant, certainly, but has already outstripped his/her Sri Lankan English counterpart in terms of volume and quality. 

What we are seeing is an uninhibited, tech-savvy, creative creature who doesn’t have to worry about money and indeed seems hardly interested whether or not his/her work gets into book form, clearly willing to entertain the idea that books are on their way out (I am old fashioned and I hope this will not happen). 

I want to write therefore about a particular blogger by the name ‘Sandun’.  I believe he works in advertising.  I emailed him once and asked if we could meet and he said nonchalantly ‘sure’.  Here’s the website: www.nikamatawage.blogspot.com. 

The name itself is disarming and therefore potent. It can be translated as ‘for no reason at all’.  The poetry is like that; tiny thoughts, neatly captured in word-combination, laid out tastefully using images culled from the internet (with or without permission, I really don’t know).  Let’s check some lines.

From the day I met you
until now
I go about looking
for those vile creature
who write poetry and sing
about love
divested of lust
and pure like moonlight:
to seek them out
and shoot them.

The poet signs off not as ‘Sandun’ but with a tag.  In this case he ends thus: ‘Sandun, who is not interested in wetting just the lips with the first kiss’.  The reference in the signature line is to the song by Sashika Nisansala, written by Ratna Sri Wijesinha, ‘thol pethi vitharak palamu haaduwen themanna…’, wrongly interpreted as a physical act of kissing (according to Wijesinghe), when in fact it is about the flowering of the Sepalika Flower. The poem itself refers to Nanda Malini’s song ‘Premaya nam…’ (The definition of love), written by Sunil Ariyaratne.  The title of the poem, by the way, is ‘numba nisa mama’ (I, consequent of you).

Sandun’s poetry is witty, thought-provoking and lyrical.  There is economy of words, easy engagement with things familiar, a healthy cynicism of meta narratives of being and becoming, utterly fresh and refreshing.  

There is a poem titled ‘bandune loo madira’ (The wine poured into the glass).

The wine that was poured
took the shape of the glass
and yet
there was no difference in taste.
And though I
when entering her
did not take her shape
a singular taste-difference
did I perceive.
The signature is part of the poem: ‘I am Sandul who has abandoned the act of pouring from bottle to glass’.

Sandun’s poetry is intensely personal and for this reason comes off as innocent and honest and moreover has the ability to make the reader extrapolate to things social as well.  He ‘frames’ women, in a poem titled ‘gehenun raamu kireema’.

Since I cannot
re-mould you
in the image of my preference,
I let you be
as you are;
I just photographed you
and framed you
in the dimensions
of my preference.

‘I am Sandun, discoverer of a new way to frame women’.

Some of the poems obtain vigor from image but are strong enough to stand on their own word-legs. There’s one titled ‘krodhaye skandaya’ (the mass of hatred).

The image is split.  On the left there is a drop of water clinging to the bottom of a dark object and on the right a drop that is falling. Two verses. Split as right and left. 

At that moment
when the mass
of your hatred
exceeded a particular value…
became stronger
than the strength
of our togetherness.

The signature: ‘I am Sandun, looking for a plot of land on the moon to settle down’.  This, to me, is not footnote but part of main-text, for the ‘gravitylessness’ speaks to so many things including the matter of loving and being in a relationship.

I will stop with the one titled ‘binduwen binduwa’ (Drop by drop), decorated with the image of a saline drip.

I was indisposed
extremely ill.

by drop
by drop
by drop
you entered
my heart.

by drop
by drop
by drop
my heart
she left.

Signature: I am Sandun, totally cured now.

There are nikamata wage lines, written ‘for no reason at all’. The ease, the healthy frivolousness, the flippancy, ability to laugh at self, the skill with words, the ability to render in simple ways and with minimal fuss things that are familiar and yet so complex and deep, makes the blog an illuminator and teacher, source of entertainment and sobriety-inducer. All at the same time. 

Sandun is a single blogger and he does not make a genre, this is true.  I won’t put him at the forefront of this new landscape into which Sinhala literature has ventured because I’ve not checked out all the blogs and am ignorant of all bloggers.  I’ve seen enough though to be excited and even cynical of those who lament the death or dying of Sinhala literature. 

There is no death, no dying; there is life and living and the Ven. Kumara Kashyapa Thero might very well have said that those who think otherwise are looking in the nunuwana-mode, i.e. without circumspection.  Either way, the Sanduns of these times will continue to key their lines for no reason at all, I am sure.