30 June 2014

'Mis-residencing' Lakdasa Wikkramasinha

In the early eighties there were two Sri Lankan poets whose work was included in the GCE A/L English Literature syllabus, Lakdasa Wikkramasinha and Patrick Fernando. In later years, for reason best known to those responsible, the two were dropped. The story doing the rounds was that there were enough ‘English’ poets (i.e. from England) whose work students needed to know about. These two were not the only published Sri Lankan poets writing in English of course, but for some reason they were the better known. Both wrote excellent poetry. Fernando’s poetry gave the impression that he worked hard in crafting. Poetry seemed to come easily to Lakdasa. I preferred Lakdasa.

I read Lakdasa in 1984. I had at the time decided to switch to the Arts stream from Mathematic. Ten months is a short time. I didn’t have a formal English Lit teacher, even though my mother was one. I read Death of a Salesman with her. My father explained the poets, especially Lakdasa. I remember being impressed by ‘Don’t talk to me about Matisse’ until my father took it apart, line by line, thought by thought. I finally agreed with him that Lakdasa was weak in ‘Matisse’, a bit out of control and perhaps bested by his own fascination with (or antipathy to) colonialism. Lakdasa was comfortable, after all, in doing a ‘Matisse’ with the underclass he wrote about.

I remember a young lecturer going into raptures about ‘Matisse’ in my first year at Peradeniya University. ‘It is THE anti-colonial poem!’ she was shrill in her praise. My personal favorite was ‘Nossa Senhora Dos Chingalas’. For lyrical finesse, emotional control, narrative ease, simplicity of metaphor, and for informed and astute political commentary this was Lakdasa at his best.


Here there is no Christ; we see no Christ –
Christ, with a hair-knot against the strident
Green vegetation, standing; speaking
In the soul's dialect;
Christ, in a Jesuit's hood
Sweating under the flat sun's architecture –

Here there is only a family of crosses –
Of generations dead, and nothing alive;
Nothing. But larger that the dead dust,
Larger than any grave, figures – sweat and dust
In the quarries of laterite, toil.

Nothing: There is no Christ from eight to five o' clock;
Or perhaps only a Christ of fate –
The men cut brick out of the ground;
The women, take them on their heads
To the lorries of the construction yards
Waiting by the old gate –

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, Lakdasa restored divinity to the human. Aparna Halpe, musician, academic, poet and friend, who found the poem for me (why I asked, I shall explain presently), wrote to me: ‘Found it. I suppose this is the kind of poem that some of our venerables at Pera find too feudal for their liking. God he's good. Every time I go into this project, I feel a mixture of elation and despair.’ The ‘project’ refers to putting together Lakdasa’s poems and have them all translated (she is working on it with Michael Ondaatje I believe). I received the email some time ago. When I dug it up a few minutes ago, I replied thus: ‘I think it was too revolutionary for them…not “too feudal”. I might have added, ‘perhaps they were too feudal’. I don’t know how the politics of pick and choose changed over the past several decades, so let me not speculate about relevant evolutions.

What is important is the nidana kathava or what made me write to Aparna. A few months ago, I went to the Borella Kanatte with a friend who wanted her late father’s name inscribed on the headstone of the burial plot of the family. It so happened that Lakdasa’s grave was right next to his. The legend on the gravestone stunned me.

Calm on the rock of age
Above the roar of the timultous sea
Came a voice
‘I am the resurrection and the life
Lead on O Lord!’

Lakdasa died at sea on March 18, 1978 (the gravestone confirms). The lines then are apt. The reference is to the Almighty and of course His voice (Isiah 26: 3-4, ‘The Lord is the rock eternal’). To me, the legend on this particular rock in the Borella Kanatte (more tangible though utterly nondescript in comparison), was one that rebelled against the sentiments expressed in ‘Nossa Senhora Dos Chingalas’, against Lakdasa’s general sympathy to the downtrodden and humble and his largely non-existent fascination with church, priest and indeed all things ecclesiastical.

It occurred to me (and I duly wrote observation to Aparna) that whoever drafted these lines for Lakdasa’s gravestone had returned the poet to ‘god’. I told her that I found it amusing, ironic and so sad.

Lakdasa was ‘laid to rest’. He was ‘urged’ as it were to follow the voice of the Lord. All in good faith, no doubt. And who can complain when after all ‘mortal remains’ remain with the near and dear and are disposed of according to their particular faith-tendencies? It was ironic that sentiments contained in what I considered to be the poem that defined Lakdasa had been flipped by the dear ‘near and dear’.

It was amusing because we don’t belong to ourselves once we die and are at the mercy of those who have to deal with ‘mortal remains’. I’ve seen the irreverent being religiously frilled in coffins and funeral parlors; Gamini Haththotuwegama disliked the color ‘white’, but propriety (as insisted upon by the family), according to his son Raji, declared that ‘black’ (his preferred color) was ‘out’! Was Lakdasa similarly frilled, I wondered.

Almost ten years ago, I asked (no one in particular), ‘Are novelists, poets and other writers aware that their final resting place is a dingy used-books store?’ Lakdasa is not found anywhere, Aparna will vouch for this. Is Lakdasa ‘resting in peace’ somewhere off ‘5th Lane, Borella Kanatte’? Did he turn in his grave and did he get so sick of turning that he left grave and exchange places (let us be irreverent here by way of offering tribute) with a more ‘godly’ resident of the Kanatte? Is Lakdasa on his headstone or has he been made to stand on his head in the grotesque fashion of say ‘writing in English and thereby committing cultural treason’? Am I to laugh? Should I cry?

How can we return to the fire of Lakdasa’s clay if not through his word (and not those of his ‘near and dear’)? What streaming arrows from the mountain will illuminate minds which erred or misread out of the arrogance of presumption? What desolate hills have moved from where to relocate upon a grave, a word and an epigraph? And the she, she and she again that is ‘our’ Senhora at whose husked feet the work could stop and men recline, where are they? Would he know if he walked by or would they all be gone and in their place remained nothing but a cold statuette that discomforts men who seek recline and relief?

The specter of Lakdasa Wikkramasinha rose above gravestone and computer screen, smiled and walked soft over land, stepped on to the Bauddhaloka Mawatha, crossed the Galle Road, the Marine Drive, the railwayline, the tiny strip of sand and then walked on water. There is nothing more to say.


Anonymous said...

Wonder if there is a slightest possibility of Lakdasa actually having been a church goer. And does a poet write about everything else but the ‘ truth’: as to have subtle meaning and layers or train oneself to see different meanings in a situation

Anonymous said...

Well, I think there IS some truth in the claim that Lakdasa is "feudalistic" in his outlook in his work. Have you read his dedications to his Pinto-Jayawardene granny in one of his collections? poems like "Akuretiya Walawwa" follow the same sentiment. Yet, for me, this does not take anything away from the beauty of his work - Yeats's work works in the same way, I believe. Lakdasa is better for he is singing to his own roots.
The headstone, that is a laugh, alright.