01 March 2015

Reflections on the literary cosmopolite

It is common in organizations that carry the ‘South Asian’ tag to toss in something Sri Lankan, Pakistani or Bangladeshi to make things seem not-just-Indian.  This is particular seen in South Asian collectives outside the subcontinent, be it forums on development, trade, literature or traditional knowledge.  It is not uncommon in the subcontinent either. 

Including the token ‘other’ to give appearance of ‘broadness’ is a neat and convenient device both to alleviate guilt (if any there is) and to counter incest charge.  This was evident at the Galle Literary Festival (GLF) too.  For years, the movers and shakers, from Dobbs downwards (or ‘upwards’ as the case may be), have operated as though there is only one kind of literature in Sri Lanka.  English.  Sinhala and Tamil were not even considered poor cousins. 

Small wonder that many who write in English think no end of themselves for they lack the basic language skills in Sinhala and Tamil to even read an obituary in either language. How then could they even imagine the existence of literatures in these languages, leave alone assess their own work in comparison and be duly humbled?  This year, Shyam Selvadurai has done an ‘Indian’, accommodating (yes, it is condescending) a panel discussion on translations. Yes, not Sinhala or Tamil literature, but ‘translation’.  It’s about ‘write in a language that I can understand, dude!’ 

For me, though, it was the most stimulating session of all those I attended at the GLF.  It is a pity indeed that even in their condescension, the GLF-people didn’t see fit to invite people like Gunadasa Amarasekera, Siri Gunasinghe, Ashley Halpe, Lakshmi De Silva, Gamini Seneviratne and others of that generation equally conversant in Sinhala and English (I am sure there are Tamil equivalents too), familiar with a wide range of literatures and writes of repute.

If they wanted to go ‘younger’, they could have drawn people like Udayasiri Wickramaratne (poet, novelist and dramatist), Rajitha Dissanayake (dramatist), Prasanna Vithanage (film-maker and dramatist), Jayantha Chandrasiri (film-maker, dramatist) or others in the university system who could speak to relevant issues.  If they wanted ‘Even Younger’, then they had Sandun Lakmal, Vihanga Perera, Marlon Ariyasinghe (who did come, without invitation, and stole the entire thunder of the GLF from outside its periphery) and others who have acquired enough English skills to be effective contributors to pick from. 

And it is not the case that those who were not fluent in English ought to be summarily disqualified either in these days of translation and transliteration.  The session referred to above, then, was consolation/concession and an insult of a kind.  Still, Ranjini Obeysekera and Liyanage Amarakeerthi took on the challenge and demonstrated in no small measure the literary self-impoverishment of the GLF.  Their scholarship and intimacy with literature were in stark contrast to the very lack of these things in many other sessions run by or accommodating the local pin-up boys and girls of the GLF. 

Outside of the literary politics of the GLF, something that Amarakeerthi said struck me as worthy of comment.  He read a poem which he claimed expressed his position regarding the worth of translation/transliteration and what he termed was a cosmopolitan requirement to even contemplate such exercises.  Outside of this claim, the poem itself is an ideological preference for a cosmopolitan existence.  Let’s first see what he had to say. This is my (poor) transliteration of the poem ‘Kaviyata Idak’ (‘Room for the poem’ which I would translate as ‘Poetic Residence’:

Let me be resident
In the invisible land between time and space;

Let me be resident
In the petal-fragrance in-between of flower and perfume;

Let me be resident
In that quaint corner between verse and prose;

Let me be resident
In the cool between water and air;

Let me be resident
In that strange hour separating day and night;

Let me be resident
In the loose space between Motherland and Foreign Country;

Let me be resident
In that dawn light between poet and poem.

No, no, no, in this residence
Dear friends,
Give residence to my poetry. 

A translator needs to be have a sound and fairly comprehensive knowledge of the two languages he/she handles, be well read in the relevant literatures and sensitive to all the nuances of idiomatic usage.  The translation, as Amarakeerthi says, necessarily resides in an in-between space, neither here nor there nor divorced completely from either here or there.  This is what makes the term ‘cosmopolitan’ which Amarakeerthi used, so untenable and meaningless too. 

‘Cosmopolitan’ is from the Greek kosmopolitēs,  from kosmo- cosmo-  + politēs  citizen.  It refers to an ‘all-inclusive’, a sense of ease in any part of the world on account of familiarity, being resident or ‘belonged’ equally in multiple spaces, physical and otherwise.  In reality, at least in Sri Lanka, the avowed ‘Cosmopolite’ is hardly resident in any place apart from preferred circles of notoriety. In reality, the Cosmopolite acquires his/her tag by disavowing root and negating history and in particular bastardizing the ‘other’, i.e. the defined non-cosmopolite as backward, insular, uneducated and so on. 

Such people, if they can be ‘located’, are thick in an imagined space far, far away from Sri Lanka.  The cosmopolite is supposed to be ‘worldly wise’ but those who use this tag are as insular, backward and uneducated as the ‘other’ of their imagination, at least as far the privileged at the GLF are concerned. 

The ‘dictionaried’ antonyms reveal a lot about the relevant cultural politics: country, rural, rustic.  That’s gentlemen-speak for ‘vulgar’, ‘crude’, ‘unrefined’ and so on. There is nothing to say that a truly cosmopolitan (in the most general interpretation of the word) existence is necessarily more wholesome than a non-cosmopolitan one, but even a decent enough cosmopolitanism would by definition require, just like in the necessary residence of translator/transliterator, a deep understanding of the ‘here’ and ‘there’ and a respect for both worlds.  Vilification disqualifies.  All this, subject of course to the ultimate falsehood of here-there binaries or at least their hard articulation. There is no village any more; there is no city that is not village-ridden in innumerable ways, for example.  

Amarakeerthi’s poem, which Ranjini Obeysekera translated and read (unfortunately I don’t have a copy of the translation), is then a good starting point for the GLF to get real about literary cosmopolitanism at home.  If they so wish, that is. 


Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of ‘The Nation’ and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com.  This was first published in the Sunday Observer, February 13, 2011.

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