20 June 2023

Poetry and poets will not be buried

Years ago, my friend W G Premasiri offered the following by way of explaining the human resource crisis in the country: ‘We lost 20,000 in 1971, 60,000 in 88-89 and several hundred thousand during thirty years of war.’

That’s numbers. If we assume that at least 1% of those who died (as combatants, as activists or simply ordinary citizens identified as someone’s ‘enemy’) were men and women of superior intelligence, extraordinary ability, endowed with a strong sense of justice and absolute integrity and being ready to commit a lifetime to the betterment of fellow creatures, that’s still 3,000-5,000 or even more ‘exceptional human resources’ we’ve had to live without.

Of course, each and every individual who died or was maimed in one way or another, would certainly have contributed in some way to the economic and social well being of their families, their loved ones, their communities and their country, but 3-5,000 people with the kind of attributes described about is a massive number in a country of 22 million people.  

We could trace each life and project potentials lost but we cannot assign a value to any of it. Today, as I write, I am thinking of two poets, Chandrakumara Wickramaratne and Nandana Marasinghe.

Chandrakumara, referred to as Gorky by Dayasena Gunasinghe (according to my friend and poet Amarasiri Wickramaratne), did not perish during the bheeshanaya but disappeared not too long afterwards (in 1991 or thereabouts). Indeed, considering the kind of life he lived, foisted on him in part and also in the choices he made, ‘Gorky’ seems appropriate, assuming that Gunasinghe was inspired by ‘My Universities.’ The novel ‘Comrade’ by Anura Dahanayake is said to have been based on Chandrakumara’s life story, but there’s a lot we don’t know about this man. We do know what troubled and inspired him through what he wrote for the ‘Ataveni Pituwa’ of the Divaina and for the Ravaya, and the collection of poems ‘Bhoogatha Kavi Sitha (A buried poetic heart, if you will).’

He was of the nineteen eighties and all the tragedies and sorrows that time was all about. He wrote that history. He lived that history. He may have perished on account of that history.  So much poetry has gone unwritten. We are so much poorer.  

Nandana Marasinghe was of a different time. His ‘learning’ could be traced back to the JVP of the first insurrection. He was incarcerated but incarceration did not dampen his revolutionary spirit. Neither did betrayals of many kinds. Before and after he was gunned down by the JVP, ironically, JVP activists and many others sang (and still sing)  his revolutionary songs. ‘Vimukthi Gee.’ He was, at that terrible moment, running a slipper-shop in the Anuradhapura Pola. At the time he was aligned with Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya led by Vijaya Kumaratunga, probably the reason for the JVP’s decision to assassinate him on November 27, 1987.

From L to R: Gunadasa Kapuge, Nimal Perera, Munidasa Gunasinghe and Nandana Marasinghe

Ratna Sri Wijesinghe captured it all in the poem ‘Nandana Marasinghe Hevath Aeda Vaetunu Kurulla (The fallen bird Nandana Marasinghe). Here’s a translation of the last stanza:

Who knows,
winged friend
that long before
the arrow found your breast
you had already perished
of a shattered heart…

It’s been more than 35 years. So much poetry is gone missing. So much poorer are we.

Ratna Sri knew Chandrakumara too, who would visit his home in the Galle Fort. Activists, especially those associated with the JVP of that time (and perhaps of this time too), would know of him. I didn’t. Rasika Jayakody told me about him and since then I’ve looked for this lost poet and his poetry.

The world does not see me
but I see the world in its entirety
I am a fugitive now
and yet I walk hither and thither
my heart remains warm,
like the sun

That’s something he wrote. K K Saman Kumara, in his preface to his maiden collection of poetry, ‘Naga Maeroo Ala’ dedicated the book to his friend Chandrakumara Wickramaratne:

Even as you nailed to the cross
as the poet of the era
I see Chandare
your innocent eyes
shining through the dimness of imminent rain
yearning for a drop of love

We still have K K Saman Kumara, Ratna Sri Wijesinghe, Amarasiri Wickramaratne and others who survived the bheeshanaya and we should be grateful. We still have Nandana Marasinghe’s songs. We still have Chandrakumara Wickramaratne’s poetry. We should be grateful. Maybe the drops of love they managed to turn into words will re-green this earth. Maybe that kind of flowering will exhume those hearts whose warmth we need right now, more so than before.


['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Sunny Dayananda

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990)

What makes Oxygen breathable? 

Sorrowing and delighting the world

The greatest fallacy 

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Beyond praise and blame

Letters that cut and heal the heart

Vanished and vanishing trails


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya

The soft rain of neighbourliness 

The Gold Medals of being

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri

All those we've loved before

Reflections on waves and markings

A chorus of National Anthems

Saying what and how

'Say when'

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra

The loves of our lives

The right time, the right person

The silent equivalent of a thousand words

Crazy cousins are besties for life

Unities, free and endearing

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!"

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis

The revolution is the song

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins

The day I won a Pulitzer


Ella Deloria's silences

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart