27 July 2023

Re-‘residencing’ Lakdasa Wikkramasinha

Lakdasa or Lakdhas Wikkramasinha? A collection of his poems edited by Aparna Halpe and Michael Ondaatje, published by New York Review Books (NYRB) and just recently released, has it as ‘Lakdhas.’ His gravestone insists, ‘Lakdasa.’ What is in a name, though? He wrote and what he wrote now writes him. Rewrites, inevitably. Re-rewritten if you toss in translation.

But where is Lakdasa? Where has he been all these years? Where is he now and where is he going?  

Around 10 years ago I chanced upon his grave and was struck by what was inscribed on the gravestone: ‘Calm on the rock of age, above the roar of the tumultuous sea, came a voice, ‘I am the resurrection and the life, Lead on O Lord.’

He was drowned, and therefore the first part of it is apt. He was a rebel whose poetry turned things upside down (after all in ‘The Poet’ he advocates the tossing of bombs followed by note-taking), but in terms of contesting theology and formal religious structures he have never been more clear than in ‘Nossa Senhora Dos Chingalas’ (‘Our Lady of the Sinhalas’).

Blasphemous, some may say. It was, as I observed then, ‘[In terms of] lyrical finesse, emotional control, narrative ease, simplicity of metaphor, and for informed and astute political commentary this was Lakdasa at his best.’ He simply restored divining from creator-god to god-creator, one might say. This poem exemplifies the ‘political fearlessness’ observed in the NYRB blurb, but in the carefully crafted poetics

I concluded, ‘mis-residenced’ (in the Borella Kanatta), but then again, corporeal leftovers are beyond the reach and control of the dead; the living inscribe in accordance to the image of the departed they privilege. They could be right or wrong or somewhere between. [See 'Mis-residencing Lakdasa Wikkramasinha']

What lives on is his poetry. In hearts and minds privileged to have read, in manuscripts lovingly typed by a friend and admirer, Ashley Halpe, later discovered by his daughter Aparna, in Advanced Level and university syllabuses, university libraries and collections of poetry-lovers and poets, has Lakdasa lived. Scattered like so much ash, like so much history, in fragment, pottery shards that recite the frustrating line, ‘there’s so much more.’  

That ‘so much more,’ is what Aparna and Michael have put together. They have brought together the fragmented and scattered poet, dusted off neglect and ignorance, reconstructed and re-residenced him. Resurrected, yes, in ways consistent with ‘Nossa Senhora Dos Chingalas.’

Importantly, the collection includes some of his Sinhala poems. I’ve read somewhere that towards the end of his life Lakdasa had believed that writing in English constituted some kind of cultural treason. There was as much ‘Sinhala’ and ‘Sinhala culture’ in his English poetry as there is in the few Sinhala ones he has written though. Cultural treason can manifest itself in many ways. There can theoretically be treachery expressed in Sinhala that is as pernicious as that which is in English. We could go into that, but this is not the moment.  

What Aparna and Michael have done is to relocate Lakdasa in the here and now of contemporary Sri Lanka and contemporary Sri Lankan literature, especially contemporary Sri Lankan English literature. It is in many ways an insurgent venture on their part.

Hiniduma Sunil Senavi, during the launch of Chulananda Samaranayake’s ‘දැහැමිද මේ දිවයින’ (‘Daehaemida Me Divayina’ or ‘Is this Island virtuous?’) and ‘Glimpses of a Shattered Island’ five years ago, spoke about ‘language-relatives,’ i.e. English and Sinhala: ‘The English Poet is a relative that the Sinhala Poet does not converse with.’ Interesting enough to comment, so I did:

‘It’s probably a language issue.  Two relatives living in different continents, separated by seas or mountains or rivers, let’s say.  We could put it all down to the ‘language policy,’ that easy alibi for incompetence, ignorance and sloth, but then again we must not forget that such ‘islands’ existed even before 1956.  We can quibble about how it happened or when but we can agree that the estrangement exists.  There’s something that Sunil Senevi did not say, perhaps because the audience was ‘Sinhala’ and not ‘English’: The English Poet or rather the English Poetic Circle not only does not talk to the Sinhala Poet, but is by and large ignorant of the latter’s existence or, worse, even if aware is somehow dismissive, not account of quality-lack but some other malady.   And we are all the poorer for it.  And we could say the same of the relationships or lack thereof between Sinhala poets and Tamil poets, and also English Poets and Tamil poets.’

Aparna and Michael have dedicated the book to the GotaGoGama Library.She wants to believe that Lakdhas would have approved of that. ‘GGG Library’ certainly was one of the more endearing products of last year’s protests. She is probably right; Lakdasa would have identified with it, although he lived in a different time and agitation had different colours, textures and, let’s not forget, substance.

Lakdasa’s poetry should be translated into Sinhala. All of it. Sunanda Karunaratne and Liyanage Amarakeerthi I believe are the best suited for such an exercise. Now that we have this collection, perhaps one of them or both or someone else may attempt this. That, now, would be radical and Lakdasa would have certainly approved of it.

For now, this is good. Aparna and Michael have done something amazing. It is an invaluable contribution to Sri Lankan literature and would hopefully inform, nuance and glaze political engagement in positive ways for a long time to come. They have re-residenced Lakdasa. Or Lakdhas. And now we can contemplate our own respective residences. And residencies. Literary or otherwise. 

['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: 

Poisoning poets and shredding books of verse

The responsible will not be broken

Home worlds

Ownership and tenuriality of the Wissahickon

Did you notice the 'tiny, tiny wayside flowers'?

Gifts, gifting and their rubbishing

History is new(s)

Journalism inadvertently learned

Reflections on the young poetic heart

Wordaholic, trynasty and other portmanteaus

The 'Loku Aiya' of all 'Paththara Mallis'

Subverting the indecency of the mind

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

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
The allegory of the slow road