Poetic Reflections against Violence: Burning, Nightmare, Trauma

Godfrey Gunatilleke…… Three poems from Time’s Confluence and other poems (Colombo, Unie Arts, 2014 … ISBN 978 -955-41102-0-5)


            BURNING ……(Elegy on a body seen burning by the roadside during the violence in 1989)

There was no one, none at all to weep for him

Dead, lying by the roadside, quietly burning;

No friend, no brother, just some strangers, fearful

And silent. No love was left for mourning.

It was like any other morning on that day,

Life was stirring under a brightening sky,

And as we drove, alongside, all the way

The ocean heaved an interminable sigh.


Then suddenly this – limbs arched in a slow fire

Dead hands thrust upward by the baking heat

In strange mime of supplication, as in prayer

To some hidden god, for a sign, some last respite.


No solace there for him, no answering grace;

Only a sightless cruel sun, the primal source

Of this same fire, burning his hands and face

While the world resumed its ordinary course.


Would they have waited for him in some poor home,

Waited, not knowing at all, this bitter

End; that the loved face and limbs had become

This fearful thing, this strange, roadside litter?


Perhaps they knew an earlier change – wine to gall

Youth’s tendril hope turn to ravenous hate

The heart’s wild clamour crying “Kill, kill all

That bar our way.  We have no time to wait.”


Or was he a hapless victim in this black time

When Innocence and Guilt together stood,

When judge and judged alike were joined in crime

And drank together in a feast of blood ?


But had all pity died within our hearts

That he, innocent or guilty, died this death

Denied all human grace? With him parts

Of us died, seared by his last breath.


With his dying, we have banished innocence.

His burning branded our own souls. Like Cain,

The denial we shall bear till we go hence;

In all our pleasures, meet his timeless pain.


We were all part of the wind that fanned

The blasting fire that struck our homes, that spread

The raiment of dark blood upon our land

And heaped a monstrous mountain of the dead.


Here was where,once,Compassion found refuge.

Oh, do not raise the lion with the drawn sword.

If only we could find beyond the dark deluge,

His face of love again, reclaim the word.


BORELLA Kill A karate swivel before the kill, at Borella junction, 24/25 July 1983 …

20--1983 Borella rioters - burning….and some of the rioting/burning mob celebrate their work – Pix by Chandragupta Amarasinghe

VARANASI 23 Dec 1992 A Muslim victim at Varanasi, 23 December 1992

7  A  victim during an Indian communal riot [details unknown]

 11 Hindu men on the hunt duing communal violence-details not known

5 A Hindu mob at Bhagalpur, 20 Ocrober 1990 – Pic by Krishnan Murari Kishan for PANA-India

1958 riots Violent passers-by assault and ridicule Tamil on Gale Road, 1958 —Pic from Ivan-Paradise in Tears



I had a night mare.

I dreamed I woke somewhere in a total darkness.

Something cold and damp lay under my arm.

At first there was a deathly silence,

After a while I heard the whimper of a child,

It had a strange sound like the strangled cry

Of a lone bird lost in the night, in primal fear.


Then suddenly a man burst in, wide-eyed,

Loose hair streaming over his face, a torch

Held high, casting a ruddy glow and lighting

A scene in hell.


There were bodies, bodies

All around me, everywhere; blood – a scarlet lace

On hands, faces, eyes.  I had not thought

That death could shape so many figures

From a six-pieced thing – outflung hands,

Bent knees, heads askew, bellies twisted

In a grotesque dance, like a vast frieze

The sculptured terror of some ancient crime.


No, in my nightmare it was now; the bodies real

In postures set in recent death; the rank smell

Of blood and flesh in an airless room; the cold thing

Under my arm, a little body in a foetal curve,

The flies settling on glazed eyes.

I had not thought

That there could be so many faces, meeting sudden death –

Faces in the agony of maternal love, helpless

Before the dark descending dread, faces in lone

Terror, faces resigned, and children’s faces

Turning for succour, finding the blast of death.

And in a corner stood a single child

Who had escaped the great slaughter,

Watching the ghastly scene. I cried aloud

And through the heap of death, struggled in vain

To reach him, but the space between seemed

Like unyielding iron and I wept again.

Then I woke and found this was no dream.


(In memory of Kokkadichchlai, Alanchipothana, and many other villages in the Eastern Province, where the victims were Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim  children, women and men and the killers were the LTTE, army personnel and Muslim homeguards).


Lines To A Child Traumatised By Violence

Do not be afraid, my child, this blood

On the green is really a flower

A deep red canna from its emerald bed

Greeting the light in the healing hour.

It is dawn, not the fearful night

You are thinking about. Yes, the fire

That burnt your home was near red; and bright

Sparks flew over your room, higher

Than the spray of gold which rose

From the sparklers, as your father lit

Them on your birthday. A thing that glows

Can also bring warmth, not death. Sit

Here and let the daylight’s gold

Brighten your face.  The scarlet stain

On your father’s face when he rolled

On the ground, writhing in pain,

As they cut him, bears no resemblance

To this what you see, for around

You is only the bright red innocence

Of flowers and the rain-moist ground.

Try to remember that red is not always

Blood. Oh, where can the words be found

To restore the light to your little face,

How explain the ruin of the world you knew

Desolate child in your wordless night ?

No earthly love will any answer give.

Only some warmth and imperfect light.


These poems are selections from the recent book by GODFREY GUNATILLEKE: GODFREY Times Confluence and other poems_EmailFlyer


1. One of the anecdotal oral history tales from the burning, assaulting and killing that occurred in many parts of Colombo and its environs that fateful week n July 1983 is that a few Sinhala householders in a side-street off Nawala Road came out onto the head of their street with bats and sticks and stood guard prepared to face-off mobs. Godfrey Gunatilleke’s house abutted this junction and he was at the forefront of this initiative.  It should mark other such initiatives and other ‘lesser’ acts by Sinhalese, Moor, Malay and Burgher householders (among them he Sangakkaras in Kandy) who sheltered Tamil neighbours and/or friends.

2. One of the images from 1958 in Lanka demonstrate the fact that the assaults were not purely the work of “lumpens,” goons and state functionaries though there is also conclusive evidence that the latter instigated and participated in acts of victimization and killing in July 1983.

3. For a description of several incidents of horrible violence including an act of burning a family alive in a car – together with the striking defiance of the Tamil man/father tapped by a mob in this car –see Basil Fernando’s poem in Michael Roberts: “The Agony and Ecstasy of a Pogrom: southern Lanka, July 1983” in his Exploring Confrontation, Reading, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994 and Nethra 2003




Filed under accountability, atrocities, cultural transmission, ethnicity, fundamentalism, JVP, literary achievements, nationalism, political demonstrations, politIcal discourse, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, terrorism, the imaginary and the real, tolerance, unusual people, vengeance, world events & processes, zealotry

5 responses to “Poetic Reflections against Violence: Burning, Nightmare, Trauma

  1. Thanks Michael – some incredibly evocative poetry. Very moving.
    Melanie Rankine in email note to Michael Roberts

  2. Pingback: The Aluthgama Violence, US Embassy, BBS and Gotabhaya in Perspective | Thuppahi's Blog

  3. Pingback: Groundviews’ Declamation against Violence in Aluthgama does the round seeking signatures of worldwide support | Thuppahi's Blog

  4. Pingback: Prabhākaran’s Megalomanic Bonapartism juxtaposed with Sinhala Buddhist petty Bonapartism | Thuppahi's Blog

  5. Pingback: The Aluthgama Violence, US Embassy, BBS and Gotabhaya in Perspective | sinhalanet.net

Leave a Reply