Rendering Sinhala Poetry Fertile — Ranjini Obeyesekere

Laleen Jayamanne, in a review article, Sunday Island, 2 April 2017, where the title is “Sinhala Poetry Translated by Ranjini Obeyesekere”

Ranjini Obeyesekere has brought together a wide-ranging translation of Sinhala poetry making it accessible to an English-speaking readership. This in itself is an admirable achievement. While the book includes a cluster of poems from the older folk tradition, the majority of poems span the 20th century. The volume is attractive in that the layout, with its generous spacing of the stanzas, allows the poems to breathe with great amplitude. Poetry, as the art of suggestion and in direction, which abandons the functional, instrumental, rationalist use of language, is allowed the silences and pacing (spacing) that are so important to it. Vijitha Yapa Publishing should be commended for its sensitivity to form and for the quality of this volume of poetry – it feels good to hold this book and turn its pages.

Translated across several decades, while she lived both in Sri Lanka and in the USA, this inclusiveness makes the collection rich. The charm, lucidity and rhymes of the folk poems are admirably conveyed in translation. One hears voices in these “four lined, end rhymed verses”, with their “deeper layers of meaning and wonderful tonal variations of assonance, alliteration and skilled internal patterning”, as Obeyesekere observes. Indeed, she notes that: “Almost all folk poems must be sung for their full effect, as a variety and range of rhythmical and tonal variations can be brought into the verse by the singer.” And remarkably, when read out loud, one also feels the body moving in gentle to and fro movements attuned to the rhymes and cadences of the ‘kavi’ (poems).So the poems in the folk tradition were not primarily meant for the eye (implying literacy), but were addressed to the ear and also the mind’s eye having been part of the oral tradition.

As a translator of poetry (perhaps one of the most difficult literary tasks to pull off) she had the great gift of a family oral tradition, spanning several generations and milieus, that kept the folk heritage alive as heard sound. This sensitivity to sound is amply evident in the translations in this section.

The experience of love, the trials and tribulations of the everyday life of the peasantry and lullabies, find expression in these poems, which are attuned to nature. I was happy to find one of the lullabies from my childhood included here as well:

Bye bye bye, bye my baby

Doy doy doy, sleep my baby

Your mother’s gone to get milk

She went to milk the cow

The pot of milk went down the river

White egrets flew above.

Little did I know then how sad a poem this is! Now, I have had the pleasure of singing it to myself in Australia (after all those years), as I write this review at my computer.

The following is a Pal Kavi or song sung in a watchman’s hut:

In lovely lonely fields the Ma Vi ripens

Grief-giving elephants wild I drive away,

Protect me gods, the rice from these fields I live on,

And because I’m poor, in watch-huts drag my days.

Obeyesekere says that poems such as these “were sung full-throated, they come alive in the outdoors. Very often they have a quality of haunting melancholy, heightened perhaps by the singer’s own experiences of the hardships and poverty of peasant life.”

The highlight in the section on the folk tradition section is the extract from the famous Yasodhara’s Lament at being abandoned by Siddhartha, in his quest for Enlightenment. The subjectivity of the abandoned spouse Yasodhara is poignantly evoked as the poem goes into a series of shifting moods, a mode of reminiscence of the past, a questioning as to why he left her and their son, and then a wish for his well-being. The sadness (“Does this world hold another such as I?”) of her plight is highly individuated as is her poise in facing the inevitable.

The largest section of this volume is taken up by modern Sinhala poetry of the 20th century, spanning early, middle and late periods. A great range of expression and themes and also I should imagine, an equal variety of metres, rhythms and free verse are perceptible. The modern every-day is, as to be expected, significantly different from that of the peasantry in the folk tradition just as there are vast differences of experience within the different periods of the 20th Century. But Modern poetry does calls forth a vocabulary and forms new to Sinhala poetry. While it is not possible here to comment on each poem or even every poet one mustn’t make generalizations about work written across a whole century. So the approach I have taken is to comment on a few poems that I found especially appealing (this is not of course to undervalue the others), taking them from each of the three periods. This, I hope, will give a sense of the range of modern poetry in this book.

Munidasa Kumaranatunge’s The Hare is a delightfully light poem about a playful hare who dances and rests in the forest only to be rudely woken up by barking dogs. The ever-present predator-prey dynamic is dramatized showing the agility of the hare.

Two of G.B. Senanayaka’s poems explore themes of male violence and sadism. Revenge enacts the dialogue between estranged lovers. The woman speaks the refrain “I do not know you/ I have forgotten,” as the man insistently reminds her of the good things he did for her. Her decisive refusal to acknowledge him finally elicits the following:

Trembling, in a violent rage

I thunder,

‘Bitch, you know me

You have not forgotten.’

This stanza clearly demonstrates the man’s violent masculinity and loss of control. The woman’s calm, powerfully emphatic, and knowing rejection of him is her revenge.

Slowly she raises her head;

Her half-closed eyes now lighting

she stares at me.

‘I do not know you

I have forgotten.’

The poem The Sin has an even greater sense of physical violence in the relationship between the sexes where the man imagines that he has drowned a woman after tying up her hands and feet. The device of the split subject is deployed to exonerate the male by denying his culpability. He addresses a deity: “Rise up and forgive my sin, lord./For it is not mine/but a sin of the mind;” Then he modifies this to “not the mind’s either/ but of these senses,”. By self-dramatising a split between the lofty heights of the mind and the carnality of the body and its instincts the masculine subject attempts to exonerate himself of his violent impulses towards a woman. He is able therefore to give full expression to his violent misogynist sentiments and also tries to avoid all culpability and guilt through the device of the split subject.



Siri Gunasinghe’s Renunciation characterizes life thus:



spit drooling, naked,

beside the bed

curled like a maggot clump,


– and in contrast there is a great elan across the poem in the longing to cross the river Neranjara.

In Dirty Dishwater he presents a grim compelling image of man’s intellect:

Man’s mind is a kitchen

Learning, it’s dishwater.

I grovel, lapping it up.

It is a thoroughly dystopian view of the work of the intellect as being without flavour. This coming from an academic adds a further sense of irony to his characterization of the mind.

Mahagama Sekera’s A Feather is as light as a feather, beautifully rendered with playful typographical printing showing the rise and fall of its subject, the letters evoking its movement. He describes the feather’s “…journey ended/ in a manner/ the bird never envisaged.” Then in The Feather it is likened to a “…hope/ finely etched/ in the back of my mind.”

Prabuddha (The Sage) presents the every day life of the toiling masses and of a loved one and asks Siddhartha how one can abandon this life as he did, for one of renunciation.

How does one become a Buddha?

Not alone,

but with a crowd of thousands of people

all of us, together,

become Buddhas.


This fundamental questioning of the religious tradition while confronting and accepting life is poignantly modern.

The late Monica Ruwanpathirana is one of two women poets in the collection. Her Piyasena’s Question is utterly moving in that it is told through the point of view of a little servant boy who asks us the reader to find out the reason why he is not permitted an education like his friend the rich boy whose companion he is:

I’d walk to school each morning holding little master by the hand

Later in the poem he continues:

I’d sit outside his school room, upon the short stone wall

The stories told by the teachers, from there I’d hear them all.

The poem ends:

But though that’s so, there’s one thing more that I can’t figure out

Would one of you find out for me and kindly let me know.

Little master who was in the third grade has now passed to the fourth

I, too, was in the same third grade, when will I get to fourth?

Class violence is rendered here in the quiet tones of a poor child asking what seems like a naive question with profound social implications. The simplicity of the language, that of a child’s voice, nevertheless is pervaded by a tender and sad tone.

Grief describes the libidinal transference of love into poetic creation and shows the vulnerability of the poet.

Except for an occasional sigh my love does not show itself.

It is reborn as a poem, you are not aware of it, friend!

A Poem takes life [Listen O Goddess Pattini] is addressed to the mother goddess Pattini, and, as I see, speaks among other things, of the act of poetic creation, the embryo genesis of a poem.

Untouched by poetics or grammar even before it is turned into verse,

the poem-seed that fell and was lost

I now wish to seek and to find

And she concludes with, “To perform that service with devotion/ I ask long life, O goddess!” Obeyesekere states that the extracts are from Ruwanpathirana’s last book of poems published shortly before her death.

Parakrama Kodituwakku’s Court Inquiry of a Revolutionary numbers the verses one to five in roman numerals like an official document. Each of the sections are titled thus; “School Report”, “Sunday School Report”, “Court Report”, “Doctor’s Report” and finally “Statement of the Accused”. Part of the doctor’s report catalogues modern pathologies:

Psychiatric treatment recommended.

Phobia, mania, paranoia, hysteria,

Neurotic, psychotic,

Abnormal – Criminal,

Behavior — deviant.


Brain surgery recommended.

The catalogue of institutional violence that normalizes behaviour in a repressive manner is dramatized with the staccato beats of each line of verse. The categorical imperatives of the statements pile up on the subject who stands condemned.

In the penultimate stanza the accused poet responds to this diagnosis with a plea:

Do not make me a coward

By preaching of gods

And later

Do not make me ‘a good boy’

With hands and mouth gagged.

Allow me to question like Socrates

Doubt like Descartes

Crash like a rushing river

Cut clean as a knife

Let me rise erect

Like a penis.

That these statements are both pleas and assertions is worth noting. It is suggestive of the vulnerability of the subject to institutional control and violence. Also the potential for emasculation is perhaps only hinted at (wittingly or not) by the suggestive proximity of “a knife” that cuts, and the “erect penis”.

Buddhadasa Galappatty deals with the major contemporary experience in Sri Lanka of women going overseas as domestic aids so as to sustain their families while the men take care of the children at home, thus reversing the gendered roles. His poem A Letter to a Wife Gone Abroad for Employment captures the dilemmas of this situation for the whole family in the following.

In that grand, seven-storied mansion

when you pause – suddenly alone –

do you remember how they sleep – little ones

the three all curled together?

Also Galappatty brings the State violence against the insurgent youth of 1971 into his harrowing poem, Whose Child is This? The mass killing that took place to quell the insurgency, is focused on forcefully, by attending to just one mutilated body floating down the river, as many bodies did during that time of terror:

From what distance comes he floating

For what reason does he float?

Though I do not know the reason

It is a fact that he floats.

Then the full horror is revealed:

Did they abduct him at dead of night?

Kill him after sadistic tortures/

Tie his hands and pluck his eyes out

Dump his corpse into the water?

Finally the poet returns the body to the grieving mother:

No one has come to claim this child

Yet somewhere a mother grieves

Hopes to see his face before she dies

And lives on in that dream.

I find this to be one of the most powerful poems in this collection.

A Dream is another of Galappatty’s powerful poems speaking of an imagined idyllic trip to Jaffna before the civil war to see his friend Krishnaraja.

One does not hear gun shots

beyond the palmyrah fence.

The hoot of the Yal Devi

I hear once again.

The imagined happiness, read now, is inevitably seen through reality of the thirty-year civil war and the destruction of life in Jaffna that ensued. In this context there is an almost unbearable poignancy to the last two verses.

Bathe in the hot springs of Keerimalai warm body and soul with sips of palm toddy.

Can we spend days like that again?

Visit a kovil,

Hear the chant of devotional hymns that gently calm the mind.

I bid goodbye to Krishnaraja promise to come again.

He kisses my hands ‘You must come back Without fail’

he says — again and again.

We know that that may never happen again – this dream of a friendship across ethnic lines destroyed by a long civil war.

Isuru Chamara Somaweera’s The Meaning of Life stages an encounter between a young man and an old woman who is found meditating at an abandoned temple. He asks her the meaning of life. In response she takes his hand –

In both her knobbled hands

She stroked it affectionately

“Son your hands are still very tender,”

she said giving a childish smile

from a toothless mouth.

When the youth presses her again with the very same question, her response is suffused with a Zen-like spirit:

“Son, let us sweep away

the dried leaves scattered around this Bo tree…”

she said, her soft childish smile continuing

not answering my question.

Liyanage Amerakeerti’s Space for a Poem makes me want to read it in Sinhala as it evokes the delicate work that poetry performs with language itself as well as how it evokes states that are in between and fluid, quite different from the solid, compartmentalized reality we live in every-day life. So it is fitting that I conclude this review with Amarakeerti’s tribute to the power of poetry itself and reproduce it in full.

In that unseen space between time and emptiness

Let me linger.

Between the flower and its scent, in that flower-scent

Let me be.

At that fine line that divides poetry and prose

Allow me to linger.

In that cool place between air and water

Let me loiter.

In that rare hour between night and day

Let me stay.

In that fluid region between motherland and foreign land

Let me live.

In that infinitesimal space between nationalist and anti nationalist

Let me be.

In that fleeting dawn-moment between poet and poem

Let me linger.

In truth, it is not for me I ask that space, friend

It is for my poem to live

I find this one of the most eloquent and beautifully minimalist poems in this complex book of Sinhala poetry. One is made to think what that infinitesimal space might be between nationalism and anti-nationalism. Perhaps it is one where chauvinism has no place but where there is an inclusive national sense of belonging and national pride. For me it is perhaps where the excellent translation by Ranjini Obeyesekere really catches fire, igniting a passion for poetry itself. Is it an accident then that this poem is one that is easiest to remember not unlike the kavi in the folk tradition with which this volume opened? I do feel like reading it aloud and did, perhaps because of the refrain. Like a folk poem it has a disarming simplicity of structure but also a great density of distilled thought and imagination characteristic of modern poetry. As well, like some modern poetry, it speaks at once, both of the act of creation itself and of the dilemmas of contemporary life. It makes poetry essential for life.

I want to highlight here the value of a thoroughly bilingual intelligentsia in the reclamation of certain Sinhala traditions, especially the folk tradition. Professor E. R. Sarachchandra comes immediately to mind in his work on folk theatre. Obeyesekere’s fluency in both Sinhala and English has similarly enriched an aspect of Sinhala literature and culture, opening it out to a wider world. One hopes that younger generations might take up this challenge without being trammelled by linguistic nationalism.

*** ***

ALSO SEE “Lit fest hits the Hills,”

Leave a comment

Filed under art & allure bewitching, cultural transmission, female empowerment, heritage, landscape wondrous, life stories, literary achievements, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, unusual people

Leave a Reply