Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Lakdasa Wikkramsinha Demystified

 
     The curse of modernity or postmodernity, as some might call it, I would say is that we no longer have those larger than life men and women who peopled the days gone by. Our post/modern institutions had starved such beings out of the very air they needed to exist. Yet, we make movies, write stories, and sing songs about them, maybe even more than they used to in the old days. Certainly, they do reach a wider receivership. So we have Troy, Gladiator, Spartacus, 300, and Thor abroad and at home Maharaja Gemunu, and Abā. To my understanding, even our current preoccupation with the supernatural in the form of The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, The Originals, and The Twilight Series to name a few is an extension of the same condition.  It appears that the modern man is happy to spend millions so that s/he could virtually occupy the same space and vicariously take part in the lives of those men and women of those bygone ages who lived by codes long ago discarded by us as primitive, patriarchal, feudal and so on and therefore politically incorrect. If this is not an indication of a perverse resentment of the very institutions and ideologies that we routinely glorify and worship, then I do not know what it is.

     Our thirst for heroes and heroines is such that not remaining satisfied with exhuming those who are long dead, we mythify/mystify the lives of contemporary men and women who stand slightly apart from the common herd. Some forms of media cash in on our perversity by making even the most intimate moments of the lives of artists, sports-people, businesspeople, politicians, etc. available to the public. Postcolonial Sri Lanka, too, despite its westernized and therefore modern socioeconomic and political institutions, seems to be in desperate need of such horizon-hogging figures. However, attempts made by some members of the petit bourgeoisie to glorify of the hero-kings and so on of the yesteryears do not seem to sit well with the modern Sri Lankan intelligentsia. The likes of Gamunu incite communal disharmony, they contend. Better let the sleeping lions lie moldering in the waste-bins of history. Still this primitive longing for the heroic is there gnawing at the very bone of the recently civilized national consciousness of the multitudes. Therefore, in a bid to check this unholy craving for the heroic from growing into a full-fledged rebellion, fathers of nation, national heroes and so on were fashioned out of mostly mediocre men and women of a certain class and handed over to the masses as the genuine article. The masses too have bought into this process of mythmaking by blinkering ourselves to the ‘truth’ about these figures. Still, something vital was lacking, for look as hard as we might we have not in our postcolonial corridors of literary fame the likes of Shelley, Byron, Ibsen, Shaw, and so on to boast of. Yet, find at least one we must. And then to our collective relief in came Lakdasa Wikkramasinha with his poets and servant girls and the much lauded “masculine” style.

     In many minds Wikkramasinha is our Shelley whose life’s work that had been tragically cut short by his inexplicable Shelleyan death. There is no doubt in my mind that Lakdas Wikkramasinha is a poet Sri Lanka should be proud to have produced - however, not for the reasons he is generally being touted around for. It is my contention that the current views that are circulated here and abroad on the poetry and life of the Sri Lankan poet Lakdasa Wikkramasinha suffer from deliberate attempts at mythification/mystification by the Anglo-phonic literati and the Anglophilic academia of this country who have so far not managed to produce a single world class work of literature they could have boasted about. In that sense, Wikkramasinha seem to have become a talisman for the English-speaking intelligentsia of this country when they are confronted by their collective literary barrenness - a fact which is repeatedly being brought home to them these days by the media that carry photos/articles of the international level awards won by the Sinhala speaking hoi polloi
     Wikkramasinha published five collections of poetry: Lustre Poems (1965), Fifteen Poems (1968), To Justin Daraniyagala (1968), Nossa Senhora dos Chingalas (1973), O, Regal Blood (1975), The Grasshopper Gleaming (1976). Most of his works were in free verse. Him being much more firmly grounded in the local literary and cultural tradition than his Anglophonic/ Anglophilic contemporaries, Wikkramasinha’s corpus of work offer a suppler and thereby more natural poetic blend of the Sinhala and English languages. Some even go as far as to call him “the only writer with a vigorous and definitely indigenous style” which I think is clearly an overstatement (Journal of Commonwealth Literature). In contrast, Suresh Canagarajah and Arjuna Parakrama sums up Wikkramasinha as “a relatively committed poet with a fairly clear and consistent socio-political stand point” who responds “to the urgent and even compelling needs of the postcolonial present”. However, while Wikkramsinha’s body of works can clearly be labeled as anti-colonial and against social oppression it is undeniable that it practically screams of a feudal frame of references.In other words, it is a grave mistake to label Wikkramasinha as a Marxist poet who championed a Soviet style revolution. 

     Out of his works on colonial oppression, the much anthologized “Don’t Talk to Me about Matisse” stands out with its bold denunciation of the works of art by the so-called Old Masters like Matisse who essentially did the culture works for the Western colonial enterprise. His poems on social oppression such as “Nossa Sinhora dos Chingalas,” “To My Friend Aldred,” “To a servant Girl,” “The Death of Ashanti,” and “Discarded Tins” deal with the operations of power  - class and gender wise. And while how Wikkramasinha deals with the two themes colonial oppression  and class/gender-wise operations of power is a much talked about topic in the academic circles of the island, the very significant “ancestor theme” that runs throughout his corpus of works is often shoved under the carpet as something to be ashamed/afraid. Clearly, one’s hero’s glorification of a bygone feudal era which one routinely and vociferously denounces would not be something one could acknowledge comfortably, let alone toast to, in the circles English poetry is read in Sri Lanka. However, this bogey of ancestral theme is undeniably there in Wikkramasinha’s work whether one is willing to acknowledge it or not. In the mission statement of Lustre the poet declares that he is preparing to compose “a long poem of my ancestors that I will write ultimately in Sinhala”. The dedication of Lustre is read as follows:

          For my Grandmother
          Mercy Ellen ne Kirthi Srimeghavarna Dissanayaka.
          Your mind, at 90 
          Lucid as your blood of centuries

His penultimate collection O, Regal Blood of 1973 is dedicated to yet another of his illustrious ancestors: "In memory of my Grandmother Emily Ann Pinto-Jayawardena 1888-1946." Similarly, “From the life of the folk-poet Ysinno” (1971) is said to be about the benevolence of a feudal woman to a card-sharp who had appealed to the mother and wife in her: 

          Ysinno said, ‘O, the rains are coming near,
          My woman fretting, her kid will get all wet’
          And then the kind Menike said, ‘O then
          You take what straw you need from the behind shed’

Many of his poems deal with the degeneration the feudal order of the Sri Lankan society. “Stones of Akuratiya Walauwa” composed in 1968 mourns the loss of an era. According to Yasmine Gooneratene, it is about “the decay of an old, once heroic and beautiful, ordered way of life”:

          Recollections of my grandmother
          Of a lineage, sitting in the mind
          Deranged to the bone –
          Desolation of time grown old
          There is only the fallow smell of obliterated fields
          And the twenty-one windows of the house
          That looked inwards into poetry, in the courtyard
          And the grain, drying in the sun

The relics of these once great houses are poor shadows of their benevolent art-loving ancestors.  In “To my friend Aldred” (1968) and “To a Servant Girl” the poet heaps his unconditional disgust on the heads of the scions of the once prosperous and powerful houses who prey on the helpless of their own class. Much analysed “The death of Ashanti” (1975) carrying the epigraph “Nuwarawalauwa, Kotte, 1974” is a lament on how the women of the now-impoverished feudal families are preyed upon by their own kith and kin:

          My cousin the pig
          Bearer of a name petering out in such
          Maledictions
          I noticed her earlobes
          They were longer than usual as if
          Gold rings of great intricacy
          & weight had hung from them
          An army of men centuries old who watched and gloated
          As she lay heaped upon my lap, packed
          With white seed

“The Waters” yearns for the return to those halcyon days of the country’s feudal past:
          My ancestors did not know
          so much marsh water
          ……….
          The rain on the grass
          moves with difficulty – on a cracked and thrown earth
          heaves a chilli stone –
          I walk towards it, and bending down
          lay my tongue on it

     In conclusion, considering the major thrust of Wikkramasinha’s thematic preoccupations, it would be safer to align him with Y W Yeats than with P B Shelley. However, it should not take anything away from the Lankan, for Yeats in his own right was a rebel extraordinaire for the Irish Cause which aimed to restore an Ireland led by gracious art-loving feudal leaders like the Lady Gregory whose counterpart Wikkramasinha seemed to have seen in the Menike in “From the life of the folk-poet Ysinno” (1971). 

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