Leave a comment

The Rumpus Interview with Anuk Arudpragasam

Editor’s note: Anuk Arudpragasam’s novel The Story of a Brief Marriage won the prestigious DSC prize for South Asian literature, 2017 at the Dhaka Literary Festival. In this interview with The Rumpus, September 2016, he talks about the book and his approach to writing it.

The Rumpus: One of the things that struck me most about the novel is how little historical context is given. Instead, the reader is utterly immersed in the present moment of the main character Dinesh. So often, we read a book set in war which also gives the reader a history lesson. I’m thinking particularly of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the Nigerian civil war. Why did you decide to leave out this kind of context?

Anuk Arudpragasam: It is something I thought about, and there are a couple of reasons behind it. Because the subject matter of the novel is very graphic and it is so hard to be in the presence of, I think there is a natural tendency to find ways to divert one’s attention from these kinds of things.

To use a simple example, if you see somebody in pain or you see somebody suffering in some way, there are usually, if the pain is ordinary—of a conventional kind where somebody’s fallen say or somebody has been bereaved—there are established ways of providing some kind of therapy for the person who is suffering. If somebody is hurt you ask them if they’re okay. You give them a bandage, you rub them on the back. There are all these ways of helping them out. And then, there are situations in which there’s obviously nothing you can do in response to somebody’s suffering or somebody’s pain, and we tend to find other ways to deal with the person. You can’t actually help the person out, so you say, “I know how it feels” or “I’ve been there before” or you try to be with them in other ways.

There is an instinctive urge to act when confronted by the pain of another person, and I think this urge involves, in a way, a discomfort or anxiety about actually seeing that the other person is in pain. In trying to find a way to make their situation better, you’re doing something, and in doing something and in responding actively to someone’s pain, you are, in a way, free from having to contemplate the pain or reflect on the condition of the person. That’s not a bad thing at all.

I feel, though, when it comes to the suffering or the pain of people who are far away or in situations that are very different from your own, that the analog to giving somebody a Band-Aid or rubbing them on the back or talking to them is what you could call a political response. It is to say, “Who did that?” or “What was responsible?” or “When did this happen? How did this happen? Why didn’t anybody do anything?” And then to say, “It was these people. These people need to go to jail” or “These people need to be tried or taken to the international criminal court.” By making these kinds of political diagnoses—and I am not against them at all, they are natural and very necessary—by responding to the suffering of people far away in time and space in this very instinctive way, with some kind of plan for action, I feel that something often gets lost. And I feel that, at least in my case, what gets lost in my instinctive reaction to suffering is an understanding or a contemplation of the condition of the people who are suffering. So, in this situation, I wanted to give very little historical context and social and political context, so that this condition is forced on the attention of the writer or reader.

Read More

 

Advertisements


Leave a comment

‘Silenced Shadows’: A Fine Presentation of Compassionate Resistance Poetry in Sri Lanka

The Amnesty Intentional has published a collection of poems titled ‘ Silenced Shadows’. It’s a collection of 15 poems and translations of the said poems into all three languages, Sinhalese, Tamil and English. Originally, Amnesty International called for poems on enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka and selected 15 poems for publication. Five of the poems were written in Sinhala , five in Tamil and five in English. Now a very powerful collection of poems are available for readers in all the three languages.

The 20th Century generated a genre of poems which are now known as compassionate and resistance poetry. This particular genre of poetry was a response of the creative minds throughout the world to the changed circumstances of the 20th Century which can also be characterised as the most brutalised century in the human history. As the life got more and more inhumane and forms of human cruelty became one of the most shocking experiences of this century, the creative minds responded in reasserted the basic human values and protested against the widespread brutalisation and dehumanisation.

Sri Lanka was no exception to this general trend of decadence, violence and degrading the humanity and the human civilisation itself. Insurgencies And counter-terrorism, both relied on violence in its most extreme forms and the result was a widespread fear that was spread through the entire country. South, and North and the East were all affected by forms of violence which was hitherto unknown in the island. This island which was once known as the paradise of the orient began to manifest many aspects of hell not only for many persons but for the nation as a whole.

Most forceful expression of this situation was the enforced disappearances that took place in large scale in all parts of Sri Lanka. Enforced disappearances had all the characteristics of a perfected violence which combines extreme efficiency in execution of persons on the one hand and on the other, every form of the attempt to erase all evidence so that any attempt to ensure a justice to the victims will be almost impossible. Perfection of efficiency in execution is one of the most prominent aspects of 20th century violence.

Read More


Leave a comment

Six Decades of Sinhala Poetry

There is something unusual and distinct about poetry. Poetry in any context is hard to define, but somehow of the highest importance. As critics have often pointed out, the expectation with which we approach poetry is utterly different from the expectation with which we approach prose. This is more or less observed as a truth in the local context.

The folk poem for instance is more popular than any other literary genre as it embraces several social and emotional streams of expression. Over the years, Sinhala poems grew in strength and spirit as a result of the sensitive influence of folk poetry.

Those who toiled hard in the paddy field as well as the other areas of engagement took time off to voice their feelings via the sound of poetry. While that happened to be the breeding ground for the growth of Sinhala poetry more significant expressions too came way ahead.

In order to advocate the protest nature of the feelings towards the bonds of colonialism, the Sinhala poets made use of the poetic expression. These poetic messages are firstly seen in the poems of Ven S Mahinda Thera in his poetic works such as ‘Nidahas Dehena’ and ‘Nidahase Mantraya’. The great Sinhala journalist Piyadasa Sirisena took over the same poetic message via the pages of his pioneering national newspaper ‘Sinhala Jatiya’. More and more poets gathered round him with their minor and major Sinhala poems. Most of them come under the banner of Colombo poets or Kolamba Yugaye Kavi, with the stalwarts such as P B Alwis Perera, G H Perera and Munidasa Cumaratunga.

There were two observable streams. One was the print medium or instant poetic renderings called ‘hitivana kavi’. This period is covered from 1947 to 1956.

Finally when Independence was declared in 1948, the poets saw a certain degree of their function as put to practice. More and more social factors entered the poetic scene. The poets happened to honoured and at times state awards were bestowed on them. In 1956, as an honour to the great poet R Tennakone for his presentation to the poetic field, he was given the honour of a poet laureate, called Maha Kavi. Each year passed as honouring Sinhala poets on the part of the local cultural ministry functions.

The second trend happened to be the poetic studies taken seriously on the part of the university education. The university dons inclusive of the living figure of Siri Gunasinha ushered in a new era. From the Peradeniya seat of learning he clamoured for a visible detour from the mere conventional forms of poetic creations.

The term ‘nisandas’ though does not sound a good literary term nevertheless mean the detour to bring in a period of free verse of nidas kavi. The poets of the calibre of G B Senanayaka, Gunadasa Amarasekara, became the rest of the pioneers in the group of free verse.

Read More


Leave a comment

The Best Books on Sri Lanka Recommended by Ahilan Kadirgamar

Editor’s Note: fivebooks.com took this interview in 2009. They call it one of the saddest interviews on their site in which Ahilan Kadirgamar, the Sri Lankan activist, takes readers down the years tracing the best books written about and during the civil war and its many injustices.


So the first book you chose was written back in colonial times: The Story of Ceylon by Evelyn Frederick Charles Ludowyk. Why choose such an old book?

This is my favorite history of Sri Lanka, or Ceylon, as it was then called. It was written in the late 1950s, just at the time of the escalation of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Ludowyk grew up in Sri Lanka, he was a Shakespearian scholar, half Sri-Lankan, half British, I believe, who taught at the University of Ceylon. He taught my parents’ generation, the generation that saw Ceylon gain independence from Britain in 1948 and after he retired he returned to England and died there. But before doing so, he wrote this book.

And for me, it is like reading something written by someone from an unimaginable era. Ludowyk tells the story of Ceylon, and he is conscious where it all might be heading, and you have glimpses of where 50 years later it could all end. But what is so refreshing for me is that it is also clear from the book that it didn’t have to go in this direction. That for people of that generation, and my parents’ generation, it would have been almost impossible to imagine the militarized conflict that would subsequently erupt. And looking back, it makes me wonder what went wrong: Why couldn’t we resolve our problems politically? Why did Sri Lanka’s history become so tragic?

I read this book a number of years ago and it made an enormous impression on me. Also because it takes a very sobering look at the history, which is at the centre of many of the claims made by both sides in the conflict.

History is at the center of the conflict? In what way?

Nationalism was used to polarize the two sides, and that nationalism was partly based on history.

On one side there is the myth of Sri Lanka’s origins. This idea that the country was blessed by the Buddha. That’s a large part of the basis for Sinhala nationalism. And on the other side the Tamils claim that certain areas always belonged to them, that they have had a clear homeland since time immemorial. And what Ludowyk points out is that in reality society was very mixed, very hybrid. The nationalists used history to polarize everything, but in fact the two sides were very interlinked, even by marriage.

So your next book is written when the conflict is already well under way.

Yes, The Broken Palmyrah—the palmyrah being a palm tree and a symbol of Jaffna.

Read More