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Those Destined to Bear Witness

2016 Number 1 - SOLD OUT - The Great Flight

The detached, unobtrusive editorial stance makes this volume of poetry a pleasure to read.

Review by Shash Trevett

Those Destined to Bear Witness
Lost Evenings, Lost Lives, translated and edited by Lakshmi Holmström and Sascha Ebeling, Arc Publications, 2015

Lost Evenings, Lost Lives, is a bilingual anthology of Tamil poetry. The poems, arranged in broadly chronological order, trace the events of the civil war in Sri Lanka, as witnessed and absorbed by the Tamil poets in question. Beginning in 1977 and ending in 2015, the 32 anthologised poets have been elegantly and sensitively translated, capturing in English the lyrical sparsity of the Tamil originals, bringing to a new audience the beauty of a language which has poetry at its core. From the first to the last, the poems presented are a map guiding the reader through the suffering of the Tamil people over the last thirty-five years; signposts to the bloody history of the people in the North and East of Sri Lanka.

The detached, unobtrusive editorial stance makes this volume of poetry a pleasure to read. Tamil is a hard language to translate into English. As Lakshmi Holmström has written elsewhere, the syntax works very differently in Tamil and English sentences. In Tamil, the principal verb appears at the end of the sentence leading to inversions and the problems associated with them during translation. Yet the poems presented here read effortlessly. At a quick glance the topography of source and object appear to correspond to each other. A closer examination reveals the skills of both translators: with precision of intent and thought, each difficult Tamil idiom or cadence has been found its English partner. There are no fillers or additions. The poets’ own words are presented to the English reader with the integrity and strength of their Tamil originals. What appears in this anthology are poignant and beautiful Tamil poems, translated sympathetically into cleverly crafted and lyrical English counterparts.

Many poems in this volume are worthy of mention and it is hard to single out any for particular attention. Needless to say, the following poems have been picked as they serve the purposes of this review. The volume opens with the elegant ‘Last Evening, This Morning’ by M. A. Nuhman, from whose final couplet the title of the anthology is taken. He describes lazy days in Jaffna before the war, browsing among bookshops, smoking and chatting by tea stalls, watching busy people living their lives in unrestricted freedom. The land was theirs, the streets, the days, their lives were theirs. That was yesterday. But in the second part of the poem, the today, there is a dramatic, apocalyptic shift. Now the streets are owned by ‘khakiclad men’ and

           bullets rain
           piercing bodies
           drinking up lives.

The market place is a smouldering ruin, shops lie desecrated, burning tyres mark the burning of bodies and dreams. The poem was written in 1977 in response to the anti-Tamil riots following the presidential elections of that year. The bewilderment of the poem mirrors that felt by the Tamil people themselves, as they woke to a new reality, bereft of days and nights they could call their own.

The anthology then moves through the years, with poems marking the burning of the Jaffna Public Library (M. A. Nuhman ‘Buddha Lay Dead’) and the corresponding loss of priceless classical Tamil writings, through to the violence of 1983. Cheran’s well-known poem ‘I Could Forget All This’ speaks graphically and brutally about the events of Black July, when a state-sponsored mob ravaged the streets of Colombo, armed with census forms which enabled them to target Tamil homes and business. An estimated 3,000 Tamil people lost their lives, and a further 150,000 were rendered homeless. Cheran writes of ‘thigh bones protruding’, a face ‘empty of its eye | a socket caked in blood’. The plaintive image of

           A Sinhala woman, pregnant,
           bearing, unbearably,
           a cradle from a burning house

has been poignantly translated by Lakshmi Holmström. Not only does the reader mourn the death of the original occupant of that cradle, but Cheran mourns too the death of a future, of the generations that were lost in those dark days of 1983. From there the anthology moves through the brutal intervention by the Indian Peace Keeping Force, to Mullaivaikkal in 2009, where more than 40,000 Tamil civilians were massacred in the No Fire Zone. The tragedy of the war in Sri Lanka, the mindset that enabled a government to turn its guns on its own people, the peace that is still being denied Tamil people on that island, is best summed up by Dushyanthan in ‘They Do Not Know’:

           They do not know
           that you and I are human.

           All they know is
           that you and I
           are not human.

A wide variety of poets are featured in this volume, encompassing many positions and viewpoints. There are poems by LTTE combatants with their rhetoric of martyrdom and the glorification of the heroic dead, which sit alongside poems more condemnatory of the violence of the liberation struggle. Poems by Muslim Tamils, who suffered greatly under the hands of the LTTE in 1990, make a welcome inclusion. There are various poems about exile and dislocation, about identity and a loss of community, poems about hope for a future peace. What makes this anthology all the more laudable is that many of the poets featured still live and work in the North and East of Sri Lanka. Through these translations we are able to hear their voices and see their words reaching out through time and space, bringing with it a special kind of responsibility to the reader.

Women poets feature strongly in this anthology. Of the 32 poets present, 14 are women. Rape and the consequences of it are a common thread between the women, but they also write eloquently about hope and of loss. S. Sivaramani in her ‘Oppressed By Nights Of War’ writes starkly about the loss of innocence amongst the children born amidst gunfire and destruction.

           Across the pathways
           of their bright
           faceless and bloodied
           corpses are flung; […]
           And our little ones
           are children no longer.

Sivaramani, who was an outspoken critic of the Tamil Tigers, burned her poems before committing suicide in 1991. She was 24 years old and her death went largely unnoticed. She did not die a martyr’s death by biting a cyanide capsule or by blowing herself up for the cause. Kutti Revathi writes of such a death in her poem ‘Suicide Soldier’, sympathetically portraying the effects of patriarchy on female fighters:

           The leader’s command
           made your heart a bomb
           caught, swinging, in the web
           held between his two hands.

But as the Black Tiger explodes her body, the reader’s sympathy is directed away from her to the ‘thirty people… sacrificed’ that day as she stepped:

           into the last quarter-minute in the map
           of each person’s life there.

Mothers weep as they search for their missing daughters (Malathi Maithri ‘Lost Tiger’), wives contemplate lives put on hold (Urvasi ‘Do You Understand?’), women mourn the loss of love as the war takes it toll (Faheema Jahan ‘The Sea’s Waters’). These poems stand as evidence of the flourishing of writing by women during the civil war, a response to the brutalisation of the world around them.

Lost Evenings, Lost Lives not only brings to a wider audience excellent Tamil poetry, it also performs an important political service. During the long years of the civil war, the government of Sri Lanka maintained a news blackout on events occurring in the North and East. The world was kept in ignorance of the atrocities being committed there, by both sides of the conflict. But during these dark times, Tamil poets were witnessing and writing about events unfolding around them.

Holmström and Ebeling by translating these poems written under duress, state clearly that Tamil lives do matter and Tamil words will speak. As P. Ahilan writes in his poem ‘2005’:

           together with those destined to bear witness
           there I sat.

Lakshmi Holmström and Sascha Ebeling have not merely sat and watched. They have brought to light writings that need to be read, disseminated, discussed and appreciated, so that the world can never again say, we did not know.

- Shash Trevett

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