Public vs private poetry in Sinhala
Analysis of Prof. Somaratne Balasuriya’s Lokaya
Miyayai (The World Dies):
“Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation
is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry. If we attend to the
confused cries of the newspaper critics and the susurrus of popular
repetition that follows, we shall hear the names of poets in great
numbers…” Tradition and the Individual Talent –T. S. Eliot
In my opinion, the contemporary Sri Lankan poetry, particularly the
Sinhala poetry is at a cross roads as we enter the second decade of the
21st century. With the advent of digital publications; a medium with no
restrictions that offers both young and old poets to write and publish
their poetic emotions instantly, writers push them through the Internet
for global consumption ignoring national boundaries.
Still today, the 1970s poets such as Udeni Sarathchandra, Ratna Sri
Wijesinghe etc. continue to publish poetry, and we have our diasporic
poets from overseas writing in Sinhala, and of course young Sri Lankan
bloggers who write whatever they want for public consumption. Their IT
enlightened readers come out with instant responses and feedback, and
most of the time limited to slang like, niyamai, elakiri, and marai
neda? (perfect, milk, perfect isn’t it?) etc.
Prof. Somaratne Balasuriya
Amongst all these manic activities on Sinhala poetry, it is inspiring
to read the latest collection of poetry by Prof. Somaratne Balasuriya,
entitled Lokaya Miyayai (The world dies) and needs to be viewed as an
important contribution to the contemporary Sinhalese poetry. The author
has used both blank verse and conventional poetry to convey his ideas in
this collection which consists of 50 poems.
The poems in the collection could be categorised into different
themes; contemporary society and events, nostalgia, revisiting important
milestones in the poet’s life, and the poet’s critical views on society
Apart from the long titled poem ‘Lokaya Miyayai’, the other poems in
the collection are those which the author had penned from time to time
while engaging in public activities in diverse capacities as stated in
Having read this collection, I managed to get hold of what I presumed
to be his maiden collection, entitled Mama saha Numba (You and I) which
was first published in June 1969 with a second edition in 2000. It also
contains a poem with the title ‘Lokaya Miyayai’. What immediately struck
me was that in this collection, then a young poet Balasuriya has looked
inwards and written very private poems as opposed to public poems.
Though we had debates that began in the 70s looking at the purpose of
Sinhalese poetry, and issues dwelling with socialist realism, I don’t
believe that we had a productive debate on whether our poets have
written private versus public poetry, even examining the work of our
foremost poet Gunadasa Amarasekara.
Private and public poetry
Primarily, private poems focus on inner thoughts, faded love affairs,
or very private experiences a poet or poetess write on. As opposed to
private poems, the public poetry focus largely on socio political themes
and in this collection, poet Balasuriya has focused both on private
themes but what comes across powerfully is his insightful expressions on
public themes, and the long poem Lokaya Miyayai is no exception.
One of the private poems in this collection is the reflection of a
meeting with a former fiancée as captured in a poem entitled ‘Dashaka
Hatarakata Pera siti Pemvatiya’ (The fiancée four decades ago).
The poet attempts to capture not only the changes that have taken
place over the years between him and the girl friend who visits him as
an old woman. The old woman not only represents the poet’s past but also
the milieu in which he had a relationship with her, four decades ago.
The girlfriend four decades ago
This is how the first two stanzas of the Sinhala poem read and a line
by line English translation of the full poem follows:
Dorata/ semin/ semin/ thattu karai/ kisivek/ dora siduren/ bala sitee
Ithiriyaki ea/sudu paha sariya/dirapath muhune/mathuwa etha/digati
nasaya//dora desatama yomuwoo/muwatha motawoo balamaki/Gilunu denetha
thula/nalala dekammul/rali mathu wee etha/vivara muwa depasa/edee yai
iri dekak/Watha rali mohothakata/vinda ma/wesunu dora
Taps on the door
Through the keyhole.
She is a remnant
A white Saree
Rather debauched face
A blunt gaze
Focused on the door
The eyes sunken in the sockets
Wrinkles on the forehead
On her cheeks
Two lines drew in the corners
Of the opened mouth
For a moment
I catch the wrinkles on the face
At the closed door.
The rest of the poem reads:
She could not be a beggar
For she dressed well
Could be a destitute
With or without a list in her hand.
Couldn’t she be a
sneaky old woman?
Roaming from house to house
And engaged in espionage
Again at the door
Slowly, barely audible
I opened the door
Two small crystal balls trapped
In the bottom of her eyes
Aimed at me
Could you identify me?
The girl you loved
Forty four years ago
I thought of seeing you today
One day before I breathe my last
She climbed up the steps
With my help
I made her sit as a
child on the sofa
Are you happy or sad?
How about your children?
The children have not left me
They inquire my wellbeing
Asking me to leave the country
They should not be in my care
In a world which has
become a village
Okay for me to enquire
I don’t feel loneliness
I live recalling good deeds
Of my past
For inability to come to see
Her dead face
I donated the excess
And live happily
Until my death
I must be off.
The time has devoured everything; love, relationships and the youth
of both the narrator and his ex-girlfriend who now spends her twilight
of life alone in Sri Lanka while her children live abroad. For the poet,
the old lady is only a ‘remnant’ of the past. The changes of time have
been depicted through the corporal changes of both the narrator and the
woman. The poet effectively hints that the narrator remains a bachelor.
Where the poetic diction has gone?
The ex-girlfriend is an important milestone in the narrator’s life
and he recalls not only the happy moments they spent together, but also
captures the physical changes that took place over the years.
After forty-four years, the narrator and ex-girlfriend spend their
evening of life under different circumstances. In a way, both of them
are alone, the woman’s children have migrated and the narrator is still
Despite this very private experience, a major deficiency in this poem
is the poet’s incapacity to convey this experience through poetic
diction rich with metaphors and images. When he provides us with images,
they have no novelty or freshness. For example, see:
Two small crystal balls trapped
In the bottom of her eyes
Aimed at me
However, one of the significant aspects of this collection is that it
deals with diverse issues and themes which represent different aspects
of life in the post independent Sri Lanka. Although they may sound an
individual’s private experiences and views, they bring back the seminal
signposts of the milieu with its social upheavals and changes.
The poem ‘Vivaha yojanava gena aa dukkha domannassaya’ (The sadness
that the marriage proposal brought about) deals with the issue of
marriage which still is a powerful social institution in contemporary
Sri Lanka. . In the conservative segment of Sri Lankan society, parents
still believe that it is their prime responsibility to find partners for
their grown up children. In this poem, the poet relates an incident
where a female nursing student responding to a marriage proposal
advertisement. Like most marriage proposals, appearing in newspapers,
this one has been put up by parents of a bachelor seeking a prospective
bride and the female nursing student responds instead of her parents:
The sadness that the proposal brought about
The telephone rings
I am a third year female
I read in the Sunday newspaper
A partner is sought for your son
Neither my mother nor father
Could afford to call,
You, such an erudite and
If your son likes
I like him
I am a little beautiful
But not fair in complexion
Other than my education.
I could call on, on any day
To see your son
May you have
The blessings of the Triple Gem.
Once again, though the poet examines an issue relating to the
marriage in our society, the main issues here is that his inability to
represent this experience using a poetic language, hence it becomes a
mere report of an important experience.
Putting up faces is a common feature in our society. In attending a
funeral, not only close relatives but also their friends put up sad
faces to suit the occasion. The poem ‘Miturage viyapath piyage maranaya’
(The death of a friend’s aged father) portrays such an experience. It
seems that objectives of the three friends who are known as trinity,
visit an ex-girl friend on the pretext of visiting the funeral of the
The death of a friend’s old father
Three friends known as the trinity
Went to see
The remains of the
friend’s old father
To share their grief
Suppressing smiles, jokes
They paid their last respects
With folded palms
Thus fulfilling their duty
The friend inquires
A cup of tea
A bit of food
There is another funeral
We will have to have meals there
No need to repent
He lived a long life
I did my duty
Father lived happily
Now, the main task is over
Nearby, lives my female friend
Though I forget her
I remind her sometimes
like lightning in the heart
Two of you encourage me
To call on her
Without ringing the bell
She came well-dressed
In accordance with
Age, education and disposition
She is pleasant
The beauty of the past
Has not vanished
Smiles as before
She introduced the trio to husband
Couldn’t she forget her senior university teacher?
She calls three teachers
By old names
My husband gave me
Then, how are you?
Would you like to have
A glass of whisky
A glass of Brandy
Or a little bit of red wine?
Three crystal glasses are
She offers drinks kneeling down
What do you like to have
To mix with?
High blood pressure
Problems in the liver
With a little deeper voice
That is not the issue
She called me as well
As she addressed my friends
By old names
Offered drinks kneeling down
Kissed their cheeks as mine
Could this be possible?
The girl in love with me
for three years
Dissolved in the glass her image
As an ice cube
Beautiful figure, smiles
All have divided among
Could it ever happen?
The poem commences with a visiting to a funeral of a friend’s father
who had died having lived a long life. The trio who are now senior
university professors put up false appearances at the funeral in order
to please the friend, and to visit an ex-girl friend of one of them. The
ex-girlfriend, now a middle aged woman, is married and has two children.
She treats them well offering liquor. The narrator could not quite
comprehend as how she, who had been his girlfriend for three years,
could treat the trio equally without any special preference to him.
The poet here also explores the theme of nostalgia. It is obvious
that the narrator tries to revisit the past by calling on his
ex-girlfriend. Once again, time has changed everything; both the
ex-girlfriend and the narrator. The poet has used a potent metaphor of
dissolving ice cube in a crystal glass to the image of his
ex-girlfriend, but once again, in its totality, this rich experience has
becomes a mere narrative poem with little poetic diction.
The title poem of the collection Lokaya Miyayai (The world dies) also
deals with time and its overarching impact at present. In essence, the
poem codifies a story of a generation and a world which is dissipating
leaving physical monuments of a bygone era to crumble. The poet brings
out the changes through decaying of an old house.
The world dies …
From the holes in the wall
Rats peep out
Wait a while
Then run here and there
In the noon
In search of delicacies
Mingled with the
The ancient musty odour
emanates from the house
The paintings on soaked walls
The telephone does not ring
But make a jara bara noise.
From a series of black
and white photographs
hung on here and there
the members of the Vasana family
look at all directions
No smile on a face
Now they are abroad
Happily or sadly.
In the poem, ‘Makeeyamata Kalayai’ (The time to exit), the poet
narrates a daily routine of a senior bureaucrat in Sri Lanka. His day is
filled up with a series of meetings and the rest of the day, he goes on
shopping. His day commences with the sound of boiling water in the
kettle and ends with answering a call from the Minister. In my view, the
narrator of this long poem has some resemblance to James Joyce’s novel,
Ulysses in which the protagonist Leopold Bloom is the fictional hero.
In this poem, the poet uses both blank verse and conventional
rhythmic verse which has worked most of the time except when the rhyme
is flawed. The poet narrates a gamut of events that makes his day as
described by a gorgeous female television newscaster with a beaming
A mortar attacks in Mannar
The demonstration at the
Attacked by the goons
Female suicide bombers head
On the roof
Doctors went on a strike
Voluntary teachers on a
More details after an interval
Smile appeared and disappeared
Smile fades away.
The harsh realities of the ordinary citizens is vividly realised in
the poem ‘Nidahasa Samaramu’ (Let’s celebrate the Independence). It is a
contrasting situation in the midst of the independent day and associated
pageantry of celebrations. But according to the poet, the poor in the
city had to wait until the barriers are opened to go on their routines
and buy daily provisions.
Let us celebrate the Independence
gained sixty years ago
At the Independence Palace
Top brass of the army
With propped up hair
Waving fans in their hands
One minute of silence
Getting up from their seats
To pay their respect
To the fallen soldiers
A lot of children
watch and celebrate
gained sixty years ago on television
Could not go out
Should stay at home
With armed convoys
Waiting the poor
A little bit of rice
Some green leaf
Till the road
Open for traffic.
In the poem Nidahasa (Independence), the poet questions the very
notion of ‘Independence’ providing a private perspective through a
series of questions he holds dearly in his heart.
Where is the Independence
In a flag
On the road
In a rain forest
Near the sun
Near the moon
In the wind
On top of the trees
In the sea
In a foam on a wave
In a river
In a tributary
In the tank
On the lap of a woman
In the crown of a king
Under a bo tree
In the courtyard of a bo tree
In a Buddhist temple
In a church
In a Kovil
In the next world
Or in this world
In the poem ‘Jeevitaya’ (The life), the poet compares life to a wet
bird hopping from one branch to another. In essence, what the poet says
is that life is a daily struggle for survival.
A rich harvest of life experiences
This collection offers a rich harvest of life experiences of an
individual who has experienced a vivid public life in its multitudes.
Evidently, the subject matter that goes into the poetry is derived from
the day-to-day life as well as from the life experiences of the poet.
Though the mixing of blank verse and traditional verse clashes on
occasion, it in a way facilitates the emergence of a variety of moods
within the matrix of a single poem. This is particularly manifested in
poems such as ‘Makeeyamata Kalayaye’ (The time to exit).
At times sheer length of the poems makes the reader boring, rendering
such poems meaningless though the experience that goes into such poems
However, the major deficiency is the poet’s inability to develop an
appropriate poetic diction to convey his musings. Some imagery such as
dilapidated houses is recurrent throughout the collection.
The collection of poetry ‘Lokaya Miyayai’ is noted for its rich
imagination and public and private thoughts on the world around a mature
individual. Some of the poems would have been more effective if the
author had condensed them into half of their original lengths and focus
on compiling a language rich with metaphors and images.
The poems indeed codify a new milieu and a world that the poet
inhabited in his diverse capacities. I wondered more than once had he
converted these diverse themes and his experiences into long or short
prose, they would undoubtedly enrich the Sinhala prose literature.
I sincerely hope that despite the strengths and weaknesses, Lokaya
Miyayai will open up a rich and meaningful dialogue focusing on the
future of Sinhalese poetry in the new millennium.