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Sunday, 10 April 2011

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Poems of less sensuous male sexuality

While I have enjoyed preparing this column from a purely literary perspective, it was also intended, as its title indicates, to indicate similarities between the different peoples of this country and therefore encourage a sense of shared perspectives.

I was not sure if I was having any impact in this regard, so I was delighted recently to receive a note from one of the Tamil writers whose work I am using for the book that will be published later this year by the National Book Trust of India. This is Somasundramoillai Pathmanathan, whose translations appear under the name SOPA. He wrote ‘After all, isn't the end of all Knowledge, Spiritualism and Culture, Man acquires the recognition of things in common among different peoples of the world? Perhaps, decades later, when Sri Lankans sit back to ponder over what went wrong in our relationships, won't they blame our generation for pushing the Country into an abyss? It is from this point of view that I consider what you are doing laudable.’

I was deeply touched, and I hope that others too have looked also at what these poems when juxtaposed tell us about our common concerns, and shared attitudes in dealing with these concerns.

Talking of common concerns, I have looked previously at poems that dealt with love, and also poems that dealt with sexuality. On the latter occasion I used three poems expressing female sexuality, and the tone was tender and also romantic, though desire was not necessarily directed at a particular individual.

Male sexuality is less sensuous in the poems featured today, and in a couple of cases the writers are engaging really in social criticism. Buddhadasa Galappathy deals with a topic that is unfortunately all too common, the abuse of domestic workers by males in the household. Though we express shock and horror when we come across instances with regard to migrant workers, we need to be aware that the phenomenon occurs within this country too. As with child abuse, the worst cases occur in domestic settings, and we should not salve our consciences by pretending that the guilt lies with foreigners alone. The translation is by Malini Govinnage.

Dayawathie

She was not allowed


To cross the frontier between kitchen and parlour


But it was not the same


For the young master of the house


Who could cross the border between parlour


and kitchen


Anytime he wished

One night when the moon had not yet appeared


When the hearth fire was out


She was asleep on a ragged old mat


Covered from head down in a chintz cloth


Asleep, weary of her work from morning

Stealthily the young master stops by her


He stoops, deft hands


Searching for the flower buds on her bosom


Searching for the warmth spreading in her

Dayawathie woke from her sleep


Felt for the knife she had kept at her head,


And plunged it through him

And Dayawathie shouted, and she laughed

She will have to move


From the court to the prison one day


And she will be there for a year or two


And then back to the village she will go


With a light heart, with smiles


Not being the mother


Of a fatherless child.

This story ends in death, though the impression conveyed is that tragedy has been avoided. T Ramalingam, one of the older generation of Tamil poets, deals with a similar subject in a manner that seems more light-hearted. The narrative voice in the poem, in this translation by S Pathmanathan, asserts a superiority as to caste which goes hand in hand with crude behavior. A thirst for alcohol is followed by lust, which is expressed peremptorily and cannot be denied by its poor object.

Ramalingam wrote at a time when caste issues were a bone of contention in the North, and his aggressive egalitarian outlook struck deep chords. At the same time one should note that, while such exploitation needed to be recorded, and remedied, sexual abuse does not arise only in cases of social difference. Even within families unequal power relationships can lead to abuse, and the problems caused by inequalities based on class and caste should not blind us to other inequalities too.

Lust is without caste

High-caste vellala I was born


and scan the eggs of orthodoxy


to avoid even minute traces of hair


However, for its medicinal value


I take toddy


nothing so heinous about that

For a drink of toddy I went, ignoring


the dead flies floating in the foaming pots


in the compound

‘Sit down, your honour’, and I sat


on the mat apart that the low-born lass showed.

As she filled the cup and bent to hand it over


she struck a spark


that lit the fire of lust within me

My eyes turned to a bowl to be filled by the toddy


of her overflowing breasts


I took her hands


startled, she shook them free and ran inside


But I followed, my mouth a-quiver


to collect the toddy of her lips

‘Quench my fire,’ I begged


and she yielded


So in scrutinizing the egg of orthodoxy


I found a blackened hair

Finally, in looking at one of Lakdasa Wikkramasinha’s best known poems, one needs to register that the indulgent tone should not be accepted unquestioningly.

The situation that is described, sexual relations between master and servant, is presented as tragically exploitative in some of Wikkramasinha’s other poetry, and one has to wonder whether the relationship that is described so jovially here is actually quite so pleasant.

But, that having been noted, one should also avoid an indiscriminatingly puritan approach to the question.

Some such relationships can actually be mutually satisfactory as well as beneficial, and I suspect Wikkramasinha was sharp enough to know and appreciate the range of possibilities.

Certainly the racy references to historical precedent, the gentle mockery as to pretensions about lineage, and the entertaining references to Keyt show a sophisticated talent at its best.

To my friend Aldred

My dear chap,

In this Kandyan weather there is


no shame in having in your bed


a servant maid –


The same passion moved others too, famous in time –


When there were servant maids about

Achilles for one – who gave his heart to


Briseis, a milky slave


& Tecmessa: enemy blood, as Horace has it;


and Agamemnon fired Troy and burnt his


heart to a cinder, hot


for a virgin there;

and though we do not get so Greek here


we are not to such titillations immune –


- being classical in our traditions.


And so it is


with you and your Jose


with such long lashes


to whom you have lost your heart,

And no fear, she is not engendered by the low


at all. Dismiss the mere thought; I envisage indeed


such an ancestry


as leading in its heyday


to some king of these parts, or some


noble lord, or at the least

some lonely Scotsman in these hills. Else


would not have such a loyal, unmercenary mind,


or cook such yarms, gleaming purple


and pots of jak, steaming yellow


or have a figure

straight out of the old poetry books:


Breasts like gourds, and ripe and Oh


nodding like geese, thighs


like plantain trunks, and


haunches as a king could ride on


or Keyt.

And lastly


in this matter of praise, in your fortune –


thick black coils of hair on her head, and elsewhere –


I mean, all’s well


that ends there

And all roads lead to Rome!

 

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