Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 24 April 2011





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Children's poems dealing with social problems

The three poems about children that will be featured this week deal, each of them, with social problems that are of deep concern to the different communities in this country.

The poem written by Siththaanthan and translated by Thava Sajitharan deals understandably enough with the traumas of children in a conflict situation.

The details are telling, mothers using armed men as bogies to get their children to eat, the empty swings, the little boy looking at the cart he made that he cannot drive on the streets.

And then, after we have been lulled into thinking that it is just the situation that is being described, we have the shock of the child killed by the speeding truck, with the emptiness that follows.

The sorrow of children who have lost their streets

Children are no longer seen on our streets
armored trucks speed up
crushing the dreams of our children

Later armed men, their faces masked with black cloth
began to wander about
our children lost their streets

Our mothers seek to feed their children,
cajoling that they would be taken
by armed men should they refuse to eat

After that
our streets lost their children

Arms have begun to devour the magic
of the children's universe
the gram seller walks idly about the streets
wailing. Ice cream vans
do not tarry in our streets and the
street dogs stray freely without fear
there is no one to run after the landmasters
and get into them

Streets having lost children
cease to be streets
the smoke of armored vehicles
clings to the trees like gloom

Kites flail from lampposts
torn in the wind
Leaves fall off like the twittering
of sparrows on tree branches;
the misery of streets
that have lost their children
oozes out in the songs of the old man
selling balloons and masks.

A hot wind absorbs the sighs
of a boy confined to the compound of his hut
looking under the shade of a tree at the chariot he made
from unripe coconuts
his rusty bicycle wheel and its guide stick.

Emptiness, its wings sheared, sits on the swings

The tracks of armed men fill the streets
where the footprints
of children are lost

And amidst the noise of heavy armored cars
a mother sobs
her child sacrificed to another speeding truck

Siri Gunasinghe, in yet another poem translated by his wife Hemamali, deals with poverty, and a child wolfing down morsels that would not be considered a meal by the affluent. The poem is not much more than a cameo, but the cheerful good humour of the child is pervasive.

I am not sure that this does not take away from the pitiful nature of the incident described, since it is the smile that remains in the mind rather than the child's hunger. But careful attention suggests the artificial nature of the smile, on the bony face and the sexagenarian skin.

The Midday Meal

The eight year old child
is a skeleton
cloaked in a dark sexagenarian skin.

Yet he smiles
mouthful of teeth
mouthful of smiles.

The smile
stretching from ear to ear
across his bony face
brings to mind
a mask
whittled by an amateur carver
for the Nonchi Kolama

His right hand
wooden shaft
shuttling up and down
between the coconut shell in his left hand
and his mouth.

The hand that went up and down
like a pendulum
for exactly three counts
stops dead
striking the empty coconut shell.

'Little child
is eating
the rice

Staring at me in surprise
smiling from ear to ear
he tosses the coconut shell into the gutter
and wipes his hand on his tattered sarong.

Regi Siriwardena's poem brilliantly evokes the different aspects of a family in the colonial period. The character of the father with his Westernized cultural outlook is sketched swiftly, and then the mother is presented in sharp contrast, but with no suggestion that her ignorance of the 'superior tongue' is unusual, or would affect the father's hopes for his son.

In the second verse this ignorance leads to embarrassment in school, where Sinhala is seen as the language of servants. But that dismay too might have passed if not for the way in which the narrator's fellow schoolboys pile on the disgrace.

The scene rings painfully true of the days in which English was so obviously a social marker, though as Regi puts it, the snobbery of the boys was understandable, as part of their conditioning - as was indeed his own sense of shame.

Older and wiser, as he indicates, his feelings are now quite otherwise. The simplicity with which the tale is told suggests that it is based on Regi's own experience, but this stands for what was felt and suffered by many.

One does not usually think of such a bare narrative as the stuff of poetry, but with its conversational tone that moves unobtrusively into rhyme, it communicates most effectively.

Colonial Cameo

In the evenings my father used to make me read
aloud from Macaulay or Abbot's 'Napoleon' (he was short,
and Napoleon, his hero; I his hope for the future).
My mother, born in a village, had never been taught

that superior tongue. When I was six, we were moving
house; she called at school to take me away.
She spoke to the teacher in Sinhala. I sensed the shock
of the class, hearing the servants' language; in dismay

followed her out, as she said, "Gihing ennang."
I was glad it was my last day there. But then the bell
pealed; a gang of boys came out, sniggering,
and shouted in chorus, "Gihing vareng!" as my farewell.

My mother pretended not to hear the insult.
The snobbish little bastards! But how can I blame
them? That day I was deeply ashamed of my mother.
Now, whenever I remember, I am ashamed of my shame.

Author's Note:

Gihing ennang (lit, "I'll go and come") is a customary salutation in Sinhala on leaving. Gihing vareng (lit, "Go and come") has the non-polite imperative form of the verb used in giving orders to social inferiors



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