Sita Ranjani’s Thiththa Kaviyakata Pera Wadanak (Foreword to a Bitter Poem) is an odyssey in verse through the turbulent sea of life – her own life, and the turbulent politics of our times.
This book is a great chronicle and a lesser chronicle combined, the recent bloody history of a country running parallel to the personal odyssey of surviving the ordeal of breast cancer (it’s up to the reader to decide which is the great chronicle, and which is the lesser. To my mind, both are equally important).
This isn’t a recent work. It was first published in 2000, but I came across this copy only recently, while browsing in a bookshop. This shows how little exposure our writers, especially poets, get, and this rather late review will hopefully do some justice to a very sincere and moving work which at times brought to my mind ‘Nomiyemi’ (I won’t die) by Mahagama Sekara.
That work too, is about a hospitalization. Sekara’s narrative is based on a hospital stay, while doctors tried to diagnose, without success, what ailed him. In the process, Sekara delves into philosophical ruminations about life. But Sita Ranjani’s scope here is much broader.
While this book starts with the possibility of death, which haunted her after the discovery of breast cancer, it devotes more space to a narration of the macabre political violence she experienced at first hand – the July 1983 riots, the late 1980s JVP-led rebellion, and the Tamil struggle for their rights.
She’s philosophical about many things but she differs mainly from the nationalist vision of Sekara in that her world view is secular. Her personal salvation lies in that secular vision, not in the divine and the spiritual.
Sita Ranjani was well known throughout the 80s and 80s as journalist, social critic and activist. This work is simply her summing up of herself – as a poet. It seems a fitting culmination to an otherwise frustrating career. What those frustrations are, she writes with a bare-boned candidness in the first part of the book, which traces her own development from a poverty stricken rural childhood to life as a journalist, first with radio and then print media.
From the start, it’s a world overwhelmed by dark shadows and images of death, as she describes her childhood days in a village
– “Hair down my back,
Wet from the waters of Yodha Ela,
I passed the cemetery,
And couldn’t help glancing back,
Where was the Lord of Cemetaries,
They say he stands there/feet straddling the road,
Like a pair of giant legs.”
These opening passages are haunted by the idea and images of death. But the poet views her own death – a distinct future occurrence – dispassionately, as if it’s an external event.
“Agitated worms seek entry into the coffin,
My body, huddling and hiding under a bed sheet,
Feeling anger at the rain,
Which gripped me by force,
Trembles from ….. as if the worms have invaded me.”
These passages of morbid introspection are followed by a narration of the equally morbid politics which shaped her impressionable youth – the war between the state and the JVP in the 1980s. It’s here that her poetry shows a radical difference from that of Mahagama Sekara:
“’Everyone fears punishment. Siddhartha Gautama – both Jesus Christ and Prophet Mohammad preached too, just like you, on the value of life and fear of punishment/we listened all day long/but those who swear by you are dancing in veneration of what you warned against/while others who venerated you fell in heaps.”
Writing about the July 1983 anti-Tamil riots, the poet recalls the murder of Raghunadan, the laundry man. He was burnt alive by a mob in the Anuradhapura town. She recalls her mother throwing a plate of meat sent by her neighbours – the meat of Theiwanai’s goats slaughtered by a mob. She writes about the murder of Dr. Rajini Thiranagama by the LTTE. This is a passionate cry against injustice, not a partisan view of the ethnic problem, or any other problem which causes people to kill each other.
Then she moves on to her own battle with cancer. More than the loss of a breast, it’s an insight gained into human nature which appalls this poet:
“These words are for you, those friends of mine,
Too confused to visit/the friend who lost a breast,
I had two beautiful breasts,
I bounced back though I lost one,
I came back with a wound and twenty eight stitches in its place,
See, my friends, here I am with one breast,
Back from that ward with its injections, blood transfusions/groans and screams.”
But Sita Ranjani does not revel in her bitterness. This is neither lament nor swansong. She seeks solace through action – in work, travel, attempting to build a better world, even if the results are often disappointing.
“And I, who always fought/with my pen, I too/demeaned myself/for this or that cause…I worked in a frenzy/sleepless, behind the screen,
Mind over matter overcame my fatigue,
That strength of mind stunned me.”
This is in reference to the 1994 elections. Events unfold and become history. The disillusioned poet is conscious of advancing age.
“Hair thinner, and with bones protruding,
My body feels sick and old,
But my mind which feels eternal,
Love shall keep me young forever.”
Reaching the conclusion, the poet strikes a positive note:
we still have a life in this country
and that life beckons us from a distance.”
Sita Ranjani’s book addresses an entire generation of have-nots, who struggled for a better future, only to face disillusionment. The country’s chequered and often improvised recent history seems to wither before her unflinching poetic gaze.
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