Easily one of the most discernible occurences in the last 20 years within our local English literary sphere has been the ascent of Malinda Seneviratne. Before I get to Malinda the poet, whom I am acquainted with only barely, I need to get to Malinda the man, whom I know personally. There are clear connections between the two, so much so that I can’t separate the one from the other. To understand the reasons behind his rise and ascent, I think it best that we go through his biography before delving into his poetry.
Malinda Channa Pieris Seneviratne was born on September 23, 1965 in Colombo to Gamini Seneviratne, a Civil Servant and a poet on his own right who would eventually retire as the Chairman of the Coconut Development Authority, and Indrani Seneviratne, who taught English Literature and Greek and Roman Civilization in various schools, her longest tenure being at Royal College, Colombo. Both of them
were English honours graduates from the University of Peradeniya. Malinda was the second in his family, with an elder brother, Arjuna, and a younger sister, Ruwani. They were all born to a culture of connoisseurship and appreciation of the arts. Malinda’s later forays into literature were consequently initiated by his parents, especially his father, who had got him to write a poem when he was 12 years old revolving around a tune played on the family piano.
He attended Royal College, where he dabbled in Literature and Chess among other activities. Having won all major awards for English literature, he wound up as Prefect and Chess Team Captain, winning the National Championship in 1983. That year he sat for his A Levels, where he offered Mathematics and obtained adequate results to enter the University of Peradeniya. However, he opted to sit for his A Levels in the Arts Stream the following year, where again he secured good enough results to enter University. He entered Peradeniya in 1985 for a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology.
Owing to his exceptional academic performance in his first year, Malinda was selected to an exchange program at Carleton College, Minnesota for a Trimester. During the infamous UNP-JVP bheeshanaya of the eighties Universities were shut down in Sri Lanka. After sitting for both TOEFL and SAT, Malinda got a scholarship to Harvard University in December 1988. As with Peradeniya, he studied Sociology, returning to Sri Lanka two and a half years later towards the end of the bheeshanaya.
Following various stints at politics and teaching, including one as an ELT Teacher at the Medical Faculty of Peradeniya University in 1992, he was hired as an Editor at the Agrarian Research and Training Institute in March 1993 before leaving it the following year. He then resumed his higher studies, when upon a friend’s advice he applied to the University of California’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, got in, applied a year later to Cornell University, and managed to read for a PhD in Development Sociology there. However he never completed his PhD: having left his thesis (titled “Journeying with Honour: In Search of the Vague and Indeterminate”) halfway through, he was instead given a conditional Master’s Degree. As of today, he has not completed it.
His first collection of poetry, “Epistles: 1984-1996”, was published in 1999. He submitted his poetry, in manuscript form, for the Gratiaen Award on six occasions between 2007 and 2013. Five of these collections were shortlisted: Threads” in 2007, “The Underside of Silence” in 2008, “Some texts are made of leaves” in 2011, “Open Words are for Love Letting” in 2012, and “Edges” in 2013, while “Stray Kites on Stringless Days” didn’t make it to the shortlist in 2010. He won the Gratiaen for “Edges”, his best anthology by far. Two years earlier, in 2011, he had won the H. A. I. Goonetilaka Award (also with the Gratiaen Trust) for his translation of Simon Navagattegama’s acclaimed Sinhala novel Sansaranyaye Dadayakkara, which he first read at Cornell University and translated, in part, for a class exercise on Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.
I would hazard a guess here and contend that of his literary influences, outside his immediate family that is, Neruda and Navagattegama take a prominent place. Malinda’s interest in Neruda – his subtle, effortless use of imagery in verbal terms – is there in his best poetry, and to me that is what characterises his prose as well. In Neruda you don’t see the technical gimmicks that are so nakedly apparent in, say, e.e. cummings or Ogden Nash; you see instead the displacement of myth and conjecture and convenient fictions (whether conceived on the personal sphere or through officialdom) through the use of understatement. There is never a rift between the personal and the social. They get together in ways that one essay, let alone one sketchy article, can’t do justice to.
Malinda is at his most characteristic, and I’d like to think his most enduring, when he abandons the social for the personal and embraces the kind of life he has grown up on and grown up to love. His poems on his daughters, for instance, merit particular scrutiny:
I’ve held you both
together and separately
in wakeful hours and while asleep
The cutting of a whole sentence into a set of lines is characteristic of Neruda and Latin American poetry in general, but it’s interesting to note that Malinda, unlike most young poets here who are entranced by Neruda (not unlike their descendants who were entranced by what they erroneously felt to be the essence of Rabindranath Tagore’s work), doesn’t confuse technical gimmickry for mastery of language.
But there’s one issue that bothers me. Critics, in their attempt to get at the man, tend to fault him for resorting to religious imagery in his poems. Some of them have faulted him in front of me. Their argument is as follows: for a poet to be truly universal, he or she must transcend his or her affiliations to a particular collective. In the case of Malinda their allegation is rooted in what they feel to be his desire to belong, his exhilaration at being at one with a faith and an ethnicity. I would like to examine two of his poems in this respect, because I know for a fact that the yardstick those critics use is a largely mythical image of an artist as a transcendentalist. (They don’t even want him to affirm humanity; they are content in making him reject his ethno-religious garb.)
The first poem is disarmingly simple: “To a little boy holding (onto) a Buddhist flag over his head.” In 24 lines he draws a link between the flag and the collective it represents. While superficially easy, his attitude towards his own faith comes out strikingly in the last line: “It [the flag] is for holding and breaking son.” The flag is a symbol, at most a quasi-secular symbol. What transcends it is the faith it inhabits and embodies.
Malinda’s politics has reflected his poetry to a lesser extent than his prose. It’s interesting to note that, not unlike his political essays, he is content in dichotomising between the secular and the mythical whilst remaining respectful of the latter. It’s no coincidence that he refuses to indulge in his faith so much in The Underside of Silence, which is chock-a-block with idealisations of his family and his country. He becomes more confident of indulging in faith and ethnic identity, however, in Open Words are for Love Letting (from which the above poem is taken), and even more so in Edges.
In “Dhamma” he goes a step further: he enters his faith without merely gazing at it.
... words can be clap
and can be clasp
some are lit
and others light
Again you see a dichotomy, between clap and clasp, between lit and light, congealing to this Vesak and all time. It now seems as though polar opposites are reconcilable through his faith. There is a transcendentalism here that one comes across very rarely in his other poems. It’s almost a new sensibility, but is it enough to counter what his critics are saying? The answer to that question lies in another poem: “Temples”, also included in Edges and manifestly more lengthy, and exploratory, than the above two.
... their altars crumble
for want of flowery word
and clasped hands
in those timeless
rituals of evermore love
grass peeps from stone-edge
listening for footfall
that tripped on word-edge
In that first poem I mentioned, Malinda differentiates between the flag and the collective: the latter in effect overwhelms the former. In the second, “Dhamma”, he draws a dichotomy between the mundane and the supra-mundane that faith trivialises. He has grown more vociferous here: the altars he refers to (which can be from any place of worship, by the way) thrive on an attitude of devotion among their patrons. Patronage, in other words, is constructive, if not essential, to a faith and a collective. He has let go of any transcendentalist tendencies, and embraced a more frank and sincere conception of the relationship between the laity and the clergy. What can we say to his critics, then?
That they are correct in their observation, but wrong in their remedy. Poets are not uprooted secularists. They do not abandon their religious fervour, and some of the best poets one can name derived their themes from their faith. The myth of a transcendentalist poet can be shattered when considering that transcendentalism was in effect an offshoot of Orientalism, or the belief that the two main world systems – the West and the East – would come together through universalised conceptions of the faiths adhered to in the latter (Buddhism, Taoism, the Upanishads). It evolved from the essays of Thoreau and had its finest hour in the poetry of Whitman. The humanism in their works was largely derivative and decorative, which means that they had to give way once they moved on to the 20th century. To consider that humanism a sign of a poet’s ability to abandon faith and collective is erroneous, because they were informed less by the secular than by the supra-mundane. Malinda is no transcendentalist, but nor is he the obsessive religious devotee he is touted as, by those who happen to take issue with his politics.