Letters from Sri Lanka #2 (New Voices) | Sophia Naz

Photo : Sophia Naz

 “We are all guilty of gouging out two eyes for a third”
   - Imaad Majeed, from Thambi Vamsa

I have been invited to attend a monthly gathering of poets at the Hansa Cafe in Colombo. The gathering is called Poetry Pilau, Pilau referring to the dish that a Hindi or Urdu speaking person would pronounce as Pulao. I found it apt that the way it was pronounced in Sri Lanka could also mean ‘ give me a drink of poetry. ’ Indeed, I was about to be immersed in verse from some of this Island nation’s up-and-coming poetic talents.

The young man in his twenties who has introduced me to this gathering is  Imaad Majeed. Imaad is a force of nature; poet, rapper, singer-songwriter and  digital artist, as well as sub-editor/writer at YAMU, a review based site about restaurants in Colombo, director at Kacha Kacha,  a crowdfunded, independent platform that features performances by poets, rappers and singer-songwriters in English, Sinhala and Tamil, at bars frequented by the working class. Imaad’s innovative work ranges from the epic and in-depth examination of his country’s fractured history and politics to experimental, ephemeral poetry videos including one in which he combines Muslim prayer with Buddhist ritual and writes a poem on the water so that it may evaporate and fall as a fine mist upon a mosque that is due to be demolished. In another video he is performing nude, albeit discreetly covered by his guitar.

This  video  below is from a larger work called Thambi Vamsa, which was inspired by music from the Beat Generation and by the rap-poet Krisantha Shri Bhagyadatta, who is also the originator of Poetry Pilau. Thambi Vamsa is a twist on the word Mahavamasa, and explores the origin of Muslims in Sri Lanka, how they are perceived and the clashes they have experienced.

Of particular note is Imaad’s long-term project '1956'. Imaad explains that it is "a recognition that there are many language games and it will not satisfy us to legitimize one over the other. That would be a politics of terror. That is a politics of forcing others out of the conversation. But for ourselves we will want to rearrange the conversation so that we continue to have a voice.”
 1956 is a work in progress. Excerpts are featured here.

Mishal Mazin,  one of the poets present at Poetry Pilau, is also the co-founder of Colombo Poets, a community of poets that aims to encourage budding talent by bringing their spoken word and contemporary poetry to an appreciative audience. Mazin’s work is rooted in and richly evocative of Colombo  as is evinced in this poem, set in the bustling downtown known as Pettah.

On Pettah

Concrete maze, compact
Commercial conduit, with
Sporting Times pitstops
Running along the tarmac.
As far as there's people,
Who want money and peace.
The air smelt of half an illusion,
Of sea salt, and side-alley piss
A wall raised for the zombies,
Divides the horizon from
the ships, and their riches,
The sea is for the
sophisticated, and for us,
There are corner stores,
at every corner, a drunken,
4 PM no-good doer, slapped
Twice, for sparking a fray along
With his cheap tobacco
Beetle juice munching,
Loose shotgun mouth,
One's telling him to fuck off
The other's still trying to
Mumble a tale, political,
No points to his self esteem,
On his eyes, brown sugar,
Still mumbling, mumbling.
Jesus, Ganesh and Buddha,
Having a little chat over it,
Orange bearded and thasbi,
Buying jasmine flowers,
for a wife, or mistress might-be
At the corner of a temple.
Coppers here, coppers there
Coppers roaming everywhere,
Main Street was covered, even for
The biggest drug smuggle, yet
The thugs were on the billboards,
Smiling, and the coppers didn't notice.
Port-side bars, and beer stops,
wine stores at a six-to-one
Ratio to kadés, open on overtime,
And everyone's thirsty, so
The coppers are going home,
The sun can't bear to watch,
So it goes down too, ashamed,
lifting with it, first padlocks
Then all the roller gates,
Click open, the crows flock in
To sell, compel and threaten,
An air of tension, like a fight,
Waiting to happen, stare downs
By lost pedestrians, tuk tuk
Tough guy with tattoos and
Bread winning women,
Children, so many children,
Barefeet and hopeless,
Watching men in big cars,
Go shopping, tend to slots,
men on billboards, and the
Gold stores gleaming with
smiles, genuine laughter
And not a care was given,
To the children, of the sun,
As they played cricket,
Today, tomorrow, and
The day after, until their
Dreams had slipped
Through all the cracks,
In the pavements, and
They will not ask

You can hear Mishal Mazin perform “On Pettah” at the Pettah Poetry Fringe Festival

Also hailing from Colombo, Nawya Ponnamperuma is a 20 year old Spoken Word poet. Her writing is airily minimal but no less evocative of the city:

I don't belong to the night.

Nor day.

I don't belong, I am flimsy.

Like 4pm to 6pm.

I am the rushed hours.

The happiness of a foot out of a shoe.

The pastel skies.

The baked bread waiting for a home.

Aanisha Cuttilan is a 21-year-old student of Business Management who writes in her spare time and tends to draw inspiration from personal experiences. She is  an editor on the site icommas.com that showcases poetry, prose and spoken word written by the youth of Sri Lanka. The themes of her writing include love, culture and women's rights. Her poem “Hands” is about the agony of rape but it is ultimately a poem of survival, grace and transmission of strength and self-worth to other victims of sexual abuse.

 “Though scars run too deep
You must not forget, beauty flows endlessly”

Benny Lau is  the nom-de-plume  of a young Muslim poet  who comes from a conservative family that would not approve of his “writhings.”  Speaking about his influences, he says, “ I really only got into experimenting with writing 'poetry' after attending a seminar on Burroughs with one of my teachers Richard Doyle. We were working on a zine to send to the 50th anniversary celebration of Naked Lunch in Paris. I used to dig through the Naropa lectures on archive.com often and those were way more inspiring than any intro to creative writing class I took.. After listening to Allen Ginsberg's lectures on expansive poetics / reading Charles Olson's essay on projective verse, in 2009/10 I started writing 'poetry' and have been writing since.”

Benny’s lines are dense, with wonderful conjugations like “anthropouring” jostling with the ubiquitous digital flotsam of our smartphone-infested lives. One can almost feel the beaded sweat on a packed train conjured here:

Coastin ta ta yay bay!

Thick turmeric gasp bloodied evening, smoking a gold leaf, clutching rosary
wrapped around wrist. Trains rattle past, anthropouring, every pore scene, sweat, dust,
sea breeze, easing cramped quarters ever so slightly.
Harking back, train rides to Galle, legs dangling, foot board,
delighted, get the fat out of Colombo, trace coast all the way to Arugambay,
Train-bus-Pilates, pissing plain tea, smoking joints, under cover, parked buses, random
stations, eating peanuts, salty skin chilli crusted flaking finger tips, swinging banyan roots,
breeze up sarong.

Taste of milk toffee lurking on tongue, stuck in Procrustean seat, head leaning grimy
steel tube railing window. Dozing, drooling, body odor of mustachioed, early thirties,
collared ‘Reborn’ t-shirt, navy blue pants, gentleman. His face dignified, a kind of
realness, rarely found in city folk, oozing out of Buddhist temperament, unassuming,
compassionate, eyes avuncular, lanky legs tipping into his territory.
<’tag location’> <popup-spam-‘lose weight fast’> bookaroomnow in
Monaragala> <message failed to send. Click to resend>

Water buffalo-egret trance, paddy field motion blur, odd dog
almost hit by more than one passing car. Not too far now,
arid, thickets, thorns, thickets, wood apples, tamarinds, cactus blooms, elephant dung,
<2 new notifications>  white sand, cerulean wash, frothing cusp.
Hour long smooth road spat out speed bump, hold on,
roadside rapture, spurt of forest, a shade of satisfaction
Here now quite soon, too many peacocks to not notice,
too many notifications to not peacock,
Kataragama, Dionysus birthplace, wincing
in dry zone twilight dusty afterglow
Spot a leopard, focus, naked camera-novelty,
spit out story #nofilter for lent ears, sharing quirked
in filtered #remembrance, grey matters.

It was my distinct impression that there was a renewed interest in poetry happening all around me. In addition to the publication of the anthology New Ceylon Voices after a gap of 32 years, there are a number of Fringe poetry festivals exploding all over Sri Lanka;  in  2017 the Cockrell Fringe Festival took place in Galle, around the same time as the Galle Literary Festival. The director of the Cockrell Fringe Festival is the irrepressible Grace Wickramsinghe, whose debut book of poetry, titled Closure, was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize, which was instituted by Michael Ondaatje in 1992 with the money he received as joint-winner of the Booker Prize for his novel The English Patient. The Prize is awarded annually to the best work of literary writing in English by a resident Sri Lankan. In the video below, Grace reads the poem “Che Sera”  from Closure.

Stefhan Sebastian is the consummate spoken word poet  reciting a poem from memory at the Pettah Fringe Poetry Festival; he speaks of his hands “ Like a blind god reading braille”

This is a poem Stefhan read in reaction to a man who had just performed an offensive anti-Muslim song:

Search me and see;
There are nothing but words holding this man together.
I stitched them into the seams,
I stitched them into my being,
and in-between the spaces between the places in-between creases indivisible and unseen.
Between the street light and the shadow.
Between the horizon and the sun.
Between the tea cup and the monsoon.
Between the left and right side of your spine.
Between the stone and the wave.
Between the wolf and the sky.
Between the dream and the page.
Between our tongues and the tangle.
Between my eyes and my hands.
Between my thoughts and my thoughts of thoughts.
Between the sheets and the smell of you.
and in every dialogue between me and me.
These words are all I have,
so tonight, I am taking these words back.
…. And we…
We are the living breathing custodians
of a living breathing language.
Born twice,
of flesh and blood,
and purely articulated thoughts.
Made of mostly empty space and solid intentions,
wielding heavy words in light voices,
in the face of those hard and hollow,
that would loudly wield empty words against us.
And we demand these words be returned to our custody;
The youngest sons of the first man who said ambition was like dreaming.
The youngest daughters of the first woman who said loving was like falling.
Who know that home is a fireless warmth
and the chill of more deaths than winters.
That they being returned to our care
will allow us to return to:
killing our sleep to craft them,
sleeping to dream them,
and waking to share them,
as we walk down a lifetime of pages
lined with these words.

I was delighted to encounter these young and fearless Sri Lankan poets who are informed by their culture yet incisive in their criticism of it. They are constantly  challenging State narratives, gender, race and class stereotypes, their language is by turns, taut and tender, expletive ridden yet suffused with a distinctly South Asian lyric quality.  They are navigating the many streams that make up their linguistic heritage with grace and finesse and leaving some fine poetry in their fierce wake, as Nawya Ponnamperuma so eloquently states:

I am part brown heritage and part white influence.
It came through the sterling and seduced architecture, lifestyle and my ancestors.
I am part-tea, dancing my way to palates overseas through seven regions.
I am the middle of the earth.
I am curvy letters that have tickled rocks,
My ethereal roots fall from branches downward
I am drumbeats drumbeats drumbeats and a thousand dance forms
Serendib, a teardrop, a  pearl.
My story began with liberated naked women and men who wore pounds of gold.
We built ships for Egyptians.
Never reeked of greed but smelt of cinnamon,
We knew love...before the son of God.
We drank with cupped palms,
And fought with fists. We didn't hide behind a rifle.
We engineered. Mastered. Flourished.
We were taught to acknowledge the clergy
Hold a sheaf of Betel the right way.
We are made of folklore
And a grassroot of colourful celebration.
You were white skin and everything beautiful.
But we were glorious and this!
Is our
Common wealth.


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