Can poetry reconcile people of different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds to each other? Can poetry heal the wounds left behind by conflict and wipe away the tears? Can poetry build bridges and bond people together?
Professor K. Satchithanadan of Delhi University, one time secretary of the prestigious Sahitya Academy of India, had no direct answers but made it clear that poetry gave voice to the voiceless, power to challenge injustice and oppression and pricked the conscience of humanity. This message of humanity was conveyed by him and a team of Sri Lankan poets, So Pathmanathan from Jaffna, Ariyawansa Ranaweera from Colombo, and myself from Kandy. Led by him, we visited three higher institutions of learning- namely the University of Peradeniya, the Eastern University and the University of Sabaragamuwa, Belihuloya.
The three poets represented the three languages used in Sri Lanka- Sinhala, Tamil and English. Significantly, they were bilingual and bonded with each other culturally and aesthetically. Above all they shared the enthusiasm to reach out to each other and facilitate others to reach out to them and to each other. The three contexts in which this sensitizing and humanizing activity took place were well selected in terms of background, audience and response. They also formed a cross section of the Sri Lankan population Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim. At the University of Peradeniya something akin to this session had been done by Professor Rajiva Wijesinha when his book ‘Mirrored Images’ was made familiar to the academic community and the alumni there. But this session had vertical proportions in that the participant audience comprised senior academics, academics and students. The audience was participatory and as was to be expected critical. Professor Satchithanandan took them on intellectually as well as poetically. He raised awareness through his very erudite lecture, taking the audience through the ages from Ramayana to Faustus, from Neruda to modern poets who write poetry of violence. He charmed with his recital of his own poetry. He showed without doubt the power of poetry.
At the Eastern University the audience was more complex. The organizers particularly Dr. Jeyashankar had reflected on the aims of this programme and also invited writers from the community. Hence the audience comprised intellectuals, academics, students and creative writers from the society around the university. The response was overwhelming – though critical. Professor Satchithanandan’s lecture, refreshingly reformulated for the target audience, had both intellectual and emotional impact. The readings from his poetry entertained them and also illuminated them. One could observe that the audience responded with more enthusiasm to his Malayalam poetry. The three poets were invited to read and the audience received them with warmth and appreciation. There was no doubt about the impact.
The scene shifted to Sabaragamuwa on the third day. The journey was long but by now the team had become so close to each other, they did not feel the passage of time. For the two guests from India as well as the Sri Lankan writers it was an opportunity to see the land, its variety, its rich greenery, its varied lifestyles. Professor Satchithanandan and Mrs. Satchithanandan were very appreciative. The poet in the professor empathized with every situation, whether it was the discomfort of fast driving, stoppage by the police or the over sweetened tea at the wayside kiosk. Seated closely together the writers had much to exchange about each other’s concerns, about the human condition and about the contexts they faced.
At Belihuloya enthusiasm overflowed. It had been where Prof Wijesinha had taught, and his colleagues there had helped in the compilation of ‘Mirrored Images’. This was launched there and the entire academic community – particularly the Arts Faculty – turned out in numbers. Prof. Satchithanandan and the team were welcomed with enthusiasm and the academic session was illuminating. The audience was young – both academic as well as students. It was as if the tour had reached its nadir. But it was not a sentimental reaction. It was critical and challenging. Both academics and students showed awareness of modern trends, modernist thinking and revealed radical stands that were impressive. Some participants were translators and spoke of translation as creative reconstruction of the original. Translation was the key to bridge to the other. Professor Satchithanandan was a translator. So were two of the team members. The interaction between the writers and the academics turned out to be a very meaningful one. The sharing of experience, the exchange of theoretical view points and appreciation made the session at Sabaragamuwa a most fruitful one.
There was discussion of further issues, how this programme or enterprise could be continued, could be meaningful, could further reconcile. Many ideas were put forward like the need to groom a body of translators, so that writings from the two major ethnic communities could reach each other- more importantly, they could understand each others’ cultures.
There was also the proposal that students should be persuaded to read literature and write poems and stories in natural situations rather than in examination situations. They should be sensitized to the world around them. A series of supplementary readers starting from the primary, where translations are presented to young learners to overcome prejudice and mistrust, was another proposal. For language teaching specially – both first language and second language – an anthology should be used where translations from Tamil and Sinhala works are included. School literary associations should be activated but they must be trilingual events rather than monolingual.
Poetry in its power to bring joy as well as its power to educate and exalt could be used to touch the human conscience. That was the crowning message of the tour.