The return of the native : an appreciation of Basil Fernando’s poems

“The river within us has become more impure and frozen than ever before. ‘River too pure yields no fish’ is a Chinese proverb. ‘River too impure yields no fish’ can be a new saying of any nation today. Great rivers of Sri Lanka in this poem represent the central lifeline in the history of that country. A quiet flow of the rivers kept the land’s nature and culture in harmony and peace.”

By K. G. Sankara Pillai

(October 17, Kerala, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sri Lankan poet, eminent jurist, and veteran human rights activist, Basil Fernando lives in Hong Kong - in exile. His life always reminds me of the lives of the Chinese writers who have gone into exile after the Tiananmen Tragedy in 1989. And of the lives of Wole Soyinka, Dennis Brutus, Joseph Brodsky, Gao Xingjian, Bei Dao, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin, leading Afro-Caribbean writers and a galaxy of great literary giants, major artists and filmmakers of the world of yesterday and today, whose works were wrongly labeled by the authorities as politically subversive. This situation of revolutionary confrontation is an inevitable part of contemporary history in its struggles for liberation and rights. Here we get the answer to the most frequently asked question: why did they leave their countries?

Basil writes in Sinhalese and English; addresses both the ordinary people of his country and the elite everywhere. He works with friends from various parts of the world in his office at the Asian Human Rights Commission. Basil travels east and west to far off places; in history and jurisprudence; in the labyrinths of past and present; in the vast zones of virtual and real spaces of new human experience, perception, knowledge, and imagination.

Quite naturally all the journeys of Basil and his poetry end in Sri Lanka, his homeland. This may not be a conscious/calculated landing. This return to his native land is as smooth as an instinctual roost in one’s own nest, rather than an intellectual arrival at an ideological/spiritual asylum. It is neither a return to the past, nor a fall into nostalgia.

Let us not forget the basic fact that Basil is not an admirer of the revived splendors of the past. Past was revisited, reinterpreted, and redefined in the discourses of the nationalist movement for the construction of a nation, of a heritage, and of a cultural identity charged with resistance against colonial hegemony. The fully-grown ideology of nationalism in the course of the anti-colonial freedom struggles was rooted deeply in the reconstructed past, and in the full spectrum of newly discovered tradition.

Sri Lanka in Basil’s poetry is neither a mythic island in the mysterious prehistoric whistles of the sea-breeze, nor a colonial Ceylon tortured and looted by foreign invaders. Of course certain elements of those bygone days can be traced in the subconscious gallery of the poet’s memory. That is a possible source of the vivid trait of folklore, fables, and fragments of mythology in Basil’s poetry. Creative recycling of tradition is a way to renew tradition. Historically and culturally expired cells of tradition will be rejected naturally in the process of a creative retelling of an ancient narrative. Outlines, events, characters, story, form, and other features may be partially retained in the new version. But the style and vision will be fresh. Folk narratives have an organic hold in the imagination of Basil. He brings forth many characters and situations from the past for a clearer articulation of contemporary disquiet. Poet Basil’s concern is not at all contrary to the concerns of the jurist, activist Basil. Basil is Basils. He has a creatively plural energy in his essential substance. One can easily reckon at least three Basils in Basil: Poet, Jurist, and Activist; possibly more than that. Present is the time of all these ‘Basils’. A close scrutiny of the poems of Basil Fernando will disclose the creative alliance of those faculties to form the dialogic fabric of these poems. Sri Lanka is Basils’ base. The present reality, with all its violence and violations, cries and resistance, is the weaver of feelings, meanings and arguments. This place and this time are capable of an enormous aesthetic stretch to the entire complexities of power and disparities, of love and violence, of conviction and confusion, of terror and injustice, of killing and saving, of appearance and disappearance, in any nation where democracy is in decline. Suffering and poetry are local and universal, line by line. Their catchment areas have no borders.

The Sri Lanka of Basil’s poems is a deep wound in the poet’s mind; a bleeding face through which his daring creativity has to see, breathe, recollect, protest, and sing; a fragmented yet fascinating emerald, to which his memory, concepts and dreams, thoughts and sufferings, are tragically attached and magically resurrected. Basil sees that pain, blood, tears, murder, dead bodies, distrust, schizophrenia, loss of faith, peace and normal rhythm of life, pollutes the quiet flow of values in a culture.

See a poem with the names of great rivers in Sri Lanka:

Mahaweli, Kalani, Walave, Kalu Ganga

I used to sing
kavi from padyawaliya
Mahaweli, Kalani,Walave, Kalu Ganga
flowing from the butterfly hill
heard songs also of ratharan puthun
and charming girls growing in the villages.
Then I saw,
bodies floating in rivers
rainwater flowing from mountains
mixed with blood
floating bodies
eaten by kabaragoy.
Now I do not like to hear of
Walave, Kalani, and Kalu
mountains have lost
mystery or attraction
in the eyes of mothers
I see not tears but distrust.
What am I, I ask myself
what is my motherland?
I want to sing those poems
to that I can’t bring myself.

This poem is apparently a simple narration of personal loss and pain. But it grows in us to the vision of the heights and depths of the recent losses and pains of Sri Lanka specifically, and of third world nations in general. The quantum of cruelty we do to one another is explosive. We are at war with ourselves, and with our most essential habitat of culture and environment. A terrific shock is needed to wake us from the frightening underworlds of our moral sleep. This kind of an ethical alarm is the primary source of inspiration, provocation for Basil to write his poems. His responsibility to world and word is deep. Poet is an ambassador of love and an advocate of justice in Basil’s art of poetry. Use of poetry for Basil is enlightenment, not entertainment, or enjoyment.

The river within us has become more impure and frozen than ever before. ‘River too pure yields no fish’ is a Chinese proverb. ‘River too impure yields no fish’ can be a new saying of any nation today. Great rivers of Sri Lanka in this poem represent the central lifeline in the history of that country. A quiet flow of the rivers kept the land’s nature and culture in harmony and peace. Once they are poisoned or troubled by blood or butchered bodies, the peace of mind of a nation begins to vanish. Life on the island is in a panic; falling into terrific and tragic waves. Transparency, simplicity, credibility, and intimacy of the flow of the river of life are then condemned to disappear from the public sphere. In the eyes of mothers the poet could see only distrust, not tears. Mountains have lost their charm and mysterious heights. Nature is being forcibly driven out of the company of the human soul. A terrible situation is thrust upon the people like a thunderbolt that can stop tears and songs; that can confuse memory with desire; that can bury hope in despair.

Longing to sing a song of the distanced self is a sign of the creative struggle to bring back the lost charm and music of hope. It is to regenerate the beauty of common sense and sense of history and justice to local forms of expression. Faith in justice is the centre of and the gravity of beauty, love, and the meaning of life, which is still alive in the common man’s dream for a Promised Land. And justice is the most vital concern in Basil’s poetry. Justice has both aesthetical and philosophical roots and manifestations in his poems.

Images of injustice in Basil’s poems are those of beast, inhuman, bloody and ugly. Beast is Satan and his age is the age of the failed God. Images show the vision of the poet. Beast is the shape of all dying cultures. It is the violence, the hatred, the irrational enmity, which embodies all that is terribly opposed to the wellbeing of humanity. It is an image which insists and forces us into introspection, to go deep into our time and space. Elements of that image can be seen as scattered in the poetic world of Basil, that same way injustice is scattered in the real world. Injustice is closely connected with each and every criminal tendency in the social psyche. It seeks its dark and violent expressions through innumerable crimes, explosions, corruption, pollution, kidnapping, killings, sadist responses, and disasters of every breed. We see this dance of the beast in many of Basil’s poems as different languages of the power of evil, and its consequent tragic realities emerging in a failing state. I-low cunningly the beasts cooperate. They accommodate each other, perform theft, organize cheating, maintain unholy alliances, compete mutually, keep secrets, manage malicious and violent operations, annihilate the enemy, sow the seeds of fear, despair, insecurity and tragedy, damage the free circulation of truth, propagate lies through various media, celebrate the defeat and disintegration of culture, and finally function entirely in anti- human ways. These are neatly exposed in Basil’s poems. Contentions in these poems can be summed up as follows: any practitioner of injustice is a beast, a murderer of human dignity, of creativity, of culture, and of freedom. He/she is also a killer of peace, meaning; terminator of genuine forms of nature and beauty. The praxis of injustice as a whole is a praxis of dehumanization. The properties of the socio-historic environment which alone protests against injustice, electrifies the words in Basil’s poems.

In a complex and critical fascist situation like ours, man/woman is dehumanized to either a wordless mute or to senseless verbiage. He/she is brutally reduced to the predicament of a prey/a slave/ a follower/a consumer/a desire machine/a sacrificial animal. This is a historical extension of the Kafkaesque metamorphosis. For the lowest strata this is a fall into the cellar of denial of justice and language, which can cause turbulence.
To be continued….

(Professor KG Sankara Pillai is one of India’s best known contemporary poets. His writing in Malayalam has been translated into many Indian languages, as well as Chinese, French, German, English and Sinhala. He has won several prestigious awards for his work: he was a recipient of the State and Central Sahitya Akademi Award in 1998 and 2002. He was awarded the Mahakavi P. Kunhiraman Nair award in 2008 and in 2009 he won Oodakuzhal award and the Habeeb Valappad award. He has been a teacher of literature, starting as a lecturer in 1971 and retiring in 2002 from the post of Principle of Government Maharaja College, Ernakulam. He is also an accomplished translator, publishing in Malayalam translations of poetry from Africa, Bengal, South Indian state of Karnataka and from Sri Lanka. He has also been the editor of several important literary journals. He considered himself as an activist and his writings reflect commitment to humanism and radical protest against injustices. He considers justice as a central component of beauty.)
-Sri Lanka Guardian