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

Link to Part One

By K. G. Sankara Pillai

(October 19, Kerala, Sri Lanka Guardian) The origin of turbulence can be derived from the collapse of “Babels” in all critical junctions of history. Every age raises and demolishes the self-Babel. At the end of every generation, every era, we witness a collapse in communication. History is a broken narrative of the never-ending saga of generations engaged in the construction and deconstruction of a new Babel. Turbulent social situations in a decadent democratic system make it easier to deny justice to the poor. To legitimize the denial under the pretext of some emergency rule is easier still. It may even sound natural that the poor are destined to undergo infinite sufferings. The poetry of Basil vehemently responds to this dormant defiance of the ruling class. Silence or the inexpressibility of the poor under siege should not be taken as a willingness to suffer. Very few can get out of the flames of that inferno unhurt. Torture is a season in a similar hell. Whether it is in Nazi Germany or in Sri Lanka or in India, the virus of fascism grows fast in the same pattern.

By manipulating the negative energies of terror and fear, autocracy enlarges itself into a dangerously hegemonic and gigantic beast. We can see the crude signs of its presence in society in the blood and corpses in the river; as amnesia and schizophrenia in the native’s head. Every now and then the beast turns violent, blood-thirsty and all-destructive, and it has all the rivers in the country madly filled with blood and floating dead bodies. The goal of the fascist beast need not always be racial purity as in the case of Hitler. The sole goal of the urban beast is power. Its hunger is for total control over all resources. It dances with deadly powers and skulls in its innumerable hands as the destroyer of human virtues in the burial grounds of culture and nature. A poet in the hour furnace cannot consider anything to be innocent. Basil knows this very well. He is not afraid to raise blunt attacks on the criminal brutality of the wilderness of centralized power through his poems. This readiness to bombard the highest echelons lifts his art to the vibrant heights of the heritage of the aesthetics of resistance.

The image of this killer beast has many faces and names in Basil’s poetry. In the poem ‘The courthouse’ the beast represents the whole system of a corrupted judiciary and total network of power. There injustice is the name of the land and fear is the name of the city. Mr. Drunkard, Mr. Bribery, and Mr. Absurd are there as representatives of higher positions in the hierarchy of power. We get here the sure glimpse of the thousand headed demon-hydra in the abyss of our time as the terminator of hope. In the poem ‘This brotherhood in evil I reject’ the beast appears with blood on his hands and tells the poet that, “as brothers we can jointly hate the other”. The poet rejects the call and replies that, “in hatred what brotherhood can there be?” The manipulator is the beast in the poem ‘Making a house’. ‘Ekalavya the low caste archer’ and ‘Sambuka the low caste Tapasa’ are two straight narratives. These two Indian purana tales are critically narrated here to expose the harder foundation of injustice on which the caste system is erected. Here the beast is a complex evil with the many faces of Indian orthodoxy like the caste system and the Brahminical order of dharma, where even minor violations of traditional customs are met with inhuman torture and death penalties. In the concluding lines of the poem ‘Ekalaiya the iow caste archer’,

Old tale here ends
But may I add
If I was the lad
A different end
This tale would have had.

The poet’s position as a critic of culture and power makes his target clear. Other contexts from the poems can be cited as examples where the beast is efficiently caged in words.

Contrary to injustice as the beast, Justice is beauty. Justice is the core of an aesthetic vision in the wide and dynamic universe of art and literature of the third world. Justice is active in many ways in a poem. It can be both theme and vision of a poem. It is able to evoke a sense of urgency and a tone of dissent. A new sensibility surfaced in twentieth century poetry of the third world under the presidency of great poets committed to the cause of justice for all. Their sense of reality, their materialist concept of history, and their vision of justice that another world is possible, drew them into the vortex of contemporary art, culture and society. The characteristics of contemporary life everywhere included: disintegration of traditional rules and values, deterioration of hierarchies, split egos, authoritarian structures, awareness of collective sub-consciousness, subtle energies, hyper-realities, new ideas, micro-technologies notions of equality, cultural revolution, cultural revivalism, return of religion with renewed authenticity, post-Marxism.

These features impacted detrimentally with the formation of all the brave new free styles, designs, and forms of art and literature everywhere. Poetry acquired freer patterns of expression in a world which grew out of the fascination and limits of revolutions in economy, polity, theories of culture, literary modernism, and in science and technology. At the center of all revolutionary changes was scientific knowledge and great dreams. Science and technology, with all other creative and innovative forms of culture, has a leading role in the gradual evolution and revolution in poetry too. Society’s shift to a scientific attitude from the orthodoxy of religious notions happened to be the key energy behind the shift in sensibility and in the sense of urgency keeping writers perpetually re-motivated.

Romanticism gave voice to the so-far silent, emotional universe of the individual self. Most of the romantic poems had the grace of a solo-dance of the self. Solitude was the charming body of the silence of illusions, comfortably imprisoned in .the mind of the romantic poet. Ideological bridges opened to them through sociologists and political revolutionaries. But hesitation was the response of a majority of the romantic poets. It was easy to be a poet as a gardener or a dream-flower merchant. At the same time deeper changes were happening in new worlds of literature, politics, economics, sociology, linguistics, philosophy and science, which were striving hard to be borderless in depth and width. Individual- centric and borderless was the dialectic form of the romantic poem. Involvement in oneself and the response to the outer world were almost thoughtless or too emotional. The individual had to undergo a series of intellectual transformations, including emotionalism and rejection of the dreamy-self, on the eve of modernism. Modernism had a unifying effect on the national intellectual life of every country. Modernism was a movement which spoke through and for writers everywhere. Although the chief predecessors of modernism were French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and German, modernism was the first literary movement to reverse the current of literary influence. The growth of modernism in intellectual autonomy in third world countries was a notable transition. Modern art and literature from the third world became influential and trendsetters in the cultures of Spain, Portugal, Italy, France and England. This is reckoned as a triumph of third world modernism over the Euro-centric authoritarianism in creativity and knowledge, and Euro- centric modernism. Basil’s creative energy is deeply related to third world modernism, and its dialogic imagination, fresh, local, and free way of writing.

A return to his native land is a return to local, familiar and authentic experiences of the poet and his society, a return to reality from ti dreamland of romanticism and its historical space. It is a return the historical man from the nameless and bewildered existential anti-hero from nowhere, the absurd and abstract anti-hero of the Euro-centric modernism. The historical man/woman is always a new man/woman. He/she is always engaged in the constant renewal of the self by keeping as alert and uncompromising a participant of the constant renewal of Ms/her world. He/she is a brave, suffering and struggling being, an apostle of resistance, a creator of ne meanings, and a believer of the infinite possibilities of the hum will. His/her legacy is recorded in third world modernism. It really his/her history in the literature of possibility. We saw the strangely confident pride for the first time in the great Caribbean poet Aime Cesaire’s poem Return to My Native Land.’ It was in the works of Bertolt Brecht, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Ceaz Vallejo, Nicanor Parra, Wole Soyinka, Mahmoud Darwish, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Nazim Hikmet, Yannis Ritsos, Paul Celan, Yevje Yevthushenko, Dennis Brutus, Bharathi, Nazrul Islam, and later in the works of two more generations of writers, artists, musicians and film makers. They made third world modernism possible, in the potentially strong trend in support of the people’s struggles for a world of free minds and nations. This is an ideologically rectified modernism. An aesthetics of liberation was successfully rooted in third world cultures through their re-reading of traditions, recreating older myths by recharging them with a new vision of reality, revisiting locales of memories of the human race. This was part f the formation of an alternative culture with a stress on the optimism that another world is possible. A new world of love and values, with a liberating culture of resistance, is possible against the war-greedy moves of the neo-colonial imperialist forces for the re-colonization and extension of torturous enslavement of nations for centuries to come.

Happenings of Asian post-modernism are the undercurrent of this context of history. It has two faces: political and apolitical. The apolitical face went for new cosmetic solutions and lighter things like jokes, mimics, and entertainment. The politically enlightened movement stood on the side of the people and grew with the search for liberating solutions suggested by third world modernism. It could place on record the complexities, chaos, fear and distrust, all set to rule over the social psyche and to redefine the new oriental mind. Although certain aspects of the latest industrial and technological achievements are well-traceable in the public sphere, neither Sri Lanka nor India is a post-industrial country. The courses of cultural histories of these two countries have some similarities. The multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural anthropological fabric with colonial confrontations is seen within the geological and ecological parallels of both countries. They have their present cultures as museums of cultural histories too. Specimens from the entire history of culture (from the primitive to the latest moment of history) are alive and active in the museums of everyday life. Every stream of tradition has its own active magnetic field in contemporary culture. Our post modernisms have their roots in these rather complex hybrid conditions of tradition and modernity. Folk music and Jazz music, local/primitive rituals and modern cosmopolitan programs, are being performed on the same night, on the same stage, and on the same screen before the same audience. Words, lines, themes, forms, sensibilities, and visions of a contemporary Indian/Sri Lankan Poet is deeply determined by this complex of multi-cultural dialogues. A taste of the east is still dominant in our creative endeavors and experiments, even after a series of violent invasions and occupations of colonial concepts, lessons, knowledge, isms, moral/immoral new waves of life styles, and the unforeseen growth of the remote control of market over culture. ‘A terrible beauty is born’ as W.B. Yeats foresaw, here too, but with a sure tone of the east, We have to alter it, this terribly complex world of beauty with its terribly disturbing local problems and local pains.

(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