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My lawless motherland - Part One

By Basil Fernando

(March 10, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) What am I, I ask myself

What is my motherland ?

(From the collection of poems, 'The sea was calm behind your house.' _

The motherland is something natural, something that comes with birth; something to which one is connected, biologically, psychologically and emotionally, in short, in every way. It is not something conditional; it is something that conditions almost everything else.

On the other hand if one's father becomes an alcoholic or one's mother becomes insane, despite of that the basic relationship still remains. It is so much of a bond, so much that is natural, so much which is everything, that the basic and fundamental relationship still remains.

On the other hand the fact of the alcoholism or insanity is also a fact and that is not something that one cannot ignore. It is something that one has to deal with. It also affects everything, psychologically, emotionally and in every way.

Such is the contradiction also about the motherland. Often the concept is used only to denote the romantic side of it, the better side of it and the happier side of it. However, this relationship is so deep, so natural and so total that it cannot just remain in the areas of romance or the dream.

It also affects and, in fact, also is deeply linked to the reality. Thus, everything in the motherland that is real affects this total relationship. It is still within the area of the dream. But not all dreams are sweet. There are also nightmares. The events that traumatize people are transformed into dreams and the dream world can also become a place of trauma when the problems of real life enter into the emotional and the psychological.

The problem of the motherland is also like that. When things go wrong, when violence begins to spread, when order turns to chaos, when law turns to lawlessness this affects the citizen so enormously, so fundamentally and so totally. It affects the total being. It affects the totality of a person. It affects the very depths.

For the poets of my childhood who were known as the Colombo poets the concept of the motherland was more of a romantic concept and one which was more linked to the nature.

P.B. Alvis Perera was perhaps the most vocal among the poets who talked about “mage rata” (my country), using the word 'mage' in a comprehensive way, a possessive way, claiming that everything that was beautiful in nature and in the land as his. He wrote about the mountains, the rivers, the fruit, the trees and everything that was nice and beautiful. One of his poems beginning with the words: 'Mahaweli, Kalani, Walawe, Kalu yena Ganga', the rivers called Mahaweli, Kalani, Walawe Kalu was on the lips of every child and was sung with some pride.

These rivers flowing from the Samanala mountains carried in their bellies the gems. These rivers fought courageously their way to the sea with the view to give everything that they had to the sea. Such was the way that the poet saw the rivers. The river motif is a powerful poetic image. That imagery of beautiful rivers in a beautiful country talked about beautiful people and everything that was beautiful. That was how things looked in the 50s and even the 60s. It was still an idea of a beautiful land where beautiful people lived beautiful lives.

This image of the beautiful people doing beautiful things changed in the 70s and that change has remained a permanent factor up to now. Things turned ugly. Things turned into violence, the young were killed brutally .

The young of every nation is the beauty of every nation. It is in the life of the young that the beauty of the nation is most reflected. In my first Sinhala collection of poems the title was, 'The young lad died'. “Kuluwa Malaye”. That was when the killings of 1971 were happening. The killing of young people in what was called a rebellion.

The bodies of the young boys and girls floated in the rivers. They floated in those beautiful rivers; in Kalani, Kalu, Mahaweli and all these wonderful rivers that the poet spoke of so eloquently. The bodies of the young boys and girls floating in the rivers changed the very imagery of the rivers. It changed the very imagery of the nation. From then on it was another story. The motherland became a lawless land. The state that was there to protect began to kill. It began to kill the young, the very spirit and essence of the nation.

And the “kabaragoy” that used to float on those rivers added to the ugliness. They were eating the bodies of the young. The beauty turned into ugliness; the law into lawlessness. In the motherland there was murder.

A Dutch director of a documentary called Sri Lanka 'murderland'. The motherland had become the murderland. Thus, two contradictory aspects began to emerge in the nation; the beautiful nation and the ugly nation; so majestically beautiful in nature, so vile and violent in dealings with the people. This vast change was not something that was, or is, possible to escape the eye, the emotion and the expression of the citizen.

The citizen sees, the citizen feels and the citizen is traumatized by the depth of violence in the nation. It is this that was caught up in the imagery of the following poem.

Mahaweli, Kalani, Walawe, Kalu Ganga

I used to sing
kavi from padyawaliya
Mahaweli, Kalani, Walawe, 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 the mountains
mixed with blood
floating bodies
eaten by kabaragoy
Now I do not like to hear of
Walawe, Kalani and Kalu
Mountains have lost
Mystery or attraction
In the eyes of mothers
I did not see tears but distrust

What am I, I ask myself
What is my motherland?
I want to sing those same poems
to that I can't bring myself.

(kavi—Poems, Padyawaliya—A school anthology; Ratharan Puthun—Golden sons; Kararagoy—water monitor).

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