The Poetry Of A Jaffna ManText and Pictures By Imaad Majeed
Born and raised in Jaffna, S “Sopa” Pathmanathan is a poet and translator who has worked as a teacher for most of his life, serving as Principal of the Palaly Training College, from 1993 to 1996. He is currently the President of the Saiva Children’s Home, which falls under the purview of the Hindu Board of Education – an organization that provides food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, education and vocational training to children affected by the 30 year conflict, those from broken homes, and those from families below the poverty line.
The rhythmic nuances of the written word first struck chord with Sopa, when, as a child, he listened to traditional religious discourse, or Kadaparagasangam, sung at the kovil; “To me, it was like watching an opera; I was possessed by the sonority and the rhythm, and so I began to write.”
Sopa’s poetry took a political angle around the 60s, with the elections that followed S W R D Bandaranaike’s assassination. “People were being taken for a ride.” He said, indignantly. In the 70s, his poems would become a satire on electioneering and on Tamil candidates.
“I have not written for the Tigers.” He declared, “They may have had a cause to fight for; I know that most Tamils felt the Tigers were justified in their actions as peaceful moves had failed.” But his concern was for the people caught in conflict. He claims he shares the psyche of the people, and is proud he did not run away. “Anyone who dons the uniform belongs to one caste and the gun is their symbol of authority. When the IPKF left in 1990, that vacuum was filled by the Tigers.”
The cover of his book of poetry, Vadakiruthal, depicts the scene of the October 1995 exodus of Waligamam when nearly five million were evacuated “wholesale” in the Riviresa Operation. “The Tigers could not contain the Army, and, so they said ‘Leave. Or stay and be butchered by the Army’,” The title poem asks which house has been demolished today, which bridge bombed, which mine blasted, which library burnt down, which child orphaned, which wife widowed, which woman defiled, which mother’s lament will be heard, and, tellingly, “where should we complain?”
“I have even written poems on the Government’s embargo on batteries, bicycle spare parts and fertilizer, these were times when being caught with two pen-torch batteries on your person would get you into serious trouble,” he said. “Even pharmaceuticals were withheld.”
He spoke of how the plays of Dr M Shanmugalingam gave expression to the anguish of the community caught in conflict. “I was convinced that it was the finest artistic expression of helplessness,” he said. “We were all witness to the struggle. It was not safe to express our feelings, at the time, as anyone could be mistaken for a militant.”, and described how it planted in him the urge to take on the task of translating Shanmugalingam’s work.
“At some points, I felt helpless, as he draws copiously from devotional and folk literature from the Tamil tradition. Folk idioms are difficult to translate.” He said.
Translations of poetry are a real challenge – as the famous quote from Robert Frost goes: poetry is what is lost in translation! Short stories, on the other hand, were not as challenging unless they made use of indigenous words, he claimed.
His translations have appeared in the Journal of South Asian Literature, and he has received the State Literary Award twice: in 2001, for his translation of African Literature to Tamil, and in 2011 for his translation of a Burmese monk’s tales. During the peace talks, Sopa worked on translation of Sinhala poetry by the Hiru Group, a project that stemmed from a meeting of writers from the North and South. Sopa’s original poetry, as well as his translations of Tamil poets, appears in Mirrored Images (2013), an anthology of Sri Lankan poetry edited by Rajiva Wijesinha.
While attempting the translation of African poetry, Sopa chose to parallel the metrics with traditional Tamil meter. “I would try to absorb the rhythm of the original, and find one closest to that within the Tamil metrics,” he said. With the writings of Sinhala poets, Sopa chose to glide into free-verse despite the original poems being in traditional form, because he felt the rhythm would suffer, as the poem had already lost some meaning between Sinhala and English. “In the traditional form, I could have created a good poem, but it would have deviated away from the original.” he said.
“A translation requires the translator to come to terms with the original idea of the creator. The discipline is to grasp, not to replace,”
Sopa was an upstart in the field of translation in the 80s, a time when, according to him, there was a dearth of trilingual persons. “The switch to the National Language in 1956 saw a decline in the use of the English language and far fewer multilingual persons – more so in Jaffna,” he said. When asked about Jaffna’s reading culture, Sopa expressed his concerns with the present generation’s fixation with the internet. “They are keen on studies, but those are the only books they touch.” He complained. “For 20 years, the students of Jaffna studied under kerosene lamps, and yet they remain illuminated. Now, with new and improved access to technology, very few visit the library. They are buried in the internet.”
Despite this, he said there was evidence a new generation of writers from Jaffna is actively publishing their work. “However, publishers are not willing to risk publishing poetry as it does not sell. I had to offer to purchase my own books from my publisher in order to convince them to take it on!” he said, adding sadly “There is no encouragement to pursue a literary career in Jaffna. You can recover part of your investment, if you win an award, but, you will be a loser in the long-run.”
Courtesy: Sunday Leader