Tuesday, November 25, 2014

His Heart Suddenly Failed Him

Professor Chelva Kanganayakam (1952-2014)

Scattered like floating lotus
Defying land and time,
Our wings gained strength.
Your life the essence of kindness

We can tread on fire, or
Defy the wind;
We cannot lose our lives…

These lines from an elegy I wrote for a close friend of mine who passed away last year were perhaps the last poem Chelva Kanaganayakam translated from Tamil to English. After reading and translating the poem Chelva was so deeply moved and read it out toThiru, his beloved wife. Then he called me in the middle of the night to share my grief. I was inconsolable.
Even though I was somewhat used to the dreaded midnight or early morning phone calls from SriLanka over the past several years of war and devastation, I was completely unprepared for the grim email message from Chelva’s brother-in-law late last night.

After attending the official function inducting him as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in Québec City on November 22, 2014, Chelva suffered a cardiac arrest and passedaway.
A great man o fkindness, wisdom and intellectual rigor is no more.

Chelva Kanaganyakam, received his bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literatureat the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka and his doctoral degree at the Universityof British Columbia. After his doctoral studies he joined the University ofToronto’s Department of English and became professor of English.  He was the director of the Centre for SouthAsian Studies at the Munk School of Global affairs.

His research andteaching interests were post- colonial studies, as well as diasporic writings and translations. While the geographic focus of his research revolved around South Asia and South East Asia, Chelva was always attracted to “hybridity andhierarchy” of literatures in English and in the vernacular languages of these regions and the diaspora. He would often pose the question whether one should have some grasp of a vernacular language rather than, or in addition to, French,German or Spanish in order to undertake serious research?

“The centrality of the literary text” he would argue, “cannot be erased although the frame could be one that includes but goes beyond a Eurocentric one.” In his constant search for alternative ways of configuring the field of postcolonial studies, Chelva was prolific in writing and publishing.

In the study of literary history Chelva was keenly interested inventuring into new methodologies. Another theme that animated his current workis the notion of aesthetics in Tamil writings that emerged as a response and resistance to war, loss, genocide and trauma. Through his translations and accompanying critical reviews, Chleva was grappling with the question of how notions of aestheics and poetics as articulated by modern writers of resistance in theTamil context can challenge traditional ideals and formulations of aesthetics.

Chelva was an excellent translator of fiction and poetry from Tamil to English, his translation of Nedunalvaadai- a classical Sangam Tamil epic - is a great work of finesse, beauty and painstaking detail. Indeed, Chelva translated almost all of the great contemporary Tamil writers from Sri Lanka.

Chelva was one of the founding members of the annual Toronto Tamilstudies conference at the University of Toronto since 2006. The conference isthe largest international Tamil Studies conference in North America.

Some of his other key works include: In our Translated World: Global Tamil Poetry (2013),Nedunalvaadai (in Tamil2010), Wilting Laughter: ThreeTamil Poets (2009), You Cannot TurnAway (2010),Counterrealism andIndo-Anglian Fiction (2002); Ed. Lutesongand Lament: Tamil Writing from Sri Lanka (2001); Dark Antonyms and Paradise: The Poetry of Rienzi Crusz (1997); Configurations of Exile: South Asian Writersand Their World (1995);Structures ofNegation: The Writings of Zulfikar Ghose (1993).

A few months ago Chelva completed compiling, translating and editing a grand volume of Tamil literature since 1948 titled Uprooting the Pumpkin for Oxford University Press. He spent       hundreds of sleepless nights working on this volume and it is so painful that hewas unable to see the volume in print.

At the time of his death Chelva was working on a massive volume on thehistory of South Asian literatures in English. It is so unfortunate that thisproject as well as his other translation projects will not be completed by him.

Chelva’s students, friends and colleagues will always remember hiswarm, welcoming but slightly hidden smile and open heart, the heart that suddenly failed him, and us too.


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