THE VOICE OF A DISSIDENT: KARUNAKARAN’S POST – WAR POETRY

S.Pathmanathan, Sri Lanka
The making of the poet :
Karunakaran was born in Yakkachi in 1963. Yakkachi is close to Elephant Pass that links the Jaffna peninsula to the mainland. Karunakaran was a member of the EROS – one of the many Tamil youth groups that were frustrated with the partial treatment they got at the hands of successive Governments and chose to take up arms.
The EROS was forced by the more powerful LTTE to disband itself 1990 and was left with no alternative but to become part and parcel of the LTTE. Karunakaran, thanks to his creative skills, was absorbed into the Cultural wing. He edited Velichcham, a literary journal of the movement.
He has published six collections of poetry. The major part of his writing career spans the three decades of ethnic war that culminated in the defeat and decimation of the LTTE.

Early Poems

Karunakaran has been writing since the eighties. His poems appeared in the local magazines. Quite a few were published abroad in various periodicals. It was in 1999 that his first collection Oru pozhuthikku Kaaththiruththalappeared.

He had started speaking about the ravages of war. Needless to say what a village overrun
by trucks and tanks would look like. The landmarks are simply not there.
Our life laden with
a thousand years of myth
a million songs and dance
wine and hunting
was lost that morning

Where are the paths
trodden by my forefathers?
Where are the ripe paddy fields?1

Karunakaran is able to look at the war objectively. At the height of the war, soldiers were dying in large numbers – victims of landmines, claymore mines and booby traps. They were young men from the countryside most of whom had joined the army because they needed a job. Their parents were living in perpetual fear, praying for the safe return of their sons from the front.
“Leaves wither from the Bodhi
The Mahaweli sobs
A mother sheds tears
for her son
sent to the Front
to fight a war
he cannot win”2

Another stanza of the same poem presents the picture of a girl playing the violin on a full moon day. She is playing a mournful note. Her brother had been killed in the North.
“This night
the fullmoon sprays milk
The stupas of the Vihara
bathe in the moonlight
The violin spills
a sad lyric
Srimani is calling her brother
killed last month
in the Northern front…..”3

Most of the Tamil poets of the time put the blame on the State security forces which, they declared, were fightingan unjust war – a war of oppression. ButKarunakaran is able to rise above this bias and look at the conflict from the point of view of the Sinhalese who are also affected – in a different way.

Trailing shadows is a moving poem on the Valigamam exodus which took place in October 1995. The Security forces embarked on an ambitions operation to capture the Jaffna peninsula which was under the control of the LTTE. Everyone agreed that the civilian casualties would be heavy. So the whole population, around 500,000 was pressurized by the LTTE to vacate. The only option before them was to cross the lagoon at Kilali by fishing boats and head for Vanni.

Karunakaran is among the thousands of refugees crossing the lagoon. He is capturing the anguish of one who is torn from his villages with no prospect of return.

“Ashy shadows of palms and bushes
dissolve at a distance
as I sail away
the engines of my wind – tossed boat roaring

The Kilali shore grows smaller, blurred
Unable to turn my face or wave my hands
I sit

Listen, my little sea
soaked in the blood of your sons
Listen:

I know your sobs fill the four corners
Having lost a life, I seek another….
I sail away

My story like your fate breaks to pieces
like your waves that lash the shore
So whom should I address
the blowing wind or the sea- birds that follow?4

War poetry is inevitably bleak and negative. That a poet like Karunakaran can make it rich is proved by the following excerpt from a long poem published in 2003.

“The floods washed away
the dreams of the ants
The fire robbed the flowers
of their fragrance and beauty
The wind as usual is a confirmed witness
to everything5

War and post – war poetry
Karunakaran was witness, in particular, to the last phase of the war. In terms of loss of civilian life and property it was a costly operation, out of proportion to our island nation’s small population. Four out of his six volumes of poetry were written during this phase. The poems highlight the suffering and agony of a people caught in the war, having n choice, drifting without any sense of direction, to where the vagaries of war would take them. The LTTE kept over 300,000 civilians as human shield, closing all avenues of exit. Hunger, Starvation deteriorating Sanitation and Death were staring them in the face. Escape was impossible. The safety zones were not safe. Indiscriminate shelling by both sides was taking a heavy toll of human lives – young and old.
The suffering masses ask:
“What are we witness for?
Why have we become witness?
No disgrace
in bowing down before Death…..”
Life cut down by war
lies in the street bleeding
for dogs to small6

The poet uses the snake – image to suggest the sinister way in which war crawls leaving victims behind.

“As the war snake crawls
under our legs
head after head falls”7

Most of the poems in A Traveler’s Wartime Diary were composed between 2007 and 2009. The poet’s future – his very life – was uncertain. He still had access to the internet. That was how some of these poems reached net journals like Thinnai and Vaarapu and were read in literary circles. As the war was drawing to a close all communication ceased.

A traveller’s Wartime Diarywas publishedthree years after the end of the war The images in this collection are more specific and startling:

“I haven’t slept for centuries
In dark bunkers
in stinking graves
in courtyards reeking of death
in dry leaves crumpling under horses’ hoofs
where blood starts flowing in all directions
how can I keep count of time?”8

The poem now shifts to an imagery of ritual:

“Can’t put everything as aahuti
into this blazing fire
How to extinguish this endless fire?
This century’s grief cannot end
until a cold loving hand embraces me!9

The poem Falling out presents a terrifying vision:

“Streams ran dry
Jungles were ablaze
Smoke filled the air
Heavy curtains of Silence
hang in all directions of History”10

The inner struggle cannot go on forever. The poet has to decide:

“No, I can’t
I cannot continue
to be torn endlessly
in this land of growing pain
as the witness
as the killer
as the victim!
I fall out
in search of a spring!
The roaming herd
has to find its own direction”11

The poem The Cross, last kiss, Punishment and the need to tell the Truth is a very powerful one. The suffering of the drifting civilians parallels the passion of Christ.

“Before the great grief
All masquerades vanish
Let them weep
Let them curse
They want to speak the truth……”12

It is no secret that the LTTE kept over 300,000 civilians as human shield, closing all avenues of exit. Anyone who tried to escape was summarily dealt with. The plight and predicament of this trapped humanity are brought out poignantly in the following lines:

“The great king had planted his sword
on that road
The shadow of fear pushed everything
into the valley of Silence
All avenues had been closed

People roamed
in search of an avenue
in search of a Fate
But in all directions
the swords of the great king
had been planted

Later
The valley of Silence
became a huge grave
And a huge prison
devoured the great king’s entourage”13

This refers to the surrender of the LTTE cadres who were detained in camps.

TheTheatre of Death is a long poem in the collection which captures the final moments of suffering, uncertainty and fear which possessed the trapped civilians as the noose tightened

“Frozen in the bunkers
Not knowing who to believe
Not knowing what to accept
The stench of rotting corpses
And the faeces slapping them
They got no answers to their questions”14

The irony of the situation was that the very people for whose so – called liberation this war was fought, were out in the open, exposed to the elements and the shelling but the commanders were in the bunkers. Karunakaran doesn’t spare the priests and the officials who left the people in the lurch.

“The leaders were in the bunkers
The priests were in the bunkers
The officials were in the bunkers
The commanders were in the bunkers
The people were in the open
No saviour came
to rescue those
crawling in the jungle of corpses!”15

This is perhaps the strongest indictment of the leadership both religious and secular. Their callous indifference is exposed by the poet in the following lines:

“the UN was collecting statistics
The messengers of Peace
were preparing reports
The academics were collecting data
The journalists were flashing news
The warlords were justifying deaths
The death serpent was devouring refugees”16

The utter hopelessness of the situation is beyond imagination.

The Security forces have overrun the Tiger – held areas. Fighting has ceased. The exhausted, emaciated, sickly, feeble, limping civilian population surrenders to the armed forces. The formalities are gone through again and again.

“As refugees
we are transferred
from one camp to another
from one security zone to another
We are exhausted

The young grow old
In their sunken eyes
their past drips in sorrow

How many times
could we go through
the endless ritual of
new photographs
new attestations
new registrations
new ID cards?”17

The title of the poem is an understatement that slaps the reader on the face:

“My full name is Refugee No AM 47815 07”

All wars leave behind widows, orphans, the maimed and a tribe called refugees. They are the wretched of the earth, living on the charity of the State or the N.G.Os. Karunakaran says they are respected only at Election time:

“Once and only once
are refugees respected
They visit us
at election time
……………………..
In the adjoining camp
a girl who had lost
both her hands
was asked by a visitor
“Daughter, how can you vote?
To whom would you vote?”18

The end of the war is not really the end. It is a time for stock – taking. It is an occasion to look inwards – to ask ourselves why we acted in the crazy way we did. There is a need to think in terms of the future – to make this country a far morebetter place for the generations to come.

Karunakaran is not quite happy with the post – war scenario. Disillusioned with the warring world, Karunakaran struggles to hold on to something positive but what he sees around him is hasty, short – sighted “reconstruction”.His poem Stars and Star Hotelswhich appears in the recent collection on Neruppin Uthiramhighlights the so – called era of progress that has dawned.

“An NGO supplies seedlings
Another collects the fruits
Another extracts the juice
Another bottles it
Another markets it

The vehicles rush to the farms
Then to the factories
Then to the supermarkets
The farmers load the trucks
They stand in the farm the whole day
The wide sky above
The earth gazes at the sky
The farmers too..”19

The poem doesn’t need any elaboration. Through a series of visual images the poet draws our attention to the collapse of a Society and the values it once held.

Walking on their heads is another poem which exploits the same theme.

“The children
who used to scare parrots
that steal corn
are now toiling
with cement and metal
building a concrete desert
on the one – time paddy land…..”20

We hear a lot of shouting these days about environment and conservation but the few lines quoted above speak much more about the mindless nation – building that is going on in a war – ravaged country. That is Karunakaran’sgreatness.

Footnotes
1. Karunakaran,Oru pozhuthukku Kaththiruththal ,Mahizh, kilinochchi – 1999, p 10
2. Ibid – p 17
3. Ibid – p 17
4. Karunakaran, Mirrored Images, Edit. Rajiva Wijesinha, National Book Trust, New Delhi (2013) – pp 176 – 177
5. Karunakaran, Oru Payaniyin nihalkala Kurippukal, Mahizh, Killinochchi – (2003) – P 23
6. Karunakaran, The Pascal Lamb, Vadali, Chennai (2009) – pp 22 -23
7. Ibid , pp 112 – 113
8. Karunakaran, A traveller’s Wartime Diary,Karuppu piradhigal (2012) – pp 23 – 25
9. Ibid – p 24
10. Ibid- p 29
11. Ibid – p 29
12. Ibid – p 43
13. Ibid – p 58
14. TheTheatre of Death,A traveller’s Wartime Diary, Karuppu piradhigal (2012)-p 117
15. Ibid – p 123
16. Ibid – p 117
17. Karunakaran, A traveller’s Wartime Diary, Karuppu piradhigal (2012) – p 87
18. Ibid – p 89
19. Karunakaran, Neruppin Uthiram, Mahizh,Kilinochchi (2014) – p 23
20. Ibid – p 37

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About noelnadesan

Commentator and analyst of current affairs.
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