Poetry in the time of pandemic

Wednesday, 28 July 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

A prisoner goes to the jail’s library to borrow a book. The librarian says: “I am sorry, we don’t have this book, but we have its author.”


By Dylan Perera


Ahnaf Jaseem

It’s a Turkish joke, much richer in the context of its old, decayed and brutal imperium. One that came to mind as I was going through translations of Ahnaf Jaseem’s poetry – the poet from Mannar currently living his 14th month in prison. 

The idea of putting poets in prison has an eminent history. Plato wanted poets banned from his ideal City because poetry was distant from the truth and engaged the lesser parts of the soul. The less high minded explanation might also have been that he didn’t take too kindly to Aristophanes, a brilliant comic poet of the time, roasting his friend Socrates in public. And there is a long history of poets and writers in prison, a few for crime, others for debt and the vast majority for their politics from Wagner to Li Po from Dostoevsky to Ezra Pound all had politics and ideas out of favour with their times. 

I wondered what about Ahnaf Jaseem’s poetry was so rabid and incendiary that the Attorney General’s Department thought it best to put him away. The poetry is part of the case against him. 

For much of his poetry Jaseem is preoccupied with virtue and goodness. And it is a virtue that is oddly Buddhist in outlook. ‘I Must Create’ for instance reveals a yearning to remould oneself in virtue that the Buddha might have applauded:

Control the senses of the body,

And the arrogance of the mind,

Do not take pride in yourself,

Take control of your tongue growing long,

And fold it in your overreaching hand

‘Hereafter’ is grounded in a similar virtue and self-control, but in tone is a strident polemic against the relentless impulse to gratify the senses and baser instincts. Its sentiments would slip effortlessly into some of the later Theravada Buddhist commentarial literature as Buddhism had to countenance its own institutional decay.

Look for another woman

Satiate your lust

Thus you roam lifelong

Treachery, wrangle, women, drink

Listen to base music

Drunk, sing with the dame

Foster theft and dissension

Always yearn for good food

Having eaten rollick, sleep

and dream

The moon up in the sky

Other themes of charity and trust and honesty emerge as deep seated, if naïve, yearning for a better world. His attitude to women appears more problematic. There is undiluted love for his mother – the leit motif of the Sri Lankan son; the universal young man’s tongue in cheek lament at the ‘stony’ heart of woman; but there is also plenty of the standard South Asian Misogyny too. Women get raped because of the way they dress and act. 

You my sister, your body hugging clothes,

and skin-tight attire, drives the stranger mad,

and he strips you bare, Then you cry ……..

or equalling disturbingly:

…..Women’s liberation has no meaning, no benefit to anyone, anywhere

Odious as these lines are, they are typically conservative Sri Lanka sentiments, held in common among sil maniyo or mullahs or respectable middle class folk and are culturally mainstream.

On the other hand, there is an almost religious joy in nature, in the wind and rain and lightning in the storm. These poems reveal a sensitive youth struggling to reconcile the world as it reveals itself. If there is wonder at the natural world there is also a growing despair at the nature of man and the affairs of the world. There is almost baffled despair at the plight of the Rohingya:

‘The times when the Burmese Buddhists used to dance, sing, play and mingle with our people are all gone. Now they insult them, demanding they leave, telling them there is no refuge for them in Burma, only graves..

…….. Do not think you have broken their homes, dashed the tiles of the roof on the ground to pieces. Or that you have broken open the cage where the pet parrot lived’

The worst of his worst opprobrium is levelled at the ISIS and leaders of the Arab world and American imperialistic meddling. But here again his rhetoric is hardly provocative. On the contrary it would be the substance of any after-dinner conversation in the drawing rooms of the Sinhala nationalist classes. 

“Lives wither. Crops scream. The stench of corpses rises in circles. So many children are crying. But the pig-headed idiot is blabbering that the religious way, religion, Islam, is blooming. Which system of justice would call this just?”

Here is a rural and unsophisticated worldview made of simplistic binaries; one that feeds an impotent anger against injustice and a yearning for divine retribution. In translation it is impossible to judge the quality of Jaseem’s poetry but perhaps we should not be hasty in our judgment of poets. He would not be the first poet whose overflow of emotion passed off as poetry. 

But what of the AG’s Department? It has been one of those hallowed institutions whose daily task is to demark, defend and dispense an order based on law. Much like poetry is to the individual, its existence represents a marker between civilisation and barbarism. 

The AG’s Department is supposed to attract the brightest and the best of our lawyers, able to parse legal minutiae, while awake to the possibilities, nuance and the hidden subtleties of the written word. How then did they find Jaseem’s poetry so utterly dangerous as to deprive him of liberty?

Do they read poetry in the AG’s Department? If they did, it would take at an hour at best to conclude that Jaseem’s anger is not incitement, deep religiosity is not a joint conspiracy and a yearning for divine retribution not a plan of violence. 

At its heart Jaseem’s continued incarceration on the one hand shows a deep incapacity to think or evolve beyond the colonial template of the State controlling and coercing its populace, instead of safeguarding and empowering the citizen. 

On the other hand, 30 years of war and steady social degradation, years rationalising State brutality, the constant compromise of principles, the galling subservience to increasingly stupid politicians and the lure of fat consultancies must take its toll on the institution’s integrity. 

A studied blindness to inconvenient truths has perhaps led to an endemic inability to see the distinction between Government, State and public interest; a moral deficit and intellectual laziness of an enabler that refuses to see beyond the coarse daily traffic of judicature; where Citizen is a watch and Liberty a cinema. 

The Police mostly deal out immediate, unthinking brutality, but there is a measured and much worse malignancy at play when learned and reasoning men, join together under law, to deprive another of his liberty on flimsy prejudice.

The translations were by Prof. Sumathy Sivamohan and Dr. Mahendran Thiruvarangan.

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