Aparna Eswaran in conversation with Eelam poet Cheran Rudhramoorthy
As an undergraduate student, Cheran Rudhramoorthy from atop his hostel room witnessed the burning of Jaffna city and the public library being set ablaze by the Sri Lankan military forces. He saw therein, a message the fire had written upon the clouds. It was a sunset, but he called it a second sunrise, knowing very well that the future was bleak, because “when you burn books, what follows next is inevitably a burning of people”.
In a powerful prophetic vision, he saw the apocalypse approaching. Thirty years later when he comes out with his eighth collection of poems, Kaadaatru (The Healing of the forest), the unsettling images of his earlier poems; the wounded land mass, the dance of the dead, the blood of tears; had all come true. By May, 2009, genocide had been committed, people were burned.
Growing up among books and in company of poets that included the influence of his father ‘Mahakavi’, Cheran very early on discovered the oral potential of poetry. He memorized and recited huge chunks of his poetry in public and performed in plays. Cheran’s poetry is also a continuing story of Sri Lanka and Tamils, the poet and his craft journeys with it. The lyricism and aesthetic resonances of his earlier poetry gave way over time to a more economic writing which conveyed the parching of sensibilities at the onslaught of external violence, of living amidst the dead. In his early poems while we see a depiction of the pastoral beauties of his land, later on, the same landscape is evoked to convey the brutality committed on it by the war. Each poem of his became a testimony of a witness, a draft of the struggle at understanding, at reconciliation. It is also a human document pleading for clarity in the most difficult of times, when forgetting is a crime. He became the chronicler of specific events as well as a curator of universal human emotions.
Even when unrest led to the rise of militant groups, Cheran did not join any political group, because he was “limitless as a poet”. But he was a product of a deeply political environment, and unlike an aloof lotus leaf, Cheran’s poetry was like the engulfing sea, permeating within its waves, human emotions touched by the brutality of the war. His imagination and the verse it spewed out was drenched in blood and smelled of violent human betrayals. If some of his works makes us cringe with the imagery it throws up, it is so because it reminds us of our own betrayal, in living normal lives unheeding to the plights of a land and its people not far away. When Cheran boldly states that the Indian government is complicit in the genocide that happened in Sri Lanka, he is also pointing fingers at us, the people of this nation and our cruel silences. His poetry is a refusal to forget amidst it all, it is a refusal to remain silent.
When I met Cheran, on a cold January morning, the first thing that I noticed were his eyes, it was like his favorite trope, the sea, a calm sea. I was deeply aware of the fact that he was somebody who stared at death more than once; the calmness came from not being afraid of it anymore. Over two cups of coffee, he talked about the difficulties in forgetting, the impossibility of it. He was in town for the Jaipur Literature Festival where he ruffled some feathers by speaking out acerbic truths; he called genocide a genocide, and the Sri Lankan government and Indian Government complicit in it. Through the conversation, he broke into lilting Sri Lankan Tamil occasionally and into warm laughs easily. Excerpts from the interview:
To start with, how do you respond to the current refrain of our times that poetry is dying out? Is a revival necessary?
The question of revival doesn’t arise as I don’t consider poetry as dead or dying. It is like saying advent of radio and television signaled the demise of the printed word, but as we know the printed word continues to outlast the electronic visual media. Poetry has and will have an important place in human civilization, No decent civilization can be imagined without poetry. Poetry is for the finer elements of heart, the finer elements of thought. If a society doesn’t own poetry then there is something wrong with that society.
Poetry can of course differ from civilization to civilization, and it is true that the number of people who read poetry had dwindled say in places like U.S and Canada. But there are still civilizations that enjoy poetry like the Latin Americans, or the Arabs and to an extent Tamil as well.
As a bilingual writer how do you choose the language you write in?
I write poetry only in Tamil. I started reading and writing in English much later in my life and it became my academic language. But Tamil remained my creative language. Now I am more comfortable in English, and do write plays and creative non-fiction and have done journalism in English. But writing poetry in Tamil is very fundamental to my existence. Poetry comes to me in Tamil, at least till now.
Theodore Adorno had famously remarked “There would be no poetry after Auschwitz”. Nevertheless poems were written and artistic interventions resulted, reflecting on brutalities of the Nazi regime and Holocaust. But it took time, a traumatic silence was necessary. But your poems have been an immediate reaction. What role has trauma played in your poetry?
It is true that Adorno said that to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, but he did not maintain this conviction for long. He had later on observed that “Perennial suffering has as much right to express itself as the tortured has the right to scream”. My poem in Kaadatru is partly provoked by the brutal massacre of Tamil in May 2002. I have observed in my poem uuzhi that When people die/to shroud in silence/To withdraw in silence/ is not for the poet.
Poetry is hence a way to simultaneously transmit and mourn the trauma. It is at once an attempt to traverse the pain as well as a coming to terms with the impossibility of achieving such a closure.
Considering your works have been translated widely and also that you yourself translate, how do you approach or assess the craft? Do you think in translation there will always be an inevitable loss?
I have worked with several translators. A.R Venkatachalapathy being one of the earliest, who as a student translated my first two collections way back in 1983. I have had friends and readers translate my work. But there are three translators who have systematically translated my work over time; Prof. Chelva Kanaganayakam, Lakshmi Holmstrom and Sascha Ebeling. They do it out of love and passion for poetry which shows. The translation, it is usually a creative process where we sit and discuss.
While it is a very interesting process, it is also very painstaking. It is like a negotiation. All translation is. Sometimes the historical context, the cultural and political specificities cannot be translated. For example in my poem ‘Amma, don’t weep’ there is a reference to the Pandian King alluding to the myth of Kannagi from the ancient Tamil poem Silappadikaaram. A reader unfamiliar with the myth will miss the allusion completely, unless say a footnote is put in. These are all challenges for the translator.
Also the rhythm and tone of one language does not necessarily suit another. So when you read a translation you imagine that the original is more evocative. But again I have come across instances where the translation triumphs the original and is better. But of course it was not my poetry (laughs). I am deeply indebted to my translators for putting so much love and effort into it. I have translated works of other poets from Tamil to English, but mostly it has been for academic purposes. I don’t fancy myself as a great translator.
You have called yourself a ‘rooted cosmopolitan’. But there is a well articulated yearning for return in your poems, nostalgia for the land you left behind, its history and memory. How do you balance this internal tension, this belonging to different nations in your poems?
The term ‘rooted cosmopolitan’ was coined by a friend of mine to describe another friend of mine, J. Kanagarathnan, a professor in Jaffna, a voracious reader, a cosmopolitan in every sense of the word, but he never stepped out of Jaffna.
In my case, I am giving it a twist. Even though I am comfortable living in different parts of the world as a writer, with all kind of opportunities, challenges, and spaces of resistance it provides, for me it is significant that my poetry is rooted in Tamil and its various tensions.
I have extended the limits of Tamil poetry by being a cosmopolitan, by living in exile, by travelling wide. The city I live in, Toronto is in every way a city for rooted cosmopolitans, someday you should visit and you will know it.
How do you experience the multiplicity of being a Tamilian? On the one hand there is the deliberate attempt to situate and confine an autochthonous/pure Tamil culture to the state of Tamil Nadu as seen in the organization of a “World Classical Tamil Conference” by the state, and on the other hand, there is the experience of the vast Diaspora which has been reflected in your poems on exile and migration.
Though I spend my formative years and grew up in Jaffna, I have grown out of it and have come to experience different kinds of Tamil geography, different ways of being Tamil.
Tamil, I think, is a very secular identity and also a secular language. Tamil cannot be compartmentalized or coupled with a specific religion. There itself we can see the possibility of multiplicity. There are Tamil Buddhists, Tamil Jains, Tamil Muslims, Tamil Christians…There is a historical continuity to this secularity starting from the Sangam period. Some of the major works in the language are not Hindu texts like Silappadikaaram, Thirukural, Manimeghalai.
Secondly being Tamil has become not a national life, but a transnational life. The whole idea of Tamil cannot be confined to a particular geographical territory; it is not possible any more. All sorts of combinations; Tamil German, Tamil Canadian, etc; are possible because of diasporic life.
The third dimension constitutes the new generation of Tamilians born and brought up in other parts of the world. Even if they don’t know the language, they strongly politically identify themselves as Tamil. But then any identity is a claim making. As long as one is passionately committed and linked to the identity, nobody can deny it to them.
But then marginal identities will continue to be denied, and no solution to oppressed nationalities can come about unless the current international system, which is strongly biased to the nation-state, is changed. We all know that the nation-state system rests on an arbitrary division of people by colonial and imperial forces. As I see it there is a fundamental contradiction in the current international system. On the one hand the nation-states subscribe to universal fundamental rights, which are mind you, indivisible. On the other hand they also are members of organizations like the IMF, World Bank and WTO whose fundamental commitment is towards capital. Hence states are simultaneous subscribers to contradictory values. And this contradiction governs the current international system.
As long as it continues, hypocrisy will ensue. They will be concerned about Syria, but won’t care about what happens in Sri Lanka. We need to find a politics that transcends this international system, through a transnational system from below where all oppressed unites in solidarity and stress multiplicity and plurality, and is armed with some sort of radical democracy. It is a long way to go, but the only way out.