IFTIKHAR DADI: Good afternoon, my name is Iftikhar Dadi. I'm the Director of the Cornell's South Asia Program. It's a really great pleasure to welcome you today to South Asia Program's annual Tagore Lecture. This is one of our favorite events at the South Asia Program, and I'm especially pleased that after a two year hiatus due to COVID, we are finally able to have the lecture again, and in person, and with no less a lecturer than today's distinguished speaker. So welcome, everyone.
In the late 1990s, Cornell Professor Emeritus of Operations and Industrial Research, Narahari Prabhu, and his wife, Mrs. Sumi Prabhu, initiated a generous gift to Cornell University, establishing the Rabindranath Tagore Endowment in Modern Indian Literature. The Rabindranath Tagore Endowment was created by Professor and Mrs. Prabhu in order to honor Rabindranath Tagore, a celebrated writer and musician and one of the great luminaries of the late 19th and early 20th century. In addition, with their endowment, Professor and Mrs. Prabhu sought to, and I quote, "project a strongly positive image of South Asian literature," end quote, including non-fiction, prose, poetry, and fiction from India and other locations in both national and English languages from across South Asia and the diaspora.
As our former Program Director, Professor Basu, and her husband, Professor Kaushik Basu, have written, and I quote, "Professor and Mrs. Prabhu deserve deep appreciation and thanks from the Cornell community for their generous gesture of the yearly Tagore Lecture. We are very fortunate that they decided to share their near-obsessive love of literature in general, and Tagore in particular, by endowing this lecture series. For those like us who know them personally however, the lecture is just one thing.
What we have got to appreciate and enjoy over the years in the long discussions on art, culture, and literature, they are always eager to begin and keep going. And it is particularly striking how this love for literature has made them good human beings in the best sense of the word-- open to their worldviews, tolerant of other points of view, interested in other people and other people's stories. In these times of intolerance and violence, it is wonderful to find in [? Umanath ?] and Sumi this eagerness to know and to understand the variety of human experience."
Mrs. Prabhu passed away a few years ago, and Professor Prabhu is quite elderly now. But I know that Professor Prabhu and his family are deeply pleased to make possible today's lecturer, Cheran, who joins an impressive list of former Tagore lecturers that includes Sunil Gangopadhyay, Kiran Nagarkar, Christi Merrill, Tahmima Anam, Amit Chaudhuri, Mohammed Hanif, Ranjit Hoskote, Shyam Selvadurai in 2017, Neel Mukherjee in 2018, and Anuradha Roy in 2019. And so we resume now after 2019 with today's lecture.
Dr. Rudhramoorthy Cheran is associate professor at University of Windsor, and I'm pleased to note that he is also at Cornell for several weeks during the spring semester as our visiting Tamil Studies scholar and also teaching a course on Tamil Studies in the second half of the Spring 2022 semester. It's also notable that this lecture has been scheduled to accompany the Sri Lanka Graduate Conference this weekend, and I welcome all of you on that behalf as well.
Cheran, one of the best known and widely influential of Tamil poets, was born in 1960 in a seaside village of Alaveddy near Jaffna in Sri Lanka. And please excuse me if I butcher the Tamil names. [CHUCKLES] His father, T. Rudhramoorthy-- widely known as Mahakavi, the great poet-- was one of the leading literary figures in Tamil classics. But from his early years, he also became familiar with the works of younger left-leaning poets who frequented their house.
Cheran graduated from Jaffna University with a degree in Biological Sciences. These were also the years of spreading ethnic unrest and conflict in Sri Lanka. In 1984, he joined the staff of Saturday Review, an English language weekly that was known for its stand on press freedom and fundamental rights and justice for minorities. He left for the Netherlands in 1987 where he completed a Masters in Development Studies. Returning to Colombo 2 and 1/2 years later, he helped start the Tamil newspaper, Sarinihar, published by the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality.
In 1993, he went to Toronto where he completed his PhD, and as I mentioned, he's now associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Windsor in Canada. His academic interests are also very wide in addition to his poetry writing, and they focus on ethnicity, identity, migration, and international development. Side by side, by his-- along with his academic career, he has continued to write his poetry and to contribute to literary and political journals. His inspiration for poetry has been really from the experience of war, the need for the freedom to write, the need to look at landscapes and to think about peace.
His early poems from 1975 through the year 2000 were collected under the title, which in English is-- translates as The River Into Which You Will Not Descend. This was followed by another collection called Once Against the Sea in 2004, and Forest Healing in 2011. In addition to these books, he has co-edited, along with three others, a landmark anthology of Tamil political poetry, which was published in 1985.
His poems have been translated very widely, into English, Swedish, Sinhala, Bangla, Kannada, Telugu, Dutch, Arabic, and Malayalam. And in English-- his English translations are available in numerous collections, which include Second Sunrise, In a Time of Burning, Wilting Laughter, and You Cannot Turn Away. One of these is available for purchase after the lecture.
Cheran has been widely recognized for his poetry. He received the ONV Award, from the ONV Foundation in Dubai, in 2017 for best-- for the best collection of poetry, and also recognized by the Tamil Literary Garden in Canada in 2006. And as if this were not enough, he has a whole range of publications that are scholarly in nature.
And I'll just mention a few of these titles-- The Sixth Genre-- Memory, History, and the Tamil Diaspora Imagination, History and the Imagination-- Tamil Culture in the Global Context, New Demarcations-- Essays in Tamil Studies, Pathways of Dissent-- Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka, Empowering Diasporas-- Dynamics of Post-Tamil Transnational Politics, Homeland Conflicts in the Shadows of 9/11 Canada-Sri Lanka Nexus, and Citizenship, Ethnicity and Governance in Myanmar.
So the lecture today will be followed by a reception, which you are all invited to kindly join and continue the discussion. And as I mentioned, there will also be a book signing with a number of copies of one of the poetry collections in English that are available. So today Cheran honors us with his presentation for the South Asia Program's annual Tagore Lecture. Please join me in welcoming.
CHERAN: Thank you so much, Iftikhar, for those extremely kind and sweet words. But when we all hear extremely sweet words, I encourage you to take all of them with a pinch of salt, or even a sack of salt.
I would like to begin by thanking the organizers, particularly my dear friend Daniel, and [? Anne, ?] and all the others who invited me to-- not to deliver a talk, but to share some of my poetry, and to share some of my ideas in relation to my poetry, in relation to Tamil identity. So what I am proposing to do is to speak for a little bit and then continue that talk with reading my poetry. And I am extremely honored to be here to deliver the Tagore Lecture.
And I do not have to insist or reiterate the importance of Tagore, not just in poetry, and literature, and music, but also his imagination of India. And the [? Tagore's ?] imagination of India is extremely important for us now at this point given the situation what was going on, right? That is one of the things that has been really provoking me to think more about Tagore.
Tagore visited Sri Lanka three times, and he had a stopover in the three times. In the three times he visited Sri Lanka, he visited Jaffna twice, and there was a huge welcome given to Tagore in Jaffna. And we do not have any kind of official recordings or writings of his visit there. What we really get is the newspaper clippings and the coverage of his visit to Sri Lanka. And for all the visits of Jaffna, the cover is available in Tamil language, and there's one English language paper that was published in Jaffna.
So in one of those speeches he addressed to Tamil people, he-- first he said he was very sorry to be speaking in English. He said English was an alien language for him. He wanted to speak in Bengali or some other language that is very closer. And the second point he mentioned was that Sri Lanka and Jaffna, all of them need to be culturally an integral part of Indian civilization in India. That is the only way to stand up against the imperial ideas that Britain has been imposing on.
And it was also very interesting to know that Tagore was in in his last days, last years of life. He was very disappointed with the kind of India that was being created by the British with the support of some local elite. And we all know, between 1911 and 1917, the Bengal was the chief driving force in the construction of Indian imagination. Everything was based in Kolkata, right?
And that was also in a time, there was direct trade between Jaffna and Kolkata, so tobacco and [INAUDIBLE] were exported to Kolkata right away, straight, because it was a free maritime trade, right. I will talk a little bit about the maritime trade of Tamil later in relation to identity, but without the [INAUDIBLE] exported from Jaffna, Bengali whaling would have been difficult. It was so important to have the [INAUDIBLE], and the tobacco. It went all the way.
So there was for any other-- the people in the other parts of Sri Lanka, if they wanted to go to Kolkata-- they need to go to Kolkata because they want to go to visit the Buddha place-- they have to go take the boat from Jaffna, and to Kolkata, and from Kolkata. So there was some kind of extreme give and take relationship between Jaffna and Kolkata even before Tagore's time.
And Tagore, in one of the speech-- one of the speeches said, you know, he was kind of scolding the Tamil people there. He said, you haven't produced any great poets in Tamil, and I understand all of you are writing in English. Because that was the time everyone was writing in English, that lingua franca.
But it was so unfortunate on the part of Tagore because Tamil produced one of the greatest poets, Bharathi, Subramania Bharathi, during his time. And when Tagore was unaware of it, right, otherwise he would have mentioned, OK, Bharathi. In fact, Bharathi is kind of equal. Bharathi's personality, and poetic capacity, and poetic depth and imagination, was nothing less than Tagore's.
But Tagore, because of his-- because of his networks, connections, and some travel, and some very interesting kinds of cosmopolitan network, he attained what he wanted to. And he deserves it. But some of that-- some of the other great poets of his time writing in other languages in India, they did not have that kind of a-- that kind of a-- what do you call it? I wouldn't-- I wouldn't want to say the word "acceptance," but that kind of recognition internationally.
So that was a-- that was an interesting thing for us to note. And after returning from Sri Lanka-- I think the trip to Sri Lanka was his last trip overseas, and after that, he passed away. So it is good to remember Tagore at this point, but sort of a thing, right.
So what is the relationship of my thinking, talking about Tagore now, and then I would like to move on to talk a little bit about the Tamil, and the Tamil identity, and the Tamil notion. What I have been writing, what I have been writing in my poetry, I would say it is a kind of a counter imagination to the traditional, historic, mythical, imaginance of being Tamil. I'm not, now, I am not speaking in a poetic language, so I'm just using-- it's a kind of an academic language, but I'll switch to my poetic language later.
One of the interesting and important aspects of Tamil identity is its relationship to the sea and why that relationship is important. I'm going to read a piece that I wrote in in 2005 about the sea, that is "The Sea Forsaken." When I was nine years old in the East Coast of Sri Lanka, I almost drowned in the sea at [INAUDIBLE]. My father saved me.
So as someone who grew up with the sea, my imagination was defined and determined by the sea. But then that was a sudden experience that the sea can be dangerous too. So my relationship to the sea suddenly changed a bit.
Then in 2004 during the tsunami, I was on the beach. So what happened then is going to be my beginning of my other section of the talk. So I would like to read that piece. "The Sea Forsaken-- Reflections of a Tsunami Survivor."
"I was born in Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. We had no mountains, no rivers. The monsoon rains were insufficient and unpredictable. Nothing grew naturally in my beloved but barren land except perhaps for men's beards.
But we grew up with the sea. Songs about the sea by our fish folk permeated my childhood. The only beautiful natural asset we had was the sea, the vast, open sea. But it was not always blue.
Many people knew me as a sociology professor and a researcher. While this is true, a more appropriate description would be to say that I am a poet. I work with wits, and I work with imagination.
Many people know my first published poem appeared in a Sri Lankan Tamil literary journal in 1975. And you can guess the title. The title of the poem was 'The Sea.' Ironically, my seventh collection of poems released in India just three days before the Asian tsunami was titled 'Return to the Sea.' My fantasies, imaginations, and dreams, have always been inseparably linked to the sea in all its forms, sounds, colors, and depth.
On December 26, 2004, I was on the beach with my sister, her two children, and my brother-in-law, in a small village called Hambantota on the Southern coast of Sri Lanka. Hambantota is a fishing community with mainly beach resorts along the coast. It was a time of the full moon, and many Sri Lankans had come to the resorts, and the edges in public picnic places where their families-- with their families to celebrate.
It was about 8:45 in the morning, and we had just returned from a breakfast. The children wanted to be in the pool, and we pondered the possibility of going for a swim or enjoying a lazy, sit-back-and-read snooze session. When we started walking on the beach trying to locate a few deckchairs, I noticed something very strange.
Suddenly, the water was rushing towards us with ferocious speed. My intellect did not light up, but my instincts did. We ran, and the sea chased us. I have never run that fast in my entire life, even when chased by gun toting Sri Lankan soldiers in the mid of 1980s.
Putting her own instincts to work at the right moment, my sister managed to grab her daughters and ran. With great difficulty, we negotiated the rising water, floating debris, and sinking hope. Our rooms were on the third floor, and we got there just ahead of the surging wave below. By the time we reached our rooms, the first floor was gone. Within 20 minutes or so, the sea started crawling back, taking everything on the ground.
What followed in the aftermath were moments of silence. I had no idea what had happened. All I could sense was that this was not ordinary. The body of water was not the one I had come to know, love, and cherish.
We decided to leave. But before we could pack up and leave, the sea came back for a second time. This time with a vengeance. This time, the waves were giant monsters. They struck the second floor of our hotel with such power that all the glass windows, doors, and patios were broken and tossed away like plastic toys. Fortunately, the third floor where we were, remained untouched.
Then the sea receded again. We made our way downstairs and waded through the waist-deep water that was moving less quickly by then. We scrambled up to the platform of Hambantota's railway station, the highest terrain we could locate at the time. The rest was just a dream.
When the waves hit for the third time, we were safely on our way to the capital city of Colombo in my brother in law's Toyota, the car. The car awash in water, had been parked outside the compound beside the parapet wall and had its own story of survival, which no one can write.
Now after recurring nightmares with sounds of broken glass and pounding waves, what we do not remember-- what I do not remember is how I survived. But what I do remember is the color of the wave. It was not blue.
I no longer have the same relationship with the sea. It is difficult to have the same relationship with the sea. It has been permanently altered, perennially shifted, and perilously wounded.
The classical Tamil poetry I studied in school had potent descriptions of three catastrophic tsunami submerging the so-called Lemuria, the ancient Tamil lands that once bridged India and Africa. Although I was certain this was just a fanciful legend and a myth, I have second thoughts now about tsunami striking the Tamil areas, Sri Lanka and India, especially the Tamil Nadu Coast.
Meanwhile, the imaginary web that once mediated our myths and reality lies ruined on the shores of Sumatra, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. Strangely, I feel fragile but empowered, sleepless but still dreaming."
So this is not just a story of survival, this point-- this is a way that I relate to how, not only my relationship to the sea, but also the Tamil communities all over the world and their relationship to the sea and the bodies of water. There were several kinds of-- the movements of my community from the sea shores of Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu. The first wave of this pre-colonial kind of migration was largely a maritime parade.
There were very powerful trade movements between the Tamil areas and Rome. There were lots of evidences. The maritime trade, historically, has been one of the key bonds, key issues, that shaped the Tamil identities, but nobody talks about it now.
And the second kind of relationship to the sea, is what everyone talks about, is the Chola Empire's military expeditions. The Chola has become a very powerful symbol of Tamil because of these military expeditions, military power, and the construction of temples. So Chola has become a symbol and identity of the Tamil.
Which, as a poet-- and a writer, and a social scientist, historian, and a sociologist-- I wouldn't want to accept, because we all know exactly what imperial expeditions, and imperial rule-- imperial rule can do to the populations, right. So that is a second kind of relationship with these military expeditions and being the warriors of the water. And the image is very powerful-- very powerful seafarers. Tamils as a seafarer.
And the third migration is what happened during the British colonialism, indentured labor. Tamils were taken--
[CELL PHONE RINGING]
Sorry about it. I thought I switch it off.
And that was the Tamil laborers taken to Sri Lanka from India, and they were taken to various other parts of the Caribbean, this indentured labor. We call it indentured labor, but they were originally called coolie. Coolie is a Tamil word. You can-- there is a-- the word coolie with a similar meaning exists in Chinese language. But the oldest documents and poetry available in Tamil, during the classical period, it uses coolie as it's a wage laborer, someone who sells his or her labor and get paid.
So coolie is the greatest contribution of Tamil, but nobody won't accept it because nobody wants to think about this kind of large-scale, indentured migration of Tamils to Sri Lanka from India, and to Malaysia, and-- and in between, thousands of people died. There were all kinds of unknown documents available out there, right.
And I used to-- I used to argue that the automobile revolution in the United States-- you know, Ford company, Ford car company, the Ford, the Fordism, and the way how he deskilled the labor and created assembly lines, made enormous amount of profit and capital, that would not have been successful without the indentured labor of Tamils in Malaysia. Why? Automobiles need tires, right? In order to make tires, where do you go for? You need to go for rubber.
Where do you get your rubber from? Ford got all the rubber from Malaysia. At the time, it was heavy contest between the Japanese. Japanese owned the rubber trade, 80%. More than 80% rubber trade was won by the Japanese.
US had a hard time. Ford [INAUDIBLE] what we call the Fordism, right? Fordism. [INAUDIBLE].
So I always say argue is a kind of a counterargument. If we are not-- if we as Tamils, and community, and talking about identities, if we are not willing to celebrate the coolie, celebrate our indentured labor, and think about the slavery, we will not be able to comprehend all the dimensions of our culture and identity.
And then finally, after the pogrom against Tamils in Sri Lanka in 1983, we know that large numbers of Tamils fled Sri Lanka as refugees. More than-- at this point, there are about 1.5 million people who live in-- who left Sri Lanka as refugees, mostly, living in various parts of the world. This is one of the largest diasporas from Sri Lanka, right. And the stories, the narratives, and testimonies from these refugees, they are reasonably documented-- in a typical social science form-- but there are also novels, and short stories, and poetry that talk about this particular horror and experiences of refugees. And that is extremely important for us.
So my argument, in short, is if Tamils really want to create, and be original and progressive, they need to rethink their identities based on some of the most progressive aspects that happened to us, including what I said before. And then one other important thing that we can gain from the history of Tamil literature, and history of-- history of the evolution of Tamil language and culture, that this identity has always been secular. No one can tie the Tamil to a particular religion.
We cannot say Tamil and Hindu. We can't say Tamil Hindu, or we can't say Tamil and Buddhist, or Tamil-- because Tamil as an identity stands based primarily on the language, not even on territory. Right, not even on territory. It's the language and the landscape.
And that has been very secular for a very long time. It has absorbed Hinduism, [INAUDIBLE], Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and you name all the most religion, they are all part of Tamil. No one can simply say, if you are a Tamil, you need to be a Hindu.
There is a movement now in Jaffna and in Sri Lanka. It's a kind of a copycat movement what's going on in India now, that if you want to be a Tamil, you need to be a Hindu. So these are the very kind of totalizing, dangerous kinds of things that is taking place in the name of identity.
So as a poet and as a writer, it is my task to undermine them, or for a counter imagination. Every time a nation, or a nationalism, or a group of nationalists create and image in the nation, it is a task of a poet to undermine it. And that is what I'm going to do, and that is what I am going to read now. So I'm going to switch this session to my reading my poetry. OK.
By the way, I am-- I have brought with me some extra copies of my books. My-- there are a few copies in Tamil, Tamil version, and we have English versions. We have also Malayalam, Bengali, and Bangla version-- Bengali and Spanish versions available.
And I urge you-- I have no problem in encouraging all of you to buy because the money is not for me. Whatever the money I earn from my writing, my poetry, writing about a war, genocide, or atrocities, or refugees, all the money I gain, I send it to the people in Sri Lanka who are either in refugee camps, or people who are suffering, or there are a couple of other charities that some of our friends are working. So the money is not for me because I receive adequate money from the universities [LAUGHS] and business.
So I'm going to start with a poem titled "Children." I don't have to give you any context for this other than saying this is about the children joining various Tamil militant movements. And I wrote this poem in 1999, actually 1994.
There were no talk about child soldiers, children's rights in war, all this kind of thing, at the UN level at the time. There wasn't any talk. Everything came after, several decades after, right. So this was the initial, my initial, response of that scenario and conscription.
"Children. 'Who created children?', I asked. Rustling in through the open windows, the wind said, 'Not I. I only give strong [INAUDIBLE] music to their voices.'
'I give deep colors to their eyes,' said Light. 'I touch their tender feet with a smile,' said the red oleander. 'I weave the walls of their hearts with love's threads,' said Sea. 'I add magic string to their laughter,' the forest said.
'If that is true, if that is true, who put guns in their hands, army boots on their feet, grenades at their waist, and hatred in their eyes?', I asked. Wind and sea froze. Light withered, shattering away like splinters of glass. In a single flash of lightning, forests and forests were in flames. And all the birds, and all the birds in the great flock flew into that fire.
Children. Our children."
So some of the poem that I'm going to read are-- it's about the body, all kinds of the experiences, but I promise that I will end up with some good, nicer ones.
The second poem I would like to read is the-- it's called, its titled, "Sunset." "The Sunset."
"The sun has set. The sun has set across the spreading fields. The sun has set. The sun has set in the shadow of the woods. The sun has set.
The sun has set beyond the anger of the rain, which is yet to fall, upon the hundreds and hundreds of bodies sprawled upon the sand, upon the seaward leg alone upon the seashore. The sun has set. Upon the broken wings of a quivering small bird which does not know where to heap its loss and sorrow, and searches for a corner in a small cage where it can lurk. Within my tears, sun has set.
At dawn, they arrive. They arrive with faltering words. The body has not been found."
My third poem here is-- it's called "A Telephone Call." "The Telephone Call" was-- it came to me at a very difficult moment. It was the last stage of the war. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, generally known as Tigers, were fighting the Sri Lankan state. Hundreds of them decided to surrender with a white flag so they contact the-- there was some communication between them and some of the members of parliament, and the defense, and the UN. UN was sleeping because you--
And the early morning in Toronto time, I got a call from someone I know from the political division of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. I met him in Berlin and Switzerland during the peace talks. So he said, we are going to-- we are going to surrender. Some arrangements have been made, and we are going to carry the telephone white flags. But we are trying to reach a particular person in Austria. I do not want to name it because it's very personal, a very influential person in Austria who could help approach the UN to make sure that someone would be there when they surrender.
So I gave them the number. I said, you know, I will try my best to call her as well, and then it cut off. And we all knew that the next day all of them were massacred, right, then gone. So this is the-- this is the poem. "Telephone Call."
"We have raised up our white flags. No sign yet of the promised message for which we wait. Darkness spreads, even as the sun rises slowly, slowly.
We look one more at our friends who were denied the peace of painless death, whose blood flows as they breathe their last. Our satellite telephones will go with us to the cremation ground, to the very end. But this is my final call to you. We must leave now."
How many minutes do we have?
SPEAKER: We have time.
CHERAN: Yeah. So let me switch to another poem. This is-- this is my trip to Jaffna after 30 years. I was able to return to my home during the peace talks between the government and the Tigers, and I used that opportunity to visit. And this is the impression. The poem is a kind of reflection and impression of that particular road, and on that particular trip. Alrighty. OK. 19.
It's called "The Story of a Severed Leg." And I know it's kind of-- titles are horrible, images that are very horrible. In fact, if I read some of my older poems now, and the kind of violence embedded in those poetry, it prevents me from reading at some point, right. It's kind of a totally different feeling.
I never felt that when I was writing it because you're angry. You have the anger. You cannot use the anger, right. It needs to be-- it is to be controlled by some kind of intellect. But it was there.
But then there are certain poems, especially a poem about the fingers, I don't read it anymore. Right, it's about torture. I wrote it. I recited it before, but I cannot read or recite it anymore.
So that is the question that all of us, all the writers, poets, people who are dealing with trauma, people who are writing about memories, and testimonies, and narrative, need to think what exactly the literature can do. And whether can the literature or poetry can also evoke certain kind of violence which we need to face. If so, how to do it. So that is my-- that is my new project, or new ways of thinking about poetry. But this is "The Story of a Severed Leg."
"I am writing the story of a severed leg. A road that begins in the mountains, it runs through the barren land to the city, now lies distraught. The story of war mixed with blood in scattered fragments like restless ghosts, follow the road in grief.
The tears of wounded trees settle on the marks left by the vehicles of well-meaning NGOs. The dust covers the tears, indifferent, like an undertaker covering the body of an unclaimed corpse. Dismembered by war, the road survives. I saw, where the road forks, the half-broken milestone. On it, sat a skull.
On this barren road consumed with thirst, turning towards the forest, I saw again, beneath the Palai tree, a severed leg. A thousand stories rose to fill the forest from that leg lying without any protest. Those stories displaced the wondrous tales and visions of the forest, acquired at birth, long before memory's time.
The displaced stories and beliefs in diasporic lands, in the temples of Tamils, in their myriad lives, now hang, embodiments of sin. Beneath those, compassion in darkened rooms, the irresponsibility of distance. The irresponsibility of distance, I see in these walking corpses. I saw, in the forest engulfing pain, courage, sorrow, oppression, despair-- and a severed leg. And I saw, on the tomb of my dreams, scattering its stories in silence, the severed leg."
So I'm going to take one quick break for a sip of water. Then I will-- I'm going to read my new poems which have not been published yet, so it's kind of a treat for all of you.
So this is [CLEARS THROAT]. This poem is about me. The title of this poem is "The Poet."
"The poet is a terrible grief. The poet is terrible grief. He is the bloody song of loss. No one knows if it is the poem, or the voice, or love, or the time that dies between the one who cannot sing, or who refuses to sing, and who is not a singer.
Yes, the poet is a terrible grief. Our life cannot be contained within the music. My beautiful poem goes to the cremation ground the moment it is born.
After 100 years-- after 100 years, when it turns-- when it returns with a climb. When it returns with a climb, there is no poet. The poem is endless, always."
So the next one is titled "Bird."
"Wearing the shadow, the bird hates the day. It is a child of darkness, the beauty of black. It is strong enough to cross close-knit mountain ranges. In a single sweep of the wing, it can cross the close-knit mountains, but it has lost its kinfolk.
It is cheerless. Wandering amidst the storm it rides its spirit into a nomadic life." "The Bird."
The next poem is titled "Ghost." From the God, we now go to ghost, write about ghost. "Ghost."
"They buried-- they buried father in the battlefield. They ought to have buried him, the memories thrown over his burial spot. And then not even that, the mother returned home in a box. We couldn't see her face. Only the left leg was in the box.
Even that was a miracle, the others said. With them sat those who had borrowed years to write stories and a ghost. Time suffers. Time suffers without being able to melt sorrow."
I'm going to-- this is going to be the--
This is going to be the-- my last harrowing poem. Then from then onward, we are going to hear a somewhat different kind of poetry, OK? This is called "I Know That Place."
I know some of you may remember, or may recall, after the war, end of the war, there were lots of videos and photographs circulated. And there was one horrible photograph where there were naked men and women. They were arrested, surrounded by the military.
And the women were there, but they were covered partly. All the men were naked. There were children, young children, too. And nobody knows exactly where the photo was taken, but I know.
"I know that place, that place in the video, now floating around on the internet, you are desperately trying to identify. The sorry technicians of the administrators of war crimes stand empty handed, baffled, because of the documentaries provided to them by the superpower have no accuracy, no clarity, no luster, no information either.
However, I know that place. That strange, the trauma, the eyes, darkened, rolling in terror, the muddy water from the sudden downpour of rain. I know that too. I know that too. My tears are the color of that mud.
I also know that half-destroyed and the rest rubbed out, barely visible Palai tree on the left-- on the left side. Under the ironwood tree, I know the smell of the still wet blood. I fling a handful of red upon the laughter that burst out when you dragged those women to plug them with your nationalistic prick.
I know that place. Other than my wet legs, fiery eyes, that melts at the smell of that earth. What other proof do you need? I know that place. But I am not going to tell you."
So I'm going to change the tone a bit. This poem is about a goldfish, my daughter's goldfish. My daughter's name is Anjali, so this is "Anjali's Goldfish."
"In the tiny space where the goldfish melts and weeps, air bubbles, water wisteria, shells, conch, the soft petal horn [INAUDIBLE] that bends at the top, seahorse, everything moves. Daughter is seven palm full water world. Before leaving for school, without blinking, she watches. At that moment, she is the simulated model of the exclamation mark.
The seahorse births 2000 young. No earthquake is comparable to its bodily tremors. The hidden tail of the goldfish dances strangely.
She comes back in the afternoon for two hours until it's death. We watch the goldfish flutter its fins. Like the wings of a butterfly wet in rain, floats the goldfish now. Like the lonely tree by the road that draws all the four seasons with its leaves, she suffers. My daughter suffers the weight of a thousand murders in that one death."
So I will read two more poems, and I have a series of-- I wrote a series of poems while I was isolated for two years, almost two years, because of the pandemic. So I couldn't go out, right. It was extremely difficult, extremely hard to go out. But then on one day I ventured out on.
Then I wrote a series of poems titled On the Street Any Time. So I am not going to read all those five, but I am going to read two of them. And then finally, a love poem. "On the Street Any Time."
"The dry jackfruit leaf falls down. It will not fly at night. In the dead of day, only the military train rushes over it. Sunlight turns it into trays on the street.
On the street any time, the boy is, sometimes the girl, would be dragged out and shot. Their blood is not wasted. At first quickly, and then leisurely, it seeps into the paddy field. Before being killed, many are the witnesses who saw his and her eyes.
It was the poet's task to gather them then. With great wariness, on this street any time, a murder falls down. The murderer falls down. In his fingers, a cigarette waiting to be lit. Without love or claim, the one who torches it any time is of a national anthem.
This is the-- this is the third in the series of On the Street Any Time.
"On the street any time awaits an unfilled pothole. Rain during the winter season, leaves that fall in the cold, the wind that freezes in the chill, fill the hole. Near it, the white policeman shot two boys multiple times. The pot hole twice filled up with blood. Both of them looked exactly like my son, height, beauty, Black, and brave."
So I'm going to read-- this is going to be my last poem for the day, and-- [CLEARS THROAT]
35, 79. "Kissing a Woman With Glasses in the Summer."
"There was a time earlier when I had all these questions about how to kiss women wearing glasses.
But not at this moment. On the beach this summery afternoon, from time to time, the wind scatters the sand around, and the large-- and the large eyes of a woman with glasses, devouring me. One's desire advances, only a fool holds back, I reckon. So I walked towards her."
Can I stop here?
"As we get close enough for our noses to touch, I wonder, do I tilt my head to the left or to the right? Today, one of the rare bright days in the summer all spoiled by the rain. The cage has opened.
All natural expanse, and there is kindness on the smiling faces of everyone. On the dunes, the small feet of children are measuring the land and the sea, scattering the sand all over. The charm and the joy, fulfillment of the seashore.
As I hold her firm young breast and kiss her lips, quivering, parting softly, I see through her glasses, her wide open eyes. Mirror before mirror, and in them, a million reflections. Which one am I? And which one are you?
As I kiss the woman wearing glasses, suddenly my feet sink deeper into the sand. So in my first kiss, I fail to reach her upper lip. There is no curtain to hide behind, no covering darkness, no questions about yesterday, no fear about tomorrow, today.
As bodies intertwine, a relationship unfurls, and her tied braids come undone on her sun-warmed back. All around us, the festival of naked bodies, every now and then a great salty wave drenches everyone without distinction of gender. Before the night fell, the day was over.
There was a time, there was a time when I had all these questions about how to kiss women wearing glasses. But not at this moment."
IFTIKHAR DADI: So will you take responses, questions, comments, from the audience?
CHERAN: I will get-- go get some water. If anybody wants to ask a question, I would like to request that you remove your mask before asking because-- I didn't read the poem about May 21, 1986.
That's a poem about bombing of my office. Because of the bombing, I lost hearing on my left ear. So that is why I want if you want a question or a comment, please remove-- take off your mask and speak loudly so I can fully hear you.
IFTIKHAR DADI: I can begin.
CHERAN: Oh, OK.
IFTIKHAR DADI: Can you say something about-- you read your poems in English today-- but can you say something about the relationship of-- your relationship with Tamil vis a vis your relationship with English in terms of the writing.
CHERAN: About the relationship with English?
IFTIKHAR DADI: With the lang-- the two languages. With Tamil and English.
CHERAN: Tamil and English?
IFTIKHAR DADI: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
CHERAN: I mean, initially, I thought that I-- my first language was Tamil, and the second language was English, and third language was Sinhala, and fourth language was Dutch, and then fifth was German, right? But increasingly, I think I do not know now whether I can say my first-- I can characterize this one as first language and second languages. At least, I have two first languages in that sense now, Tamil and English.
And when I think and write in English-- when I write in English, I think in English. When I write in Tamil, I think in Tamil. It's like you are switching two different applications, or two different kind of a thing. But when I speak in English, when I speak in Tamil, when I write in Tamil, even when I teach sociology in Tamil, I would never ever mention an English word. The same way, I use it with English language.
However, I write poetry only in Tamil. I write poetry only in Tamil for a couple of reasons. The first reason is I-- the poetry is the pinnacle of language, of the particular language, especially for languages like Tamil which has almost 3,000 years of poetry, the poetry tradition. And I am reasonably well versed in that tradition in those poetry. Even though I am not writing a lot of things in Tamil, if I keep on writing my poetry in Tamil, that is going to be a very powerful, organic, and creative relationship with me with the Tamil language.
So that is one of the reasons why I keep writing poetry in Tamil. And some of you may know that some of the African writers, like [INAUDIBLE], he returned to his own language after a very long time. And a couple of others are now returning to their own-- their languages because they were writing mainly in English.
So but I always kept writing poetry in Tamil, and I will always write poetry in Tamil because the poetry comes to me maybe in that kind of imagin-- in that language. And I wrote a few poems in English during the pandemic isolation. In one of the poems On the Street Any Time was originally written in English, but then I rewrote it in Tamil.
So the other reason why this writing in Tamil is extremely important for me is that I use a lot of new words in Tamil, right. For example, after the war, every day were lots of talks about trauma, right, traumatized, post-traumatic stress disorder. And in Tamil, everyone was coining the words trauma, which are not really the good ones because they had no idea how to call trauma in Tamil.
But I thought, OK, we have long years of war before, right. Even during the classical period, there was poetry about war. When there is war, then we should have some kind of word to describe different kind of traumas, right.
So I went back-- [PHONE VIBRATES] I went back and read the whole thing again. Yes, there was a word. The word is [SPEAKING TAMIL]. That means collective and individual trauma together. So you don't have to separate it. Though I started using it.
So this is one example. In a similar fashion, there are all kinds of new words I ended up coining for the purpose of poetry and for the purpose of Tamil. So that keeps me extremely involved in the classical Tamil as well as modern Tamil. I think that is the reason why I keep on writing.
AUDIENCE: Dr. Cheran, I don't regret that I drove over speed from New Jersey and came here--
--hear you talking. It is intriguing but heartbreaking when you talked about the Sri Lankan sufferings, especially those telephone calls and children. You know, by the way, I am from Sri Lanka too, so that took me back to my olden days. And so, thank you for-- you are not only a great poet but great presenter.
You took the-- you took your anger out. And you took your feeling-- I was able to see how you present it. So you are a great poet.
You are a great presenter too. You are not only a great poet but great presenter too. Thank you for that.
And coming to my question, and I-- you have written so many poems and some of which I was fortunate enough to have read some of your poems in Tamil as well as in English. Now most of your poems are centered around Sri Lankan people's sacrifice, and their resistance, and struggles, and so on and so forth. Now I'm sure you had a purpose of writing your poems, and I know you have said it somewhere in here.
But do you think that poetry or poems can bring revolutions among people? How much do you believe on making people rise up and then fight for it? Please give us your take.
CHERAN: It's a-- it's a very scary question.
Now, there was a time I seriously believed that using poetry, and theater, and films, we can create a momentum by which we would be able to mobilize large amount of people, if not for revolution but for something concrete and something positive. But that doesn't always work that way. Revolution is a radical change. In order for a radical change to happen, there are all kinds of things need to be involved.
But poetry is only for incremental change. Culture is incremental. You cannot, overnight, effect a change using literature. Little by little, it can try and change the people's hearts, and their mind, their imagination, their thinking. So that is how the poetry actually functions.
But then there are certain cases where I am so glad to mention this. There is a great struggle going on in Sri Lanka now, large number of people are protesting. And I saw some of them carrying a placard with my poetry on it. It used to be the case in 80s and 90s. Lots of my poems were made slogans and the posters, and they [INAUDIBLE].
And I also thought that poetry should not be confined to the written pages. It should come out of the written pages. It should go out.
So how can I do it? I go and perform. I go and perform in Tamil. Now we know different languages too.
So after every reading in Tamil or English, people will come and buy the books. If they go to their bookstore, and they will buy a book, very rarely, right? But if I go and read my poetry and perform my poetry for about 10,000, 15,000 people, the impact and the effect it has is completely different. So that could be one of the ways, the strategic ways, of bringing poetry.
And finally, I don't think we need to make poets-- it is not the duty of the poets to make revolution. Poets need to make counter-revolution. That means whatever the establishment, whatever the-- whatever the established settings, and ideas, and imagination that institutions come up with, it will counter it. It can be nations. It can be other constructions, whatever, right.
So that is exactly the idea. So we can fight with imagination. The imagination is a tool, right. Sorry about the revolution, comrade. [LAUGHS]
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
IFTIKHAR DADI: Please, go ahad.
AUDIENCE: There's no pressure to do this, but it would be great to hear a poem in Tamil if you're--
It would be great to hear you share a poem in Tamil if you're comfortable doing that.
CHERAN: Yeah, I will read a-- I will read a poem in Tamil, but we can-- there are other questions or comments, we can get them. And then I will end the-- we can end the session by me reading a poem in Tamil, right? Yeah.
IFTIKHAR DADI: OK, so other comments, questions? Yeah, right there. Yeah.
IFTIKHAR DADI: Yeah, go ahead.
AUDIENCE: Thank you very much. This was indeed such a pleasure to hear you. All the poems you are celebrating and whatever--
CHERAN: I can't hear her.
IFTIKHAR DADI: Please come forward because--
CHERAN: That works for me. You don't have microphone?
AUDIENCE: I don't have, sorry. So it was a pleasure to hear you, all the poems and everything you said. I was just curious about the use of myth. For example, you used a Kalki myth in, like, in your protest poems as a symbol of protest. Which, the myths that you're using, can you tell us a little more about the Tamil myths that you use in your poems?
CHERAN: So [CLEARS THROAT] so the projection of poems on the screen?
AUDIENCE: No, no, no, the myth, the myths.
IFTIKHAR DADI: Mythology, the mythology that you use.
AUDIENCE: Mythology you use--
CHERAN: Mythol-- mythologies.
AUDIENCE: As a-- like amplify your protest. That's what I--
CHERAN: You know, some of the poems that I write, there is a reference to Tamil mythologies, right. Some of them religious, some of them cultural. You know, the talking about Tamil identities and the mythology, there's a lot of history and a lot of different kinds of imagination from the past that has been currently used in the Tamil context. I'm sure it's a kind of invention of culture, invention of old images, right.
Several mythologies-- and there are some-- some of the mythologies are secular. It doesn't involve any kind of religious or other kind of practice. It's very secular. And some of the mythologies are influenced by Mahabharata and all these things, and religious traditions.
In addition to that, there are all kinds of smaller, smaller, mythologies in every single village or area of the territory. For example, I tell you one about there is this place called [? Nandikal. ?] There is a small temple there, close to the [? Nandikal. ?] In that temple, you don't need oil to light a flame.
The mythology has it that you just take some water from the [? Nandikal ?] area, and then you go. It lights. That's the idea, and that's a belief, right. It doesn't have to be true because we take myths and mythologies, not as kind of real, but we need to look at them as a kind of really powerful imaginations. How society is capable of that kind of imagination, that is the way I am looking at the myths and stuff.
But the problem is, why I criticize those things in the context of the diaspora is, you know, you cannot simply create all these nostalgic ideas, and building structures, and temples in the cold area and expect people to behave the way that you behaved where you were born. And the funny thing that really drove me mad a few years ago, it is particular worship of [INAUDIBLE]. We need to get the crows, right. [? [NON-ENGLISH], ?] right? You need to feed a crow before we eat after your fast on Saturdays in every October.
Fasting is easy. Cooking sixteen different curries is easy, no big deal. But you cannot eat if you can't feed first the crow. So where do you go find a crow?
But you know, the temple managers, temple owners, all the private, they are extremely creative, extremely creative. They secretly go and imported a crow, put it in the cage, took it inside the temple, and you can feed. $10, you give $10 to the priest. You can give grain or something. So it was crazy because it was against the rules. [LAUGHS]
So that is the kind of idea. I mean, I can go and cite all kinds of-- how these old mythologies and ritual practices are being completely practiced-- being practiced in the context of the diaspora without any kind of sensibility. So that is exactly what, right.
And then one other thing also I want to mention in relation too, take for example, the ideas of caste. It is still very powerful, even though it does not manifest itself as untouchability or caste-based discrimination in large scale. But caste still manifests in the diaspora in a different kind of a context. For example, in marriages.
For example, even in some of those Insta groups and some of the new social media groups, there are people-- there are youngsters who identify a particular caste, and they use a different color. So you can see it is a different kind of thing. And in Switzerland, in Germany, it happened because I recorded it for my research.
And then I wrote a poem about this one. You know, in one of those very powerful, extremely popular Tamil poems is about pouring rain and red dirt. It is available. It was translated by [INAUDIBLE].
It's about somebody meets. I don't want to go into detail of reciting it, but the man and a woman meets. He never asked who your father was. Where you-- who you belong to.
He never asked. They saw. They talk, and then their hearts become blended like the pouring rain and the red dirt. When the rain pours on the red dirt, it becomes kind of-- the color and the rain is unseperate. So it's a very classical Tamil poetry, very famous.
So there's a counterpoint. Though Canada has about 125,000 lakes, waterbodies, largest waterbodies in any part of the world. So this poem says there is a waterbody in Canada, but no Tamil would go and visit because no pouring rain on the earth. That simply means, you know, what I wanted to tell the Tamils is the caste is still being practiced when it comes to many there.
So we cannot simply claim this kind of old in-- there is no caste, no discrimination. But even after all those years, that is still there. To what extent is a different question that we don't have to go to questionnaires and surveys, but the idea is that even now that still persists.
So that was some of the idea that I was so critical of, practicing of caste, and temple rituals. And some of the temple rituals are hierarchical, not all the caste will be allowed. And they all simply take all of that, identify them with the myths, mythologies, and pranas and [INAUDIBLE] is our heritage.
So we need to completely take the heritage to task and insist, the critical heritage, we need to rethink about the heritage. That is what exactly I mentioned before, right? So did it answer your question OK? Did it answer your question?
AUDIENCE: Yes, you did. I was just-- actually the use of the myth called [INAUDIBLE] the myth with the woman who touched the breast and [INAUDIBLE]
AUDIENCE: --that you use one of your poems, has a very strong--
CHERAN: There is-- there is one--
AUDIENCE: --about the protest. And--
AUDIENCE: --it also has [INAUDIBLE].
CHERAN: You're talking about "Cilappatikaram," the [INAUDIBLE]. There is one poem about that [CLEARS THROAT] one poem about that particular kind of-- it alludes to [INAUDIBLE] and "Cilappatikaram" and taking the breast off and throwing it, right? I wrote a poem about that one. There's one in the "Ama, Do Not Weep."
And in another context, when I wrote a poem for the former President of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumar-- Chandrika Kumaratunga, when she was senselessly bombed in the [INAUDIBLE]. There were about 275 civilians got trapped in a church, and they bombed it, young women, children. So I wrote a poem about-- that's called "Demonic Eyes." I have it in the volume here.
So in there, I mentioned that-- there is, "you bombed all the breasts of women in there." Well, because you feared that they are going to take the breast off and throw it at you, and burn the [INAUDIBLE]. So that's what you did. So that was a couple of mythologies there, but not in its religious or cultural context. But you take it, and use it in a very political context.
IFTIKHAR DADI: Yes.
AUDIENCE: I'm Interested to know how the sea in Sri Lanka impacts your diasporic life in [INAUDIBLE].
CHERAN: So when it's the last stages of the war, 2009, all those horrible massacres, most of my friends, most of the Tamil friends and Tamil communities in various parts of Sri Lanka, they had no idea. Even people in Jaffna, they didn't know what was going on in the jungles of [INAUDIBLE]. But we used to get lots of photographs, and videos, and everything on a daily basis. That's why I say in my poem, the computer screen turning into blood red. The morning, we wake up and all the images, so every single thing that happened, it come to us in the diaspora who were really.
So that really, very drastically affected most of the population. I can at least say at least 10 or 15 of the people in Toronto committed suicide, and hundreds of them because of their loss. They were so traumatized.
So in that sense, we cannot simply-- there is a complex relationship between the diaspora and the people who stayed back in the land. There is one way of thinking about it, to see that they're two sides of the same coin. And that we need to understand.
We cannot simply have a black and white understanding of saying diaspora. It's a big, bad diaspora out there. I was saying irresponsible-- responsibility of distance, right. So my argument is that there, in the diaspora, there are always two groups of people. People with-- people who understand the responsibility when it comes to distance, when you are distanced.
We cannot impose our will. We cannot ask them to fight on behalf of us. And when they are fighting, we cannot simply take the phone and order, OK, do not do that one. Do not-- do not vote for this guy, or go vote. We cannot simply do that.
That is the responsibility of distance, they say. But the responsibility of distance means we realize, we acknowledge the power. We acknowledge the power dynamics. We acknowledge that we are reasonably better off. So that is the first thing we acknowledge.
And say, we cannot, and we will not appropriate your voice, but we will speak next to you. We cannot make, we will not make, any decision on behalf of the communities living in Sri Lanka, but we will speak next to you. You speak first. By that way, we can argue, yes, the subaltern can speak. [LAUGHS]
IFTIKHAR DADI: So I think that now is the time for you to your poem in Tamil.
CHERAN: In Tamil. Let me think. [INAUDIBLE]. OK, We just ended up-- ended up talking about diaspora, so I'll read a poem, a Tamil poem, of diaspora. OK. And if anybody wants, I can read that one in English too after.
So this is one of my very first experiences arriving in Canada and arriving in Toronto, so I'm-- OK. Let me-- I think I should first read the poem in English first, then I'll read in Tamil. Is that OK?
So then all of [CLEARS THROAT] [INAUDIBLE]. It's titled "Color." I wrote it in 2003.
"In the street, dry now after a fall of snow, beneath the street lamp with its dim light, the tips of his nose, frozen and red, a small Canadian flag pinned carelessly upon his ragged, drooping overcoat, centuries of dirt and stain and beer froth on his long, long, dense, brown beard, a forest green army cap on his head now shapeless, buffeted by snow, wind, and rain with hunched back, crooked nails, and long, curly, tangled hair, he lies huddled.
His blue eyes blinking frequently, part sunken in darkness, part crazed, he begs for money, and thanks those who fling him coins. I refused. 'Fuck you, Paki,' he said, turning his face away."
So I read in Tamil now, right? [SPEAKING TAMIL]
"Fuck you, Paki." [TAMIL]
IFTIKHAR DADI: Thank you.
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12th Annual Tagore LectureIn this lecture and reading, Cheran reflects on the important but ambiguous relationship with the sea from both personal and communal perspectives. Drawing on and reading from his various poems about the sea and other water bodies, he charts an alternative imagination for Tamil identities. Dr. R. Cheran is Tamil Canadian academic, poet, playwright and journalist. He is a professor at the University of Windsor in Canada. He has authored over fifteen books in Tamil, and his work has been translated into twenty languages. Several volumes of his work have been published in English translation, including The Second Sunrise (Translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom, 2010), In a Time of Burning (Translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom and Sascha Ebeling, 2013) and You Cannot Turn Away (Translated by Chelva Kanaganayakam, 2011). His poems in English translation have also been published in numerous literary magazines, such as Bomb (New York), Modern Poetry in Translation, Many Mountains Moving, Exiled Ink, Mantra Review, and Talisman. His poems have been included in several anthologies, including Singing in the Dark: An Anthology of Lockdown Poems (2020), Many Roads Through Paradise: Sri Lankan Literature (edited by Shyam Selvadurai, 2014), and In Our Translated World: Global Tamil Poetry (edited by Chelva Kanaganayakam, 2014).Cheran was the recipient of the International Poetry Award from ONV Kurup Foundation in Dubai in 2017. He has performed is poetry at various International Writers’ festivals in the United Kingdom, Singapore, the US, Indonesia, India, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada, Ramallah, West Bank, Dubai and Mexico. His plays in English language have been produced and performed in Toronto, Canada, New York, Chicago and New Jersey in the US. Singapore’s modern dance group Chowk has produced and performed a dance play based on his poems titled “The Second Sunrise”. The Second Sunrise was performed at the Singapore International dance festival, and W