Kamala Das (1934-2009), the trailblazing Indian poet was in Colombo when the 1983 riots took place.Between 1982-84, Das had been a frequent visitor to Sri Lanka after her husband was offered a consultancy with a bank in Colombo. It was during this period that the ethnic riots took place in July 1983 and the poet, caught up in the ensuing tragedy, wrote about the troubling times in her poetry. While its 37 years this year since this dark chapter in the country’s history unfolded, some of the poems Das wrote on her experiences is published in her collection titled “Selected Poems”, where she captures the scenes as riots engulfed the city for a week followed by a sense of denial among her acquaintances of what had taken place.
Smoke in Colombo
“On that last ride home, we had the smoke
Following us, along the silenced
Streets, lingering on, through the fire
Was dead then in the rubble and the ruins
Lingering on as milk lingers on
In udders after the calves are buried………
After the riots were over, the city had changed forever and in” After July”, Das gives a glimpse into how people’s lives changed forever.
“After July, in Colombo there were
No Tamils in sight, no arangetrams
Were held in the halls, no flower - sellers
Came again to the door with strings
Of Jasmine to perfume the hair.
Like rodents they were all holed up in fear….” Das herself struggled to fit in with the expatriate community after the riots writing that “despite my nut brown skin” her attempts to merge well with the expatriates had failed, She socialized with her Sinhalese friends and in the poem,” The new Sinhala Film”, she captures the attempts by her friends to deny the dark events that had taken place in their city and shield themselves by superficial means.
The new Sinhala Film
“…. The close friends I have among the Sinhalese
Wait till dusk to visit me and they wisely
Talk only of the new cinema as though
Nothing has happened in the recent past but films……….’
Another poem is titled “The Sea at Galle Face Green”
The Sea at Galle Face Green
Like a half-burnt corpse was
Thant once splendent city.
Its maimed limb tuned towards
Even the small leaves of
Stopped their joyous tremor
While the sea breeze blew….