Shash Trevett on the poetry of Nillanthan.
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All translations of the poems quoted here were done jointly by Shash Trevett and Geetha Sukumaran.
18 May 2009 was a day of apocalypse. Fire rained from the air, from the water, across the land. It did not discriminate between civilian and combatant, men and women, the fit and the infirm. It was a great leveller; an instrument of retribution, merciless towards the mass of bodies trapped on a narrow kilometre-square stretch of sand between Nanthikadal Lagoon and the Indian Ocean at Mullivaikkal, eastern Sri Lanka. Of course, the eyes which directed the fire across this no man’s land, fuelled by a bloodlust that had laid unsatisfied for 30 years, belonged to the Sri Lankan Army. The hands stoking the sacrificial altars, ruthlessly pushing unwilling lives onto the pyre, belonged to the LTTE, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Stuck between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army, the people who found themselves by Nanthikadal Lagoon had been on the march since January 2009. Around 300,000 civilians from the Vanni area in the Northern Province fled from the Sri Lankan Army in January, when a ferocious assault on Killinochchi, the capital of the Tigers, began. From January to May, the people endured a harsh exodus pushing eastwards, escaping from the fighting around them, with each stop taking them further away from food, medicine and hope, and inexorably towards the banks of Nanthikadal Lagoon. They were heading for the No Fire Zones set up by the Government of Sri Lanka – places of refuge to which they were urged to escape by tannoyed voices speaking in Tamil. As they broke their march each night, they dug shallow bunkers that offered meagre protection from the artillery fire that seemed to be aimed squarely at them. By the end of 18 May (according to the UN), around 40,000 civilians would be massacred. There would be singing and dancing in some streets in Colombo.
The poet Nillanthan was one of those who endured the horrors of this final phase of the war in Sri Lanka. A poet who had published four collections, and an artist who had exhibited across the subcontinent, Nillanthan also worked as a political commentator and had been displaced to the Vanni (territory held by the LTTE) some years previously. In a series of seventeen poems that I am currently translating jointly with Geetha Sukuman (a translator based in Canada), Nillanthan details the daily hardships faced by the caravan of people fleeing the fighting from January to May 2009. Unlike his artwork, which is explicit in its depiction of the violence of war, Nillanthan’s poetry is more lyrical, gently diluting horror through the lenses of food and cultural practice. It is the poetry of the ordinary, yet within this he draws links that speak of the poignancy of loss and suffering. In his poem ‘Pina Koorai’, he writes of how people used elaborately decorated wedding saris (the koorai) to make tents, sleeping mats, shrouds and, most importantly, sandbags.
Smoke covered the land when Ban Ki-moon
saw these sari-woven death slums
from the air.
Yet the threads of gold glittered
in the sun.
In ‘Market at the End of Time’, he presents two price lists for goods available – one from Valaignar Madam in March, just as the people had begun their long exodus, and the other from Mullivaikkal, in May, where the final reckoning was to occur. There is no commentary in this poem, no judgements made. It is simply a list of essential items that people could or could not buy. The task of fleshing out the meaning behind the items listed as ‘unavailable’ is left to the reader. Coconuts and chillies, for instance – essential ingredients for adding flavour to the thin rice water that was the only food obtainable to the people.
In ‘February 2009’, Nillanthan writes of how a school was turned into a makeshift hospital, where, ‘on a blackboard, a doctor / keeps score of the injured’. Doctors operated without anaesthetic, with saline drips hung from branches of trees, and ‘flies swarm[ed] on corpses, on shit, on wounds, on dreams’. This catalogue of lack – of food, shelter, water, sanitation, medical facilities – is captured perfectly in the poem ‘End of an Age 2’:
They ran out of biscuits at Thevipuram
and coconuts at Ananthapuram.
From Valayanmadam onwards
there were no more green chillies or onions,
no more tamarind.
The coffins ran out at Irattaivaikal.
The morning they capitulated
they drank water squeezed from mud
and with three days grime on their faces
witnessed an age come to an end.
Nillanthan writes again of the lack of coffins in ‘Used Coffins’, recounting how four or five coffins were recycled repeatedly and used merely for funeral services. The bodies were buried wrapped either in black plastic or koorai saris. Malnutrition and lack of sanitation killed the very old and the very young; constant bombardment by the Sri Lankan Army killed the others. As May approached, an increasingly desperate rebel force conscripted men and children. Those who resisted were shot. The UN has accused the Tigers of using the civilian population as human shields. Those who tried to sneak away at night were caught and shot. Those who managed to make it over to the Army lines were caught and shot by the Army. In ‘Mother of Two Martyrs’ ,Nillanthan writes of how a mother sought to keep her children safe from the carnage, hiding (in vain) her eldest from the Tigers, and being unable to prevent the forced conscription of her middle child after she lost her first.
On the day she escaped to that lagoon
with her youngest child
was this mother shot in the face
or in the back?
asks Nillanthan. In the confusion, it is unclear whether she was shot in the back by the Tigers for fleeing, or shot in the face as she crossed into the No Fire Zone set up by the Sri Lankan Army. Caught between the cold hatred of the Army and the rabid desperation of the LTTE, the people who marched towards Mullivaikkal walked a road from which there could be no escape. There was no one to save them from the apocalypse.
Nandikadal Lagoon will feature prominently in the future cultural imaginings of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. It will be reworked, reimagined, rewritten repeatedly. It will be the Tamil Srebrenica, another Mai Lai. These poignant poems of witness by Nillanthan are the first to have appeared from the carnage. They are a map guiding the reader through those bloodied months of annihilation; a record of those dark days. The reader walks alongside those whose eyes can never unsee mangled bodies, whose noses can never forget the stench of rotting corpses, whose minds find it impossible to heal after facing an abyss of evil and cruelty. Returning to Nanthikadal Lagoon in 2012, the poet writes of his own inability to break free:
After two seasons of rain
our dreams lie rusting
in that salt-laden mud.
The sun sinks behind trees
and submerges in the waters
of Nanthikadal. The water fowl
wait, holding fast the last words
of those who have vanished.
(from ‘Nanthikadal, August 2012’, tr. Shash Trevett).
Shash Trevett is a Tamil from Sri Lanka who came to the UK to escape the civil war. She is a poet and a translator of Tamil poetry into English. She has collaborated with artists and composers and is a winner of a Northern Writers’ Award. Her pamphlet From a Borrowed Land was published in May 2021 by Smith|Doorstop. She is currently co-editing (with Vidyan Ravinthiran and Seni Seneviratne) an anthology of Tamil, English and Sinhala poetry from Sri Lanka and its diaspora communities, to be published by Bloodaxe in 2023. Shash was the 2019 Apprentice Poet in Residence at Ilkley Literature Festival and is a 2021 Visible Communities Translator in Residence at the National Centre for Writing. She is a 2021 Ledbury Critic and a Board Member of Modern Poetry in Translation.