A few weeks ago when I wrote an article titled âShakespeare in a takarang shedâ About the English department at Kelaniya university in the 1970s, I mentioned Lakdasa Wikkramasinha, the poet. Lakdasa was not teaching in the English department – he was an instructor in the English sub-department, which provided English lessons to all undergraduates – but he was really part of the scene. In the article, I remembered playing carrom with him in the main common room, and how we both escaped serious injury, possibly death, from a mob that came to attack the students. of campus.
In the article, I described Lakdasa as “a man of few words, with a dismissive look that made inferior mortals uncomfortable, [wearing] his half-buttoned shirt that showed his hairy chest, the sleeves rolled up just below the elbow. In other words, a bad ass.
To go with this article, I needed a photo of Lakdasa. I googled, only to be shocked at the images that popped up. Most prominent was his gravestone, streaked with a black stain that obscured some markings, and a photo of Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, mislabeled Lakdasa. Other search engines have also offered the same images.
Surely someone, somewhere should have Lakdasa’s picture. So began my research. Lakdasa had been my oldest in Maharagama training college, so I reached out to his classmates for a photo. One of them, who said he witnessed Lakdasa’s wedding, did not have a photo. Another, passionate about photography, could not be contacted because of the confinement. Two other comrades from Lakdasa did not respond to my messages.
I was told about Lakdasa’s sister, who had built a house on Heerassagala Road, Kandy, but my attempts to find her failed. A friend of a friend, who said she might have a photo at her desk, was also unavailable, due to lockdown and a death in the family. Tracing Lakdasa’s genealogy, I contacted a first cousin of Lakdasa, with no response. A call to the head of a university department, where Lakdasa’s wife had taught, went unanswered. This is understandable, as she last taught there 40 years ago, and my attempt was a hopeless blow in the dark.
When I first got to know Lakdasa in Maharagama in 1970, he was known as âthe poetâ, although hardly anyone around him had read his poetry (I had not). At that time, poetry meant Wordsworth, Blake and Keats to us. Moreover, at this time, Lakdasa’s poetry had not received much critical appraisal, or read much for that matter, because his poems had been self-published in limited editions. He was courting his classmate Claire, and I saw them sitting in the hallway leading to the library and chatting for long periods of time. Lakdasa’s collection titled, Fifteen poems (1970) carried the dedication âFor Claireâ. But, they didn’t get married. At the time of his next collection, Nossa Senhora dos Chingalas (1973), came out, the dedication was “To Shanthini”, which had become his wife. She taught Chinese at the University of Kelaniya.
Lakdasa’s stature as a poet didn’t hit me hard, so to speak, until the early 1990s, when I read Michael Ondaatje’s novel. Running with family, an exhilarating memory of the Ceylanese lineage of Ondaatje. Chapter 3 is titled “Don’t tell me about Matisse”, and Lakdasa’s poem of the same title is cited there. I was in the United States at the time and could not access any of his poems.
A few years later, in Hong Kong, I was introduced to the chairman of a university English department. When he realized I was Sri Lankan, Andy blurted out, âDid you know Lakdasa? And sounded incredulous when I said “Fairly good”. Later I realized that he, a British / Australian, was a huge fan of Lakdasa’s poetry. When Andy published the volume English of the world (2007), two of Lakdasa’s poems were included in the accompanying CD, read by Professor Thiru Kandiah.
In personality, Lakdasa was eccentric. His philosophy was an enigma. In 1965 he declared that “writing in English is a form of cultural betrayal” and called English the language of “the most despicable and hateful people on earth”. But, just four years later, he was training to become an English teacher and began to “commit betrayal” by teaching English at the University of Kelaniya.
His poetry was characterized as masculine, and anger, eroticism, sarcasm and satire were clearly displayed. His originality and daring can be seen in lines such as “thick locks of black hair on the head and elsewhere”; “The great white hunter Matisse with a gun with two nostrils … Gauguin – the propagator of syphilis, yellowed obesity”. And the satire in “What is the professor doing?” He plants brinjals all day. The soaring finale – “All roads lead to Rome!” – of “To My Friend Aldred” is incomparable.
When interviewed for his admission to Maharagama training college, Lakdasa was asked what he had been doing in recent years. He has answered. “Growing cardamoms”. Indeed, he had done it, in the remote region of Yahanagala in the Uva. Usually, to interpret Lakdasa’s poetry, it may be necessary to delve into history, classics, Latin, Sinhala folklore. But, perhaps the appealing simplicity of “In Ancient Kotmale” stems from those cardamom growing days.
In the beautiful principality, in Kotmale
I will build my brick house of good soil
With the wood of the sound forests,
And I will cover it with the flat tiles,
One on one, like the palms of farmersâ¦.
And in the morning I will see
The sun hurt like my heart with a million arrows,
Climb between mountain ranges
And shed his golden blood in the green valley.
And I will go to the fields throughout the seasonsâ¦.
I will sow the grain, a stream in my hands,
I’ll throw the grain into the falling nets.
It will stream around the young girls’ calves
Viridian fire of this clay.
And in the ovens of my sunny fields,
And under the haven of passing clouds
As I rest, in these almost eternal days,
In orderly time, in green calendars
My longed-for harvest will come
Over the years, Lakdasa’s poetry has elicited much analysis – in academic presentations, scholarly articles, an anthology here and there, theses, blogging sites – and in the popular press. Some poems were also included in the A / L English Literature program. He has been recognized as one of Sri Lanka’s greatest poets writing in English. But, unfortunately, his poetry is scattered throughout various little-known publications, and 43 years after his death, it is possible that his poetry is dark in obscurity.
But, for now, we can focus on a more urgent matter, that of finding a photo of Lakdasa and putting it on the Internet. So here is my plea. If you have a photo, could you send it to me at [email protected]? I am also on facebook. Thank you.