Home and the Homely In Malinda Seneviratne's "Open Words are for Love-Letting"


By Vihanga Perera

In a visit to Malinda Seneviratne’s office at the paper he edits, the journalist, poet, blogger, friend and hardcore apologist of the Rajapaksa regime gave me a recently published edition of his poetry entitled open words are for love-letting. A substantial number of the poems here are also found (periodically published) in his blog, which also includes a series of pro-governmental "political poems" of which I have written in a previous entry to this very blog. open words are for love-letting is quite thick, as poetry collections go, with 152 poems collected in 167 pages of Malindic delivery.

In a poem which attacks the Geneva sessions of the UN last year (not quoted in the article), Malinda makes a memorable reference to Obelix in Switzerland; where, after being passed out cold following a barrel of undiluted wine, he later claims that Switzerland was on the whole flat.

Of these, my attention was specially arrested by a body that intimately addresses the inner family and dearest of the poet’s kith and kin, where Malinda reserves his words for so much unchecked love and affection for a family which he wholeheartedly absorbs into himself. Among these "home poems" there are some sketches dedicated to Malinda’s friends and acquaintances; of which a poem written at the height of the FUTA trade union action (of which Malinda was a critic), dedicated to Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri – the President of that federation – stands out. This is an interesting read, as Malinda expresses the respect he has for Dewasiri’s politics, in spite of ideological differences. It came across as quite sweet, overall, since during the decisive strike of the university lecturers Malinda had in no uncertain terms written of what he saw as the "underbelly" of the university lecturer’s integrity: a batting stance he adopts for the government he favours. However, the Dewasiri poem is by no means of the same quality as what he writes for his sister, two daughters, mother, father etc – the Seneviratne "Home".

Of his "home poems" there are at least three items dedicated to "Mitsi" and "Dayadi", who are referred to with the easy poetry of an affection-peddling father. In Dayadi (p.98), of Dayadi he speaks:

"This magic-bean baby

Playing with theories of relativity

Not saying but wondering

‘when will I catch up?’

….. Measuring the timber of rivalry

Against me"

The position of the poet / narrator as a keen, earnest observer as well as a participant of the child’s play is recurrent in Malinda’s writing. The particular poem ends with a remark on how this young child, who is growing up and is becoming less and less child-like, yet becomes a "womb-shape" baby every evening (as she gets sleepy and exhausted, most probably); and as to how the poet warmly "can’t stop kissing / this made-for-love girl". While the baby is simultaneously a "child" and "less-than-child" in the poet’s mind, the poet, too, is a partaker of that "child-like" discourse while being a patron of the same. He is an "outsider" who worms his way "in" to the guard of Dayadi’s world; but, one who cannot remain there for long. His permanent status as "protector" and "patriarch" is reinstated the moment the child assumes a "womb shape".

In another poem addressed to Mitsi (p.11), the same fatherly allowance can be noted in the way the child’s subjectivity is allowed to take over. There is assurance that

"There were times

When my eyes were so full

Of other tears

To see yours"

Amidst the times spent with the child’s alternate "put-me-down" and "pick-me-up times", Malinda also notes that he was actually more "let-you-down" than "by-your-side".

In My Father (p.50), three generations are threaded together, with the poem being primarily an address to Mitsi, but reflecting on the poet’s own father who keeps the "familiarities" from "com[ing] off the walls" and "firmly defying / his infirmities". The poem, in fact, has a strong perpetuating air, where the family’s lineage is marked and its continuity is desired and strongly advocated. The grandfather, in spite of being "paint-cracked", is seen to be "green-green" when the family arrives at his door. The grandfather, father and daughter become the linkages that make the house – the hub of the generations gone by and the generations to be – significant and worth its time testing survival.

Malinda’s view of the family (as well as his politics) is patriarchal to the touch and the iconic value of "house" and "perpetuity" richly resonate in his poems. Elsewhere, I have read Malinda’s own recapitulation of his days as a younger boy growing up and the different "roles" played by his own parents – (if I remember right) the father being more of an intellectual impetus, but a detached presence who was there, but on the sides; and of his mother being an emotional cushion. Both these qualities come together in Malinda’s words to his kids, balancing the distant observer with the immediacy of the concerned eye.

His poem Ammi (p.95) eludes me and I am unable to unnerve a thread in it, which will give me some purchase. Perhaps, there is more personality in it which blocks me out as an alien entrant. Yet, the title suggests that the poem deals with the writer’s mother (or, perhaps, the memory of the mother). I warmly invite the reader to take it up and fare better than I have done. My hunch is that Malinda Seneviratne – the baby – is closer to his mother than father. There is fair indication in numerous blog entries and casual exchanges that that is where he took refuge from the wrath of retribution.

Nangi (p.1) brings together the image of "mother" with that of friend. We are told that his sister "holds me too / in her heart-palm / made of mother and friend". However, throughout the poem, Malinda attributes to the sister shades of tininess, in its different echoes. From being tiny at the point of birth, being similarly tiny in his first memory of her, of being made tiny by the distance of continents that came between them, the sister – in spite of the growth of their bondage – yet remains delicate in her tininess. This, again, reflects on the patriarchal voice in Malinda, which plays macho but also yearns for assurance and protection. While making himself a vanguard for the sister (as he does with the kids), she is simultaneously a fort and a barrack of protection.

Malinda’s "home poems" very easily submit a complexity and emotional build which highlights the son-father-brother in one who, in English journalism, is arguably the most dogged washing machine of regimental sin (2006ish – to date). What will send the man down the history books, however, will be his journalism and other poetry, though a valuable key to his chest lies in the poetry closer to "home".

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