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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Coolie (sic) love songs

Coolie (sic) love songs

Charles Sarvan*


To recall the estate folk is to call up a situation of cruel exploitation; to see a servile people patiently enduring, working hard and long for meagre pay, returning at the end of the day to squalid “lines”. It was, and is, a situation of degradation that, not surprisingly, produced intra-violence and other transgressions which, in turn, were used to justify inhumane treatment: they were different, a species apart; not fully like, and equal to, “us”. (See Sarvan, “Indian plantation ‘Coolie’ experiences overseas”, Kunapipi, Australia, Vol. X11, No 2, 2000.)

But this is not the total picture. Despite the above, these folk found time to celebrate the divine; preserve customs and ceremonies; dance, compose and sing. It is hoped that their songs and oral narratives will be recorded (as text and on film), preserved, and shared with the wider public. Their cultural production deserves attention on grounds of intrinsic merit and socio-historical significance, but it would also be a small, posthumous, restitution to generations past: “It was not all in vain.” In hardship and humiliation, they cherished some of the finest of human emotions, such as, for example, love. Here, I merely reproduce, and briefly comment on, a few lines of song from those rescued by C. V.Velupillai in Born To Labour. The book is now out of print, but it is a jewel of information, significance and value. (My thanks to Mrs Sybil Jirasinha for scouring Colombo bookshops, finding, and posting, a copy to me.) The efforts of Velupillai have not received their just acknowledgement and recognition and, at the least, Born To Labour should be edited, brought up to date, and republished. Velupillai attempted to record the varied voice of those uncared for, unseen and unheard, showing not only cruelty, contempt and indifference; tragedy and suffering, but also courage, beauty and love. The songs were in Tamil and, as is well known, translation rarely does justice to the original – something, if not much, is inevitably lost. Further, the element of performance is absent: the voice and talent of the singer; the physical setting, in terms of place and time; the presence and response of the audience; the atmosphere. I begin with a duet:

“There, beyond the tumid river, my swan
You tend your flock, my pea-hen.
If the flood overflows the banks
How could you come hither, my love?”

“I shall summon the carpenter, my lover
To build me a boat of soft wood
To carry me across the river
When the flood overflows the banks.”

To the tea companies, estate management and the indifferent public, the plantation woman was a source of cheap labour; to those directly in charge, opportunity for sexual exploitation and use; but to the one in love, she is fully human, female and precious; graceful as a swan, beautiful as a pea-hen. But, since those who love give hostages to fortune, love is not without fear of loss; anxiety over separation and safety. In one of William Wordsworth’s Lucy poems, there is sudden (and seemingly causeless) fear: If Lucy should be dead! On similar lines, we have desire and fear: If there’s a flood, how will you cross over to me? The estate woman was the victim of an impersonal capitalism that had dire personal consequences - on the individual, as on the collective. She was subordinate to management and to her own men folk but, momentarily empowered by love, she replies with confidence: “I shall summon the carpenter” to construct a boat. “Summon” is aptly chosen, for while even orders can be neglected, a summons (by God, government and courts of law) cannot be ignored. She who is ordered and summoned life long is transformed by love, and will issue a summons. A boat made of hard timber would better survive flood waters, but “soft wood” suggests the tenderness of her love. She reassures her lover, and the duet is completed by repetition: “the flood overflows the banks.” However, beneath confidence and assertion, there is poignancy: in real life, if the flood comes, she will have no power to summon anyone; the waters will separate them; there will be no meeting, and no happy consummation.

Sometimes, the welling up of emotion, its power and impetuosity, are such that language cannot cope, and proves inadequate. In happy desperation, the lover hopes to express his feelings by paradoxically declaring an inability to express them. In the following extract, with feeling almost too strong for the body to contain, we have a piling up of exclamatory and “sensuous” metaphors, the latter relating to the sense of sight, taste and fragrance:

0 sweet jak pod!
O cardamom, 0 clove!
What shall I call you!”


Employing a contrary technique, sometimes feelings are understated, expressed obliquely:


At Peradeniya bridge
The stream fills the pipe;
In the jungle, a lonely palm –
It’s six months since I spoke to him.

“The stream fills the pipe”, indicates plenitude and fulfilment - the image is not without sexual suggestion. In a seemingly abrupt shift from bridge, stream and pipe, we come to a palm, solitary and out of place in the jungle. Does “jungle” indicate a hostile social environment? The palm, graceful though it may be, is not watered by the stream of love, and cannot flourish. Alienation and loneliness; inimical surroundings and a lack of fulfilment; vulnerability and precariousness are given meaning by the abrupt shift from nature to the human and the personal: “It’s six months since I spoke to him.” Powerful in understatement, indirection, and suggestivity, the lines evoke a lack of fertility and fruitfulness; the loneliness, sorrows and dangers (“jungle”) of separation and absence.

The joy and strength of love; the doubt, anxiety and pain of caused by separation and absence, these are universal and perennial themes. They prove - if proof were needed - that the Estate Folk are neither subordinate nor separate but fully and equally human: it has been convenient and necessary to see them otherwise so that injustice and unkindness could be perpetrated and perpetuated.
****

Source: "voice of voiceless", Kandy, Sri Lanka

(* Prof. Charles P.Sarvan taught English literature in London, Nigeria, Zambia,Bahrain and Germany and lives in retirement in Berlin, Germany)

2 Kommentare:

  1. Hi!

    Im so glad to find your posting when i saw the mention of Dr. Sarvan on your blog.. i came in via your feed at bloglines.com :)

    My parents were family friends of Dr. Sarvan while he taught at the university of Bahrain during the early 90's and onwards. I lost touch contact with him once I left for university to canada. Am now back in Bahrain and have learnt he's longer teaching here.

    Is there any way you can put me back in touch with Dr. Sarvan? I can be reached on angelo.embuldeniya at gmail dot com.

    thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  2. In April, in British-occupied Basra, the European aid agency Saving Children from War reported: "The mortality of young children had increased by 30 percent compared with the Saddam Hussein era." They die because the hospitals have no ventilators and the water supply, which the British were meant to have fixed, is more polluted than ever. Children fall victim to unexploded U.S. and British cluster bombs. They play in areas contaminated by depleted uranium; by contrast, British army survey teams venture there only in full-body radiation suits, face masks, and gloves. Unlike the children they came to "liberate," British troops are given what the Ministry of Defense calls "full biological testing."

    Was Arthur Miller right? Do we "internally deny" all this, or do we listen to distant voices? On my last trip to Palestine, I was rewarded, on leaving Gaza, with a spectacle of Palestinian flags fluttering from inside the walled compounds. Children are responsible for this. No one tells them to do it. They make flagpoles out of sticks tied together, and one or two climb on to a wall and hold the flag between them, silently. They do it, believing they will tell the world.

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