I am building a memorial,
not with stone,
not with water,
but with air,
the sound
that trails me forever

Semmani 03
By P. Ahilan,
Trans. Geetha Sukumaran

It is a daunting experience to begin writing about work that marks a paradigm shift in Tamil poetry. Packiyanathan Ahilan’s Tamil collections ‘Saramakavikal’ and ‘PathungukuliNaatkal’ have certainly transformed the Tamil literary landscape. In the collection drawn from these works and skillfully translated into English by GeethaSukumaran, in the collection ‘Then There Were No Witnesses,’ Ahilan’s poetry is poised to enter an international stage with a similar impact. I will not addressAhilan’s work in the context of the field of contemporary Tamil poetry; I believe that Sukumaran’s introduction (itself a work of art) very thoroughly analyses that aspect. Instead I enter into a humanities reading of this work, because it is time to contemplate what Tamil poetry has to share with the world today, with Ahilan’s poetry as a glowing example of it.

To write about words, let me first take you through some numbers:
100,000 missing, 40,000 dead in Sri Lanka.
In another time and place, 6 million dead in the Shoah.
Some 4 million or more killed in the middle passage and slavery in the Americas.

What happens when we count human beings? This is something we do all the time in statistical analysis, development, census, and in the ideals of democracy: one person, one vote. Yet, to paraphrase the late author, activist and theorist A. Sivanandan, what happens when the idea of one person, one vote, turns into one Sinhala person’s vote or one Tamil person’s vote? We are no strangers to the violence that arises from communal or ethnicity based politics, and the inciting of neighbours to destroy each other. HimaniBannerji’s collection of essays, ‘Demography and Democracy’ are worth referencing here as a study of the ideologies that drive communal violence, even within the ostensible shelter of a social contract.

Returning to the idea of numbering, we find that the counting of human beings is an instrumental act, and as such is counter to the Kantian categorical imperative that we always treat rational human beings as ends in themselves, and not as means to an end. In other words, we are required to treat humanity as our purpose, rather than use human beings to our purposes. However, modernity throws some challenges our way, such that even when human beings are our ends, enumerating them becomes necessary as a means of serving them. Even in accountability processes, we are forced to speak in numbers:
Who is counted? Do rebel deaths count? Do the deaths of minority Tamils count?

100,000 disappeared, 40,000 dead in a competition that pits numbers against numbers, and renders all these human beings, with lives, loves and dreams, anonymous.Coming to terms with that anonymity is a moral crime that we all thereby become complicit in. It is at this juncture that Ahilan’s‘Saramakavikal’ performs a crucial intervention.

Take the poem ‘Corpse No. 178’ as an example.
The title references a label attached to a corpse as the dead are being numbered, but the poem itself is a surgical deconstruction of the number:

“I descended into the cloven chest…
a famished old mother, waiting
an ailing father, a few garlanded photographs.
Entering the cellar of his body,
I was hounded by an endless sob.”

Entering the heart of a man, the narrator excavates from the cellar of his body, the untold history of a human being viewed solely as “a bloody mess” at first. This is a condition of complete abjectness, where nothing human can be deciphered from the numbered corpse. The voices of the doctors in ‘Notes From a Hospital’ are numbed as they recount the histories of numbered corpses. Unable to resurrect these bodies, with their scrutinizing vision, they imbue each one with meaning, and thereby resurrect each life. The sob, a momentary sound, is drawn out – an endless sob. Just as death, that can happen in an instant, leaves behind the drawn out anguish of mourning. Enumeration takes on a different significance in‘A Mother’s Words’(thaayurai),where the numbering of narratives points to tragedy of mythic proportions, where the unthinkable (a mother recounting the death of her child)becomes repeated and so it is numbered. We have words for people who lose their spouses (widows or widowers), and words for children who lose their parents (orphans), but we don’t have a word for a parent who loses their child. So abhorrent is the very concept that we hesitate to name it and bring it further into the realm of the everyday.

The poems in ‘Then There Were No Witnesses,’ honed with minimalist precision present us with glimpses of what Gottfried Leibniz termed the monad. The monad, in Leibniz’ theory, is the smallest unit of a system that can exist independently and in harmony with the system, so that it always references the whole from which it is derived. So, a human being is a monadic expression of humanity. On a purely textual level, the poems function as monads that reference a larger body of Tamil literature, whether through the Sangam poems, the thevaram or thiruvasakam. However, if we examine Ahilan’s poems as symbolic monads, we see the violence of war as a rupture of human beings from the human systems (community, village, town, nation) they could lay claims to. The monads captured here are evidence of the ultimate displacement – from social contract, from rights, romantic relationships, and family.

One could view this at first as the most complete form of erasure, and yet Ahilan seeks humanity even in the dismembered body. A severed hand of a twenty year old, with a long lifeline, tattooed with his lover’s name below the wrist – Santhuja – this hand recalls a body, a body that felt desire. The ‘Mithunam’ poems, which refer to the idealized sexual union as a union of body and spirit, confront us with the traumatized psyche that cannot withhold trauma from its partner.These innumerable tragedies the poet draws to himself, and in mourning them moves through elegy, through threnody, where what is being mourned is not only the death of each individual, but the fall of humanity into a condition that allows us to inflict such brutal violence upon each other.It is in the face of such violence that Primo Levi reminded us that we each bear the stamp of each, that Toni Morrison writes her great circles of sorrow, that Mahmoud Darwish spoke of the Palestinian homeland with such longing, and Kendrick Lamar chants “We’re gonna be alright, we’re gonna be alright.” The poet, the writer, the artist, continue to throw up an assertion in the face of brutality; a challenge to account for the burdened days that remain “…even when there is no reason, no one waiting anymore.”

Theodor Adorno once wrote, that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. This was often misunderstood as suggestingthat artcannot be created after such trauma, or that art is a self-indulgent exercise that should not be carried out after trauma. Adorno was compelled to explain himself further, and he pointed to anuncritical participation in culture, the holding of culture to an elevated state that disallows critique.
Ahilan’s poetry responds to Adorno’sindictment, by reminding us that violence done in the name of culture does violence to the very culture it endeavours to preserve. In internalizing these individual traumas, the poet resuscitates a uniquely Tamil voice that reverberates through the human conscience. It reminds us that a culture without humanity is a culture that cannot survive.


PACKIYANATHAN AHILAN, born in Jaffna , Sri Lanka. Currently, he is a senior lecturer in Art History at the University of Jaffna. He has published three poetry collections: Pathunkukuzhi Naatkal (2001), Saramakavigal (2011) and Ammai (2017). An English translation of his poems Then There no Witnesses was published by Mawenzi House in 2018.  He writes critical essays on poetry, heritage, theatre & visual arts. He is also the author of his essay collection Kalathin Vilimpu: Yalpaanathin Marapurimaiyum Avatrai Paathukaathalum (2015, Tamil) and the co-editor of Reading Sri Lankan Society and Culture – Vol. II and III (2007, 2008, Tamil) and Venkat Swaminathan: Vaathangalum Vivaathangalum (2010, Tamil). Reviews of his poetry have appeared in various online magazines and newspapers.

Nedra Rodrigo is currently completing her PhD in the Humanities program at York University on Tamil refugee narratives. She co-founded the Tamil Studies Symposium, and is also developing an archive of Tamil resources at York University, and she is currently on the steering committee of a projected Tamil Community Centre for Toronto.
She was a Spoken Word artist who has been featured at Scream in High Park, Desh Pardesh, Masala Mendhi Masti, the Asian Heritage Festival and various other events. Her essays have been published in the International Journal of the Humanities; Global Tensions, Global Possibilities; Human Rights and the Arts: Essays on Global Asia; and Studies in Canadian Literature. She is currently translating the Thamizhini memoir ‘In the Shadow of a Sharpened Sword’ (Oru Koorvalin Nizhalil) and the first two volumes of Devakanthan’s quintet ‘Prison of Dreams’ (Kanavuchirai) due for publication in 2020. She was shortlisted for the Global Humanities Translation Prize in 2016. Her translations of the poetry of Cheran, V.I.S. Jayapalan and Puthuvai Ratnathurai were published in the collection Human Rights and the Arts in Global Asia.

A doctoral student at York University, Geetha Sukumaran published Tharkolaikku parakkum panithuli (Tamil translation of Sylvia Plath’s poems), the poetry collection Otrai pakadaiyil enchum nampikkai (The Hope Set in a Single Die), and an English translation of Ahilan’s Then There Were No Witnesses (2018). She received the SPARROW R Thyagarajan award for her poetry.