Simply Great: Ayathurai Santhan

Ayathurai Santhan
There appeared a poem in Sri Lanka in the year 1983. That was about the unfortunate anti-Tamil pogrom there, in July that year and appropriately named “July 1983”.

I used to wonder

About the Nazi killers,

And who stood and watched the killing…

It was penned neither by a Tamil nor by a victim of those particular unfortunate events, but by none other than the internationally renowned Anne Ranasinghe.

She was the wife of a Sinhalese professor, and like Nissim Ezekiel, was Jewish. Same as Ezekiel in India, Anne, too, can be considered as a pioneer of modern English writing in Sri Lanka. But she was not fortunate enough to arrive at the country of adoption in a good time but had to fall a victim of Nazi atrocities.

Anne Ranasinghe was born in Germany as Anneliese Katz in 1925, in a time which made her suffer terribly. At the tender age of 13, her father sent her to England to make her escape the impending doom. Ultimately in 1944, her parents and relatives were killed by the Nazis. As a trained nurse, she met Prof. Ranasinghe in England, which resulted in a love marriage. Anne came to Sri Lanka, made it as her new home, and lived here till her death.

…And I - though related

Only by marriage –

feel myself both victim and accused…

-continues the poem “July 1983”.

Serializing her life experiences in a Colombo weekly made Anne reminisce the past and made her metamorphosedinto a poet.

The thoughts of nightmare experiences resulted in her Holocaust Poems, including the heart-wrenching Holocaust 1944- To my Mother.

I do not know

To what strange far off earth

They buried you…

And did you think of me

That frost-blue December morning.

Snow heavy and bitter.

As you walked naked and shivering

Under the leaden sky,

In that last moment

When you knew it was the end,

The end of nothing

And the beginning of nothing

Did you think of me? 

She dedicated her collection Snow, for her 'Father, Mother and Grandmother and all her relations who were murdered by the Nazis between 1941 and 1945 in Ghettos and Death Camps in Poland.

In a way Anne Ranasinghe could be considered a little less-unfortunate when compared to the ‘other’ Anne, Anne Frank, also an Annelise and also of Jewish origin, the popular diarist. The poetess was four years senior but both faced almost the same fate, though without knowing each other.

Despite her experiences, Anne remained above all the racial divides and being a victim of the cruel racial arrogance, she always identified herself with victims. Her empathy with them is well reflected in the following lines of “July 1983”:

Forty years later

Once more there is burning

The night sky bloodied, violent and abused.

These lines bore witness for the indelible memory of terrors in Anne’s mind. Her mind had never forgotten the past and was unavoidably dwelling in it. The memory is our shield, she wrote. The agonies she underwent made her writings weaponry against racial atrocities.

Though Anne Ranasinghe commenced her literary career as a poet and poetry remaining her first preference of expression, she has also written commendable works of prose, as well.

Likewise, while her main medium of expression remained English, Anne was bilingual. She wrote in her mother tongue, German, and translated from German as well. Among other works, an important essay written originally in German by Klaus Harpprecht was translated by her under the title “Sri Lanka Terror and the Poetess.”

Her writings, including poems, stories, features and essays, resulted in collections numbering more than fifteen. Having been translated into several languages including French, Dutch, Hebrew, Swedish, Sinhala, Tamil and others, they appeared in anthologies and journals in many countries, thus earning her international repute. Anne’s book “At What Dark Point” was translated into Sinhala by Melvin Wijesekera, and the “Holocaust Poems” by Prof. U. P. Meddegama. The writer of this article has translated “Holocaust 1944- To my Mother,” into Tamil.

The most striking feature about Anne Ranasinghe’s works is the down to earth simplicity and the stark straightforwardness.

Though she is popularly known as a ‘German-born, English- educated, Sri Lankan, Jewish poet’, Anne Ranasinghe discarded all these identities and emerges as a Global poet belonging to the whole of mankind through her works and translations.

Bionote: Ayathurai Santhan writes in English and his mother tongue, Tamil, and authored some thirty books. His works have found places in reputed anthologies and magazines in Sri Lanka and India and also translated into Sinhala, Hindi and Russian. He was awarded the Premchand Fellowship of the Sahitya Akademi of India and Sahitya Rathna of the Cultural Department of Sri Lanka, besides other prizes. Santhan, an engineer by profession, lives in Jaffna, Sri Lanka.

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