Tamil Tiger parade in in Killinochchi, 2002. Wikimedia commons

Read the introduction by Meena Kandasamy here.

Captain Vaanati | Captain Kasturi | Aatilatchumi | Lil Milagro Ramírez | Nibha Shah

Get Ready for Battle
Captain Vaanati, trans. Meena Kandasamy

You, who have become
a refugee in your kitchen,
because of the storm of patriarchy
You, waging a silent war with fire!
Get ready, and come!

Let your self-confidence grow
and your courage too.
Do you have any freedom
to act on your thoughts
and your desires?

Family life does not exist
for the have-nots now.
This is what has continued
into the twentieth century.

Like the dreams of someone mute,
your emotions now run silent.
You sob in the kitchen
as you are being rapped.
Get ready, and come away.
Let us create a new era,
in the shadow of the guns
we now carry.

When we get national freedom
that we desire so deeply,
we will build the tomb
for women’s exploitation.
We will dig the graves
for society’s backward ideas.

For this revolution tomorrow,
you must come today.

Look! There, in a flood of blood,
your sister holding her gun out to you.
Take her weapon.
Walk in her footsteps.

*

She, the Woman of Tamil Eelam
Captain Vaanati, trans. Meena Kandasamy

Not the red dot of the kunkumam
but blood decorates her forehead.
You do not see the sweetness
of youth in her eyes, only
the gravestones of the dead.
Her lips don’t utter useless babble
instead, the vows of martyrs.
On her neck, she wears not the thaali,
that marker of marriage,
but sports a cyanide capsule.
She embraces not men
but her weapons.
Her legs do not wander in search
of her relatives, but towards
the liberation of Tamil Eelam.
The bullets from her gun
will destroy the enemy.
It will break the shackles.
and then, our people
will sing our national anthem.

*

The Unwritten Poem
Captain Vaanati, trans. Meena Kandasamy

Write!
Write,
my poem
that I leave
without writing

I am unable to write
the many, many thoughts that come . . .
My gun is standing at the border
I am unable to come away
so, write,
write my unwritten poem.

Behind the fierce gun
my body might be decimated
but my emotions will not.
They will make you think.
Then, write,
write my unwritten poem.

In our liberated land
when our memorials are built
they are not for your tears,
they are not for your wreaths.
They exist so that you stay
determined to breathing
new life into our land.
So, please write,
write my unwritten poem.

After my meaningful death,
you will come to tour around
the recognized nation of Tamil Eelam.
Then, my unwritten poem
will stand up in front of you.

Look into my unwritten poem
and you will see those who knew me,
and those who understood me,
and those who cared for me
and those who loved me,
all of them.

There, not only me,
but all the martyrs
will see you, and
joyfully smile.

*

Tea Baskets
Captain Kasturi, trans. Meena Kandasamy

Having hung the baskets
of tea leaves over an
exploitative balance,
these tea plants
yearn for a cup of tea.

When will there come a day,
where, marching as fire-gods
they torch away their sufferings?

*

Superpowers
Captain Kasturi, trans. Meena Kandasamy

Superpowers—
in order
to surge ahead,
you torture others.
When your power will be probed,
it will be clear that developing countries
were driven to destitution by you.
For you to create a history on the moon
you strip and pillage and shame lands.

Your coming only increases
poverty and famine.

The Red Cross of your land
does not gather the wounded,
they are only into inventory.
Your country’s researchers
tabulate the statistics of deaths
alongside stocks.
Those peace-loving countries
who have brokered deals with you
have entered our land
and only birthed troubles.
As your airports expand
is it not our little huts that are set on fire?

You tactfully enter peaceful countries
cut their flourishing roots
and pour water on the stalks
so they do not appear dead.
Most often, your interventions
have left behind only scorched earth.
The AIDS that you spread is not even natural.
even wind and rain now suspect you.

You are the international terrorists
going to claim ownership
of the artificial hurricanes
that you will create!

*

Memories Spreading Out in the Shade
Aatilatchumi, trans. Meena Kandasamy

Under that tamarind tree,
that’s where the grandfather
selling ice-cream used to stand.
In front, this wide playground
that’s where we played
drunk up on all the dust.
In the north-west of the ground
where you see Vairavar’s trident
we used to remove our slippers
for safekeeping.
We would hang our school bags
on the tamarind tree.
We threw stones at the cows
coming to graze in our playground.
Silently witnessing all this,
the school-building stood inanimate
built on our village funds
a one-storey, haphazard structure.

Here is where
the Indian Army lived.
They broke the chairs
the tables, the windows
They made chappatis.
They cut down coconut trees
that encircled the school
turned them into barricades.

Everything is now a dream
many of my friends
are now on the battleground.
A few of them, in graveyards.
Me alone, with a pen in hand, a poet.

*

Wiping Away Tears
Aatilatchumi, trans. Meena Kandasamy

Amma Krishanthi!
When I think of what happened to you
I’m filled with dread
my belly is on fire.

State radio, state newspapers lie:
‘Tamil lives are flourishing’

In Valikaamam,
your life has been snatched away
you have been denied the right to live.

Do you remember, amma?
A while ago, the army claimed
to have rescued a teacher who accidentally fell into a well.

It is the same army that vandalized

  • Ranjani in Urumpiriya
  • Raajini in Kondavil
  • You in Kaiththadi.

Killed you, buried you.
You, a schoolgirl who was raped.
Having feasted on you, the beasts laughed,
you could not even shout.
You were battling death—
what did you think, amma
as your eyes fixed themselves
on the sky and grew still?

They say, off-handedly,
your death was a conspiracy
against the army. That is not true.
You know that, the world knows too.
Truth never sleeps inside a grave.

Fresh flower, you were torn to shreds.
We wipe our tears
and strengthen our resolve.
Let them realize
we are not slaves
to state terrorism.

*

Of Man
Lil Milagro Ramírez, trans. Jessica Rainey

In despair
a man prepares tomorrow’s field.

Let flags and doves fly
from the smallest house,
from the hardest heart.

Distribute the seed, warrior,
for the time to sow is here.

*

We will sow
by force if we must,
we will plough the ever-fertile earth,
we will scatter seeds
across the widest furrow,
we will sow.

We will fight
until lit up by smiles,
until it is our destiny
for hope to find peace,
we will fight
until we stand, and then,
we will build,
so we can live,
can hand down
the earth to our offspring.

Clay will surface
from far below
and we will build.

*

Of Time
Lil Milagro Ramírez, trans. Jessica Rainey

Love the shadows,
they will save you from death,
love the night that hides you,
love the darkness,
but don’t forget, my friend,
those who don’t treasure the stars
won’t see the light when it rises.

*

This is the night of the fated.
I am awake, huddling anxiety,
heavy in the shadows of despair.
I await nonetheless
the arrival
of a single word.

*

I lose my way in the light, backtrack
to the mirror of dazzling days.
I seek oblivion
but every shadow is a trap set for me.
I hear of a lake dying of thirst,
recall stories of wingless birds.
Behind me remains
the dust of the yellow hours.

*

I come from a city where sometimes
we have very clear evenings
– only sometimes.
Now I know why
I don’t like to discern
the colour of vultures’ wings
nor want to share the light
with those who won’t
let men smile.

*

Of all our dead you
Lil Milagro Ramírez, trans. Jessica Rainey

Of all our dead you
on the front line
stood your ground.
Forever at the front
they can never now
shoot you down,
death is your triumph.

Your gestures, ever impatient,
your youth, your voice,
stay with us,
but your combat name
belongs to history,
eternity embraced you
as a soldier.

You died
as men of conscience should die,
without flowers,
procession,
ceremony,
your unnamed body
covered quietly by the earth.
But here there are no tears,
here the hole
          left by our dead
has to be filled fighting.

*

Kaili
Nibha Shah, trans. Muna Gurung

Kaili who didn’t see the sun on cold days
Kaili who didn’t sit under a tree on hot days
Kaili who never heard sweet words slip from any mouth
When she falls ill, Kaili becomes her own mother
Boils water and feeds herself
She becomes her own daughter, that Kaili
She loves herself
Kaili has a heart that loves
Kaili loves everyone.

Kaili who didn’t see her mother’s face
who didn’t see her father’s face
Someone sold her mother somewhere
Someone took her father somewhere
Kaili who was raised by her grandmother,
Kaili of the small hut.

When her grandmother passed away
She was all alone
Sometimes Kaili took goats to graze
Sometimes she took sheep to graze
She became a shepherd
Then the shepherd grew a little older
And started collecting firewood from the forest
But no one can live by selling wood
So she broke larger rocks into smaller rocks, and
sifted sand at construction sites
She labours, Kaili
She does whatever work she can get, Kaili,
After all, she is a labourer
to graze, to collect wood, to break rocks
whatever it is, whatever she can do.
Kaili’s small hut never leaves her
Kaili’s rags never leave her
Kaili’s hunger never leaves her
When she runs a fever, she doesn’t find paracetamol, Kaili
She only drinks hot water, Kaili
This is Kaili’s life.

But Kaili is beginning to understand
Why her grandmother’s life
never stretched from three bitta to four
Why her own life
never spans beyond three bitta to four
Kaili is measuring in bitta
Kaili who measures in bitta
Begins to menstruate
Becomes pregnant
From Kaili’s womb rises the revolution, inquilab,
Inquilab jindabaad.

(2005, Western Command, Nepal)

*

Bird
Nibha Shah, trans. Muna Gurung

People only saw the tree fall.
Who saw the nest of the little bird fall?
Poor thing!
A home she built one twig at a time
Who saw the tears in her eyes?
Even if they saw her tears, who understood her pain?

The bird didn’t give up,
didn’t stop hoping
didn’t stop flying
rather, she left her old home
to create a new one, collecting again
one twig, another twig.
She is building her nest in a redwood
She is guarding her eggs

The bird didn’t know how to lose

She spreads flight into new skies
She spreads flight into new skies

(Dec 30, 2005, Western Command, Nepal)

*

Cage
Nibha Shah, trans. Muna Gurung

We want
eyes to open:
eyes will open
We want to live free:
Who can cage us?

We look at the faces of
light and darkness–
light pierces darkness.

Your walls couldn’t cage us
Even inside the prison, we continued to fly
carrying feathers of ideas,
Even inside the prison, we continued to burn
with the light of faith
Now say, where will you cage us?

Your handcuffs and nails couldn’t cage us
Your beatings couldn’t shrink us
We tore into shreds your
forms for surrender
We signed off on your
standard procedures for death
Now say, where will you cage us?

(2002, Central Jail, Kathmandu, Nepal)

*

About the Translators

Muna Gurung is a writer, translator and educator based in Kathmandu, Nepal. She received her MFA from Columbia University, where she was a teaching fellow. Her fiction, non-fiction and translated works have appeared in The Margins, Himal Southasian, Words Without Borders, Roads&Kingdoms, La.Lit, The Record and No Tokens. Working closely with Nepali illustrators and writers, she has also edited and helped create a handful of children’s books. Muna writes a monthly column for Nepali Times called Lightroom Conversation, where she interviews women and queer writers in the Nepali literary scene. She is the founder of KathaSatha. When not write or teaching, Muna runs an inter-generational pickle company with her mother called ĀMĀKO.

Meena Kandasamy is a poet, novelist and translator who divides her time between London and Tamil Nadu. Her latest novel is Exquisite Cadavers.

Jessica Rainey translates from Spanish and French. Her literary translations include a contemporary Spanish play, Run!, by Yolanda García Serrano (Cervantes Theatre, 2019), a Salvadoran poetry collection, Thirty Days A Widow, by Tania Pleitez Vela (Red Ceilings Press, 2014), and contributions to various poetry and short story anthologies, including Vanishing Points and Theatre Under My Skin (Editorial Kalina, 2017 & 2014). In 2015, she was awarded the Poetry Translation Mentorship from the British Centre for Literary Translation. She has participated in a number of literary translation events, among them, Protest Poets in Translation at the Southbank Centre in London (2015) and Translation as Collaboration at Newcastle University (2017). Jessica currently teaches translation on the MA programmes at both Durham and Newcastle Universities.

Aatilatchumi

Aatilatchumi has written short-stories, poems, and radio plays. Her collected poems were published under the title En Kavithaigal in 2000.

Captain Kasturi

Captain Kasturi was a poet, a short-story writer, and a playwright. She headed a Supplies Unit of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the Elephant Pass Battle. She embraced heroic death on 11 July 1991. Her collected poetry was published as an anthology, Kasturi Kavithaiga.

Lil Milagro Ramírez

Lil Milagro Ramírez–poet and founder member of the Resistencia Nacional–was born in San Salvador in April 1946. An avid reader and writer, she was recognised–at age nineteen–as El Salvador’s “youngest female poet.” She completed a law degree at the University of El Salvador but, appalled by the hypocrisy of the legal system in her country, decided not to practise, instead joining a nascent revolutionary group in 1970.

Although the civil war didn’t officially begin until 1980, the decades before were marked by increasing violence. Prior attempts to oust a string of military dictators and introduce social reforms had only fostered corruption and electoral fraud. Protest, as throughout the history of El Salvador, was met by political repression. By 1971, Ramírez was living a completely underground existence.

For a time, Ramírez struggled with the idea of continuing to write:

“Many consider it impossible to balance being a revolutionary fighter with being a writer and poet. I went through that phase too, feeling considerable guilt when I was only writing. At such times, yes, I think you should give up the pen and take up the gun in defence of freedom. But once you’re on the right track, sure of your role and fulfilling what you believe to be your duty, then it is possible and valid to spend your free time writing poetry.”

The poems in this selection were written around 1972. Ramírez was aiming to produce a collection and had completed about forty poems. Of those forty, less than half survive, the ones she had managed to copy out and send to her mother ‘in some disarray’. The poems were published posthumously by Cuadernos Universitarios, Universidad de El Salvador, in 2002.

Ramírez was captured in 1976. She spent three years in brutal conditions in a clandestine jail, before her death at the hands of the Salvadoran National Guard in October 1979. According to those who were held alongside her, and survived, she continued to be a source of inspiration even in the harshest of circumstances, developing a form of Morse code so she could communicate with other detainees and reciting poems from memory to instill courage and hope.

Nibha Shah

Nibha Shah was born in 1971 into an aristocratic Rana-Shah family in Kathmandu, Nepal. She spent most of her early childhood in the southwestern part of the country, first in Kailali, then later in Achham, where she completed high school.

Although everyday injustices against Dalits and menstruating women in her community set the tone for her first rebellion as a young girl, it was in her college days in Delhi, India, that Nibha took up the identity of a Marxist. At that time, she was staying with a cousin who was an active member of the Marxist-Leninist student union, and her apartment was littered with leftist literature. Maxim Gorky’s Mother landed in Nibha’s hands and there was no turning back. When she returned to Nepal in 1996, what became known as the decade long People’s War had already begun. Nibha joined the Maoists, and at first, she was viewed with skepticism: Who is this woman of privilege coming to fight with us? Is she a spy? What does she want?

She went underground in 2001 but was caught in 2003 and jailed for a period of ten months. The Maoists and the government were in talks when she was released from jail, but when the talks didn’t go anywhere, Nibha found herself underground again until the war ended in 2006. Nibha says that her disillusionment with the Maoists leaders came about when she read the open letters written to the Nepal Maoists leaders by the American and Indian Maoist parties. “I was in love with the mission of making Nepal into this beautiful country where food, health, clothes, homes would all be free and everyone would be equal. Meanwhile, the leaders I’d been following were ferrying themselves across to safety and leaving the rest of us in the middle of the river to drown.”

When the war ended in 2006, Nibha decided to focus on writing. She has published three books of poetry, Inquilab Jindaabaad (Long Live the Revolution, 2006), Kalapani Ki Draupadi (The Draupadi of Kalapani, 2009) and Mansara (Mansara, 2015), and is currently working on a novel and a play. Her poems in this selection were taken from her first book and were written during her time in the war.

Captain Vaanati

Born Patmasothi Sanmukanathapillai, Captain Vaanati headed a Women Tiger unit of the LTTE during the Elephant Pass battle. She embraced martrydom in the course of this battle on 11 July 1991. In December (the Tamil month of Margali) 1991, her poems were published posthumously by the LTTE.

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