Mandulee Mendis’ debut collection, Me in My Saree (2019), is plagued by an unfulfilled search for a voice that’s Mandulee’s own. Received as a charge, it is hoped that this will benefit Mandulee in her future endeavours; and most certainly so, as Me in My Saree leaves an equal measure of expectation and anticipation with the reader for a second, to-be collection.
The absence of a voice that’s the ‘poet’s own’ hints at the lack of originality and conviction in the medium and the sign-system Mandulee uses in her communication. For the main, this leaves the poet as a ventriloquist than as an original expressionist. If, as a point of illustration, a pertinent thread of the collection – patriotism and national pride – is to be considered, the gusto with which Mandulee sets out waving banners, weaving jingoistic verses, and stamping her love and affection for the country and the people are blockaded by her own sense of imagery, description, words, and evocations that degenerate to cliche and overused empty-rhetoric.
The ‘foreword’ tables several lines that substantiate the above/present inquiry. Imagery incorporated herein, such as the “sun that warms the air [the poet] breaths in”, “the pride of a land of might” she feels, and the “grandeur of the sword, justice and the wit” are overused imagery in amateur composition which fail to hold attention. The stanza which follows contributes even less:
I stand for us, and myself:
A woman; A human;
Me with my view, is my light
Me in my saree I write.
The evocation of patriotism and national-feeling are often attempted through references to topography, mythology, and cliched semiotics of the nationalist line. “In a Flower that wants to fly”, the poet/narrator makes the following declaration:
I want to be a bird, a small one
And fly over the golden paddy fields
Over the Samanala mountain
Around the fortress Sigiri
I want to cross the Mahaweli
And lie on the bank of Nilwala
I want to wait by the Sacred Bo Tree.
Who writes like this, anymore? What motivates Mandulee Mendis – probably younger than Vivimarie VanderPoorten and Dushyanthi Mendis, whom she acknowledges for guidance and advice given, – to write poetry that is reminiscent of a W.S. Senior or an R.L Spittel? Either Mandulee has been forced with a semiotic toolkit – a system which, in Senior’s patriotic verse, inculcated a certain national-feeling – which ill-serves her purpose; or, her jingoistic expression itself is insincere and dishonest that they fail to convince.
Built into poems such as “The Call of Lanka”, “New Year’s Eve in the Tropics” and “A Call to Lanka (A.D 1926)”, descriptions of nature and topography that are meant to be awe-evoking are a repetitive motif in W.S. Senior’s poems. The hyperbolic glorification of the “Kandyan Land” (in “Resurgam”), Haputale (in “Reminiscence”), and the whole island in general (as seen from Pidurutalagala, in “Lanka from Piduru Talagalla”) take shape within such definition. But, in these verses, a larger ecological and bio system – which, to Senior provides a deck to emerge from – are visible. This is partly why Mandulee’s future endeavours stir expectation. With the promise of their being a part of a larger ideology that feeds the poet, these patriotic-pieces leave the reader in suspense as to what is yet to rise.
In a piece that feigns a journey in search of a tradition (of sorts), Mandulee makes the following announcement:
I go on Chaucer’s pilgrimage
And flow to the tune of Kudaligama
Adore the wit of Gajaman Nona
Also Elizabeth Bennet’s
I see traces of Mrs. Havisham
In Sunil’s grandmother sometimes
I can sing an ode to Autumn
Also to Keragala temple
I can wonder (sic) lonely as a cloud
Over Madol Doowa, the island
Selalihiniya and nightingale
Are the same to me, no difference,
Because both, I love
Because both, are mine.
The literary tradition the poet outlines as what informs her creative energy, yet again, is somewhat pretentious and contrived. These self-conscious juxtapositions are commonly found in amateur poems in Navasilu or Ceylon New Writing days – the 1970s. As postcolonial expression, these mutually incongruous arrangements and interventions carry about them a datedness which dulls expression. An ‘x’ number of poets have already exhausted that cliche. The x+1 in that sequence doesn’t add to the universe. In the current generation of writing, such formulas, at best, produce amusement (as in the interchangeability of the selalihiniya and the nightingale); or, at worst, encourage tedium. The resultant outcome is a Chaucer-pilgrimage, but in a medievalist sense.
“Ode to Vihara Maha Devi” is not an ode. Set in two contrapuntal parts of eight lines each, the narrator self-interrogates whether she is (or not) a “mimesis” of Vihara Maha Devi. The observations through which the narrator forces a conclusion are more about herself, that their being about Vihara Maha Devi. The Vihara Maha Devi image seems to have been used as a sign – than out of genuine concern – to evoke a nationally-crucial myth within a loose discourse of patriotism. If not Vihara Maha Devi, any other Devi (or Dev) can be equally applied to the poem; and with equal success.
The usage illustrated in the essay so far denotes an immaturity which, one hopes, Mandulee will overcome with time. It underlines an effort and force that renders her project suspect; and takes away from the power of some of the better poems such as, for instance, “Writing by the Thissa wewa”. Here, the writer doesn’t lose herself among the contraptions of jingoism or contrived patriotic set pieces, but through description and detail alone evokes a vista of “grandeur” through the national-icon of Tissa wewa.
Writing by the Thissa wewa
I feel the weight of the mass
of water dark and deep
Swaying with frills of a lama saree
not awake yet not asleep
I feel its coldest touch
under the crimson rays
and see the glistening mirror wall
and vogue of a dancing waterfall
I feel the pride and grandeur
of a time of wealth and greatness
Here, the use of the Sinhala colloquialism has a purpose and is not forced. The detail is held together, and the imagery is refreshing. The water’s being characterized as being “not awake yet not asleep”, and of them giving the “coldest touch” under “crimson rays” are powerful lines. Poems such as “Writing by the Thissa wewa” should define Mandulee Mendis. “Ode to Vihara Maha Devi” must not.