M.A. Nuhman: the Lankan poet for Palestine

How Nuhman’s translations of poems on the Palestinian cause have resonated with Sri Lankan Tamils

December 07, 2023 12:18 pm | Updated 01:21 pm IST

M.A. Nuhman at his Kandy residence.

M.A. Nuhman at his Kandy residence. | Photo Credit: Meera Srinivasan

Like many around the world, renowned Sri Lankan poet and linguist M.A. Nuhman is deeply pained by the bloodshed and mass killings that ravage Gaza, sparing no one — not even infants.

His anger at the brutal violence against civilians, and his solidarity with the people of Palestine, have found familiar expression in Tamil verse. Last month, he wrote a poem, ‘Oru Palestina Kural’ (A Palestinian Voice), as he watched the violence escalate, from his own war-scarred island, tens of thousands of miles away.

Only weeks earlier, the Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant had said: “We are fighting against human animals,” and later, the Israeli prime minister remarked that “Israel is fighting with the enemies of civilisation,” as he sought to cast the ongoing war as one between the “forces of civilisation and forces of barbarism.”

Disturbed by this framing of the conflict, Nuhman wrote in one of the opening verses:

Do not insult animals,

animals are friends of human

beings,

you and I cannot live in a world

without animals,

animals do not occupy,

animals do not throw bombs and

kill people,

animals do not snatch away a

nation,

animals do not chase away people

from their homes,

animals do not annihilate villages,

animals do not make people

refugees,

do not insult animals.

The subsequent verses throw a series of difficult moral and political questions at the Israeli state, using a Palestinian voice.

“This cannot just go on like this,” Nuhman told?The Hindu?at a meeting at his home in Kandy recently. The 79-year-old writer and his wife now live just outside the hilly town in Sri Lanka’s Central Province after retiring from their academic careers some years ago.

A woman holds a ‘Free Palestine’ flag in Istanbul

A woman holds a ‘Free Palestine’ flag in Istanbul | Photo Credit: AP

A groundswell

“America talks about protecting human rights in Ukraine while supporting Israel that is unleashing unspeakable violence in Gaza. Arab countries have also become stooges of the U.S., they are unable to do anything,” he said. Yet, despite big powers backing Israel’s war, he finds the groundswell of support for Palestinians across the world heartening. “People are taking to the streets in large numbers in so many countries, including Israel, to show their solidarity.” He makes the point in his poem too: ‘The world’s biggest terrorists are supporting you, but open your eyes and look around, people with a sense of justice world over are rising against you…

Nuhman has been following the Palestinian question for some 60 years now, from the time he was a student and later, as a young school teacher. His intellectual curiosity and political persuasion as a leftist led him to the works of several Palestinian poets. “I found their voice, their resistance to oppression coming from deep within very powerful.” He began translating some of their works for Sri Lankan newspapers and magazines in the 70s, and eventually wrote enough for a collection. “Forever Palestine, a collection of Palestinian resistance poems, brought out by P.S. Sharma of the PLO India Office in the 1970s was a very important source for me,” said Nuhman.

Three editions of Nuhman’s anthology have been published in the last four decades. It includes poems by Palestinian poets such as Mahmoud Darwish, Fadwa Tuqan, Samih al-Qasim, Hanan Ashrawi, and the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, who wrote evocatively in support of the Palestinian cause. The first was self-published in 1981, featuring nine Palestinian poets and 30 poems. The second came out in 2000, also published in Sri Lanka, with 30 poets and 71 of their poems; and the latest, in 2008, was published in India by Adaiyalam Publications, featuring 30 poets and 109 poems. Following Mahmoud Darwish’s passing in 2008, the same Indian publisher also brought out a collection of Nuhman’s translation of his works.

New vistas

His translations during those years, all from English to Tamil, found many avid readers among Tamils in Sri Lanka, who were facing violent discrimination by the state. ?“Nuhman’s translations of Palestinian poets opened up a new vista to young Sri Lankan readers,” University of Jaffna academic and literary historian Karthigesu Sivathamby wrote in Frontline in 1999.? The poems are said to have expanded their imagination, offering a new language of liberation to Tamil readers. “I was not the only one, there was Prof. Sivasegaram, and Pannamathu Kavirayar, and several in Tamil Nadu too, who translated Palestinian poetry to Tamil,” said Nuhman. “At the time I translated them, I was not thinking of anything other than solidarity for the Palestinian cause.”

Nuhman was also resisting the Sinhala majoritarian state’s oppression of Tamils around the same time. His poems took a progressive political line, in accessible language. His iconic poem ‘Buddharin Padukolai’, or ‘Murder’ as its English translation was titled, written after Sinhalese mobs set fire to the Jaffna Public Library in 1981, is a bold and moving response to one of the most malicious acts of Sinhala chauvinism in the island nation. He was teaching at the University of Jaffna at the time. The incident proved a major provocation to the then-nascent Tamil militancy to grow in strength and resolve, to take on the state’s oppression.

Last year, Nagercoil-based publisher Kalachuvadu brought out a collection of Prof. Nuhman’s anti-war poems titled?Tuppaakkikku muulai illai?(The gun has no brain). In a compelling preface to the anthology, Prof. Nuhman tells critics, who tend to disregard simply written verse with profound political messages, that poetry has always accorded an important place for political views and resistance.

“If they [the poems] can invoke in readers a feeling that is sympathetic to peace and social justice, that is good enough,” he writes.

“We do not have to take those who fall for cryptic or pretentious language or mere wordplay seriously. These poems are against injustice and oppression, they are against wars and guns. If they can invoke in readers a feeling in favour of peace and social justice, that is good enough,” he writes.

That has been his position all through. When everything is political, his poetry too will be.

meera.srinivasan@thehindu.co.in

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