The Venus Flytrap: Sri Lankan Saudade

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Because I am almost never in Sri Lanka, but my heart – like the south-seeking gaze of Vishnu-Ranganatha, who was also meant to live on the island but doesn’t – is always turned in that direction, I obsessively watch the Instastories of a friend of mine. A few seconds of tuk-tuk sounds accompanying the sights of a backstreet of Colombo. Rain dripping off low-hanging leaves on trees by the Kallady lagoon. Sun-kissed beach tides. Sights that have precise impacts in places in this unhomed heart of mine. Like me, she is diasporic Tamil, with some metaphysical umbilical cord rooted in the dust or immersed in the waters of Batticaloa. And she is leaving the country for a while – which means I am going to be deprived of my vicarious living for a while too.

I was supposed to have gone to see her before she leaves, but I’d been foolish. I’d been swayed by a sort of empty promise and not made independent plans in time. How am I going to get by without her daily glimpses? Ridiculously, I’m so sad that she tried to console me. But, as I said to her – “Maybe to be an island girl is to always have a little sadness”.

The Portuguese and Galician word saudade captures that emotion – a word often described as untranslatable, but with equivalents in many languages. Missingness in English, hüzün in Turkish, Sehnsucht in German, keurium in Korean and natsukashii in Japanese are among some – all conveying a certain wistful melancholy. Saudade is also a musical undertone, most famously evoked by the Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora (another island girl – or most accurately, a woman of many isles). What would the Tamil word be?

Without boring him with the backstory, I asked the translator Chenthil Nathan. He gave me the beautiful ulluthal – to think back. The word reminded me of ulloli – inner light. The last time I was in Batticaloa, I’d stood in my ancestral temple with my heart sinking to hear Sanskrit hymns. Just six months earlier, the prayers had been in Tamil. The native religion and culture are disappearing – no, they are being disappeared, in favour of the monolithic. I ached, and actually prayed to hear Tamil – and then I did. As the priest and the crowd moved away, a woman’s soft voice rose in song. I found its source, and sat down to listen. Quietly, she was singing to our goddess from a booklet. I brought that booklet back with me. It was called Ulloli.

Then, Chenthil remembered and gave me what he called “a poetic phrase” – nanavidai thoythal, or soaking in dreams or memories. I asked him if he had found the word in a specific text. His answer brightened this un-homed heart of mine: “I read it first in a Jeyamohan essay. Most Sri Lankan writers use the phrase. S. Ponnudurai wrote a book with the same title. So I assume the phrase came from Sri Lankan Tamils. Thinking now, it is natural the Lankan immigrants formed a word for nostalgia.” Indeed. A word, a way of life, some moments that disappear like Instastories, some yearnings held steady, some meanings reclaimed.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 31st 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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