R. Cheran

Anushiya Ramaswamy

Geetha Sukumaran

From Thinaimayakkam allathu Nenchodu Kilaruthal (“Binary Overlapping or Speaking to the Heart”): R. Cheran, translated by Anushiya Ramaswamy & Geetha Sukumaran

These translations by Anushiya Ramaswamy and Geetha Sukumaran are from Tamil Canadian poet, R. Cheran’s recent collection Thinaimayakkam allathu Nenchodu Kilaruthal (“Binary Overlapping or Speaking to the Heart”). Cheran’s poetry is a record of the ethnic violence that engulfed Tamils in Sri Lanka. His poetic oeuvre repudiates borders and boundaries; although his poetry shares certain common threads with transnational writing, it rescinds some elements of the broader framework of diasporic literature since it is written in Tamil from a Western exile land. Given that Cheran’s creative language is Tamil while his academic language is English (as he puts it himself), how might diasporic literary studies contextualize a body of literature that transcends diasporic sensibility by blending it into a language/culture other than English? The argument here is how to delineate the intersectional components of a subject who navigates two worldviews while continuing to bear the experience and memory of a particular land, language, and tradition. The poet’s memory, poetics, and imagination are intertwined by the larger Tamil literary tradition and the devastating socio-political conditions in Sri Lanka and the diaspora: his identity remains Tamil, postcolonial, exilic and transnational. The nuance of Cheran’s poems resides in his use of a regional sensibility (the ways the landscape, its culture and its history are not abstract but very real. But like a Dalit poet or a Black poet, the different selves of the poet refuse to be submerged in one or the other), and the traditional knowledge of being Tamil to find expression for the multiple selves the poet occupies. His poems are steeped in the classical Tamil literary convention— aham (the interior and personal) and puram (the exterior and public)—in short, love and war, which were treated as two separate genres. References to the names of kings and chieftains were common in puram genre, while the aham genre was devoid of names in the classical Tamil works known as Sangam poem. If the word Chera is taken as the poet’s name, then it operates as a signature or a coda. By adding the name, the poem becomes a transition point from either the outer to the inner or the inner to the outer world. The name acts as a threshold that links the personal and the political, love and war, and it re-establishes in one poem what the Sangam poetry encapsulated in two genres: akam and puram. The term “Chera” can act as a form of address since the poet’s name is Cheran or it may mean the “red wine drinker” or just “red wine,” as in classical Tamil or even “reddish.” The word takes on multiple meanings and the poem becomes enriched when read with some familiarity with early Tamil literature. The poems are undeniably contemporary and speak in a language that is rooted in tradition; as Glissant might say, they are “From tracks left yesterday and today, mixed together.”


கதை அறியார்
குறிப்பும் தெரியார்
பறந்து வருகிறார்
வெள்ளை நிலங்களிலிருந்து


நீ எழுதி என்ன?
அவர் சொல்வதல்லவோ

Doesn’t know the story
Nor the summary.
Flies in
from the white lands.

But Chera

What’s the point
in you writing?
What he tells
becomes the tale!!


விளக்கேற்ற நிலம் இல்லை
விலை கூறி நிலம் கொள்ளை


யாருடைய நிலம்?
யாருடைய புலம்?

There is no land to light a lamp
the land has been stolen and sold.

But Chera
whose land?
whose place?


முன்னிரவில் சந்தித்தோம்
பின்னிரவில் கலந்தோம்
அதிகாலையில் துயின்றோம்

அடுத்த நாள்
ரயில் நிலையத்தில்
வரமறுக்கும் ரயிலும்

We met early
in the night
mingled late
at night
slept at dawn

Next day
at the railway station
the falling snow
and the reluctant train.

Translated by Anushiya Ramaswamy


ஒருபுறம் சாம்பல் மேடு
அதன் கீழே
யாரும் காணாப் புதை குழி
இரண்டுமே கண்ணீரல் கரையும்

யாருடைய கண்ணீர்

On one side,
a mound of ashes
below that,
a burial hole, unseen by anyone—
both dissolve in tears.

whose tears?


உறைபனி மழை
விளையாட்டுத் துப்பாக்கியை
கையில் வைத்திருந்த பாலகனை
சுட்டுக் கொல்கிறான்
வெள்ளைப் பொலிஸ்காரன்

வெண்பனியில் பரவும் குருதி
அழகான சித்திரமாக மாறுகிறது அவனுக்கு

உயிரா? கலையா?

Freezing rain.
The white policeman shot dead
the young boy
holding a toy gun.
The blood spreading in the white snow
turns into a beautiful painting for him.

Is it life or art?


வீடு திரும்புகிறேன்
ஓங்கிய மலைவேம்பு
மா. முன்பிருந்த கமுகின் வெற்றுத் தடம்.
மாதுளை. காணாமல் போன நாவல்.
சிறுதென்னை. புளிய மரம்.

இதுவன்றோ நீழல்?
I return home.
The tall malaivempu. Mango tree.
The trace of the areca tree in the front yard.
Pomegranate. The missing black plum.
Coconut tree. The tamarind.

Isn’t this my shelter?

Translated by Geetha Sukumaran

Dr. R. Cheran is Tamil Canadian academic, poet, playwright and journalist. He is a professor at the University of Windsor in Canada. He has authored over fifteen books in Tamil, and his work has been translated into twenty languages. Several volumes of his work have been published in English translation: The Second Sunrise. Translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom. New Delhi: Navayana,2010. You Cannot Turn Away. Translated by Chelva Kanaganayakam. Toronto: Mawenzi Publishers. 2011. In a Time of Burning. Translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom and Sascha Ebeling. Arc Publications, Todmorden: UK. 2013. Translation of his poems in Bengali: Nirbajitha Kobita. Translated by Saubhik de Sircar. 2018. Translation in Dutch: Het verhaal van de Zea. Translated by Bhavani Thambirajah. Assen: The Netherlands. 2018. Translation of his poems in Spanish: Siembra Polo Palabras. Translated by Isabel Alonso Breto. Barcelona: Navona Publishers. 2019. Translation of his poems in Malayalam: kaatril ezuthal. Thiruvananthapuram: DC Books. 2020. His poems in English translation have been published in the following literary magazines: Bomb (New York), Modern Poetry in Translation, Many Mountains Moving, Exiled Ink, Mantra Review, and Talisman. His poems have been included in the following anthologies: 1. Singing in the Dark: An Anthology of Lockdown Poems. Penguin Random House. 2020. 2. Many Roads Through Paradise: Sri Lankan Literature, edited by Shyam Selvadurai, Penguin India, 2014 3. In Our Translated World: Global Tamil Poetry, edited by Chelva Kanaganayakam, Toronto: TSAR Press, 2014 4. The Rapids of Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry, edited by Lakshmi Holmstrom, Subashree Krishnaswamy and K.Sri Lata, Penguin India, 2009 5. Wilting Laughter: Three Tamil Poets, edited and translated by Chelva Kanaganayakam, Toronto: TSAR Publications, 2009 6. Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poems from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond, edited by Tina Chang, Natalie Kendall and Ravi Shankar, New York: W.W.Norton, 2008 Dr.Cheran was the recipient of the International Poetry Award from ONV Kurup Foundation in Dubai in 2017. He has performed is poetry at various International Writers’ festivals in the United Kingdom, Singapore, the US, Indonesia, India, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada, Ramallah, West Bank, Dubai and Mexico. His plays in English language have been produced and performed in Toronto, Canada, New York, Chicago and New Jersey in the US. Singapore’s modern dance group Chowk has produced and performed a dance play based on his poems titled “The Second Sunrise”. The Second Sunrise was performed at the Singapore International dance festival, and Washington’s Kennedy Centre for the arts. Here is a link to a sample of his work in performance: https://www.arcpublications.co.uk/books/cheran-in-a-time-of-burning-488 http://www.chowk.sg/the-second-sunrise

Anushiya Ramaswamy grew up in Colombo, Sri Lanka and is currently a Professor of English at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Anushiya’s work has appeared in World Literature Today, Callaloo, and her translation of Gorilla, the first Tamil novel by the Sri Lankan Tamil writer Shobasakthi was published by Random House, (India, 2008). Traitor, the second novel by Shobasakthi, was published in 2010 (Penguin, India). She has also translated a collection of poetry by N.D. Rajkumar, Give Us This Day A Feast of Flesh (Navayana Publishers, New Delhi). A translation of a selection of Shobasakthi’s short stories, The MGR Murder Trial came out in 2015. Anushiya was also one of the three translators of the international poetry collection, In Our Translated World: Contemporary Global Tamil Poetry published in Toronto, Canada by Tamil Literary Garden in 2014. She is currently working on translating the novels, "Box" and "Ichaa" by Shobasakthi.

A doctoral student at York University, Geetha Sukumaran published Tharkolaikku parakkum panithuli (Tamil translation of Sylvia Plath's poems), the poetry collection Otrai pakadaiyil enchum nampikkai (The Hope Set in a Single Die), and an English translation of Ahilan's Then There Were No Witnesses (2018). She received the SPARROW R Thyagarajan award for her poetry.