Monday, 19 July 2004  
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Monica - the poetess of our times

by Malini Govinnage

For over three decades Monica Ruwanpathirana shone in the firmament of modern Sinhala poetry. Deserving to be named the Poetess of Lanka, no woman in the contemporary poetic field came on par with her after Gajaman Nona of Ruhuna.

Monica too was a daughter of Ruhuna. Of the twenty three books she authored, nineteen were of poetry; three of them won State Literary Awards.

Monica Ruwanpathirana

Monica, who lived for only fifty-eight years, would have wanted to give much more from her never exhausted fountain of creativity; even her deadly sickness failed to suck her dry of her spring of poetic skill; it was when her life was ebbing away that she penned her last award winning poetic essay 'Hippocrates Saha Roginiya' (Hippocrates and the sick woman).

Was it an irony of fate that she pleaded blessings for longevity in her book, 'Asan Pattini Devatavi' published in 1999, and the award-winning poetic essay of that year?

In the foreword to 'Asan Pattini Devatavi' she writes: "In this book I have attempted to see goddess Pattini through the eyes of a woman at present times, who is caught in many chaotic situations in society.

This woman pleads blessings for long life from the goddess in order that she is able to contribute her bit in the gigantic task of social transformation which would eventually create a society where everyone could live a happy and peaceful life.'

She continues:

'To be a helping hand for these many people who are in search of their lost smile.

Oh Goddess! bless me with long life! "(Asan Pattini Devatavi)."


Monica projects herself as the woman who is pleading before the goddess. This woman toils from dawn to midnight at home, in the garment factory, among the tea bushes, in the paddy field, across the oceans in the scorching desert away from her own hearth and home, and even in the plush office in the city - she is the mute bearer of many untold hardships throughout life. Monica thought aloud for these women - they were always her friends as she showed in her 'Obe Yeheliya Aeya Geheniya' - (your friend she is the woman) the collection of poetry dedicated to woman at the dawn of the UN Woman's Decade in 1975.

As in the case of any poet, her heart fluttered before the sufferings - especially of women and children; out of that tremor in her, flew out her poetic thoughts. The distinction in the poetess lies in how she expressed her poetic thoughts; she often followed the poetic lore of our classical poetry and folk poems. She experimented with these various forms of poetry and harnessed them to express her poetic experiences.

She always believed and showed by example that the most effective way of nurturing the Sinhala poem was learning from the past classics and folklore and, that the poets can find enough raw materials and poetic ingredients from them. Except a few, all her poetic works are successful experiments of blending traditional poetic forms with the experiences of present day. The best examples being her last two poetic essays: 'Asan Pattini Devatavi' and 'Hippocrates Saha Roginiya'.

In 'Hippocrates Saha Roginiya' one can see how she wove a complex social experience into a poem, placing her own life experience at the centre of it, with the use of the colloquialism of the day and folk idiom. Writing the introduction to the book she declares her acceptance of the universal truth about any poet - that he/she cannot ignore his/her set up and experiences - what he she would undergo - sorrows - pains - joys. In fact that set up is the most fertile ground from which his/her poetic harvest is yielded.

Death beckoning to her, yet stubbornly turning her back to Him, she penned her last verses. In the introduction to 'Hippocrates Saha Roginiya', she states:

"The change of direction of a creative writer is itself a change of direction of his/her creative work. Many poetic lines that I wanted to write have already left me ..... What is a poem? Isn't it anything other than life? 'Life has rewarded me with many experiences. No matter whether they are positive or negative, I have to accept them.

Though I want to present a certain experience through a poem, poetic capacity in me is insufficient for it. So, I plainly express my feelings thus ...."

Many may not be aware of Monica, the social worker, who worked for the holistic welfare of women and children in remote villages and in urban slums.

First as a Development Officer and then a social worker attached to Konrad-Adenaur Stiftung, an NGO, she was not merely a paid employee, but a committed friend of the poor. It was, while working with these men and women, and practically living with them, she found raw material for her poetic craft in the last few years of her life. As a social worker, while helping the poor to help themselves to have a better standard of life, she arranged various programmes to help shed their illiteracy and wrong values which were imbibed into them as a result of being exposed to the effects of free economy and globalization. To this end, she wrote several booklets which were eventually published by Konrad Adeneur Stiftung and distributed among the villagers in remote areas and slum dwellers.

Making her debut with her first collection of poetry, 'Apa Denna Saha Thawath Kihipa Denek' in 1971, she proved that her's was an unmistakable journey ahead as the most gifted poetess of modern times. 'Thahanam Desayakin' came out in 1972, and then Angulimalage Sihina.

At the Dawn of the UN Decade of Woman, came her poetic tribute to woman' "Obe Yeheliya Eya Geheniya". Here, she clearly demarcates the poetic boundaries in her works, demonstrating that she is a people's poetess, and more so a women's poetess.

The zenith of her creativity is her award winning poetic essay 'Asan Pattini Devatavi'.

Both in this work and her last book of poems 'Hippocrates Saha Roginiya', the reader can feel a profound sense of sadness - a sweet sorrow.

Because, in these two works are her best poetic utterances where she has sifted through her most painful emotions resulting from the numerous trials and tribulations she underwent.

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