25th March 2001
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Book review

That first fine careless rapture

Kandy Revisited- by U. Karunatilaka. Reviewed by Alfreda de Silva

U. Karunatilaka, whose Kundasale Love Poems won the Arts Council State Literary Award last year, continues his lyrical saga of love and loss in his most recent work - Kandy Revisited.

The winning book encapsulated poems that told an uncommon real life love story - one that began when this poet was an eleven-year-old boy stricken with admiration for his beautiful cousin, Kusuma. She was five years his senior. They played in their grandparents' home during the school holidays. "She probably thought me a good slave and that was all the response I could get," Karunatilaka says in his Preface to Kandy Revisited.

The age gap seemed an impossible barrier to revealing his feelings for her. She got through her examinations was a teacher for a short while, and went off to Monmouthshire in Wales on an Agricultural Scholarship leaving him a desolate and lonely schoolboy.

The years passed and on her return, the fairy-tale ending to this state of affairs took place with a three-year engagement and a 40-year marriage whose sensuality and intensity was immortalised in the Kundasale Love Poems. But these poems were written after the shock of her sudden death of a heart attack.

The luminosity of the verse told of love and passion within marriage. Its joys, griefs and exaltations were entwined with the natural splendour of the hill country landscape. The limpid poems generated their own rhythms.

In Kandy Revisited which flows smoothly and soothingly, Kusuma's beauty intermingles and merges with the setting that frames her, in a sort of memory recall.

In the poem Return we have these lines.

"These ten days of travel and being together in far places 

The sounds and tumble and hum, 

Are all inside me like the feel of you

And the sound of your voice.....

...... I don't feel parted. You are inside me.

In form and consciousness we are not separate.

Though I know you have reached home"

Flashes of the unusual and highly sensitive nature of their relationship surface in poems like Sweet Sermon:

"Were you teasing, telling me,

Troubled by the mature airs

Of others your loveliness enslaved.

That my jealousy for you was

Like a little boy's jealousy for his mother?

I said

Let it be so there's innocence in my fear.

A little boy's jealousy and fierce fear in love

Is finer than an old man's

.... sleepless at night in the jealousy, 

And fear of greying love?"

Seasons and storms come to life in these poems as do history and biography; joy, sadness, love and compassion.

July is Cruel gives insights into Kusuma's generosity and humanity during days of riots and political unrest: 

"You took them in, 

Everyone of them, 

Consulting no one.... 

So when I reached home. Through the burning city, I saw gathered in the arc of your compassion

Babes born from the breast and of warmth, 

Of mothers frozen in terror..." " " 

Among the most rhythmic and touching poems in this book which chronicles the long wait before his marriage filled with uncertainty, pain, loss and longing is:

Matale-through the pass: 

"....So different from the old magic of entering Matale at lamp lighting time, This magic 

Of bringing you as my wife into our childhood home 

........ In the old bed room innocence deserts us 

And we know the morning we awake to, will be golden in a different way.

This ride of the Old Pass at Matale 

Among the many people who shaped Karunatilaka's literary tastes were Sarachchandra, Martin Wickremasinghe, Dr. R.L. Hayman, Canon Foster, Dr. Douglas Walatara and Prof. E.F.C. Ludowyk who though not one of his professors, made him welcome at Layards Road and Menikdiwela. 

The poems in Kandy Revisited are not in chronological order, but they are a round up of the events of Karunatilaka's life. He and the beautiful Kusuma had two daughters, and they, in turn have given him grand-children, who bring him joy and fulfillment. 

Robert Browning in his Home Thoughts from abroad declares: 

"That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over 

Lest you should think he never could recapture

The first fine careless rapture......" 

Karunatilaka, in his aesthetically twice-told poems on the same beautiful theme, Kusuma, has indeed retained that first, fine careless rapture, without impairing the quality of his song. 

But one sees in these poems of Kandy Revisited a mellowing with time, a muted acceptance and coming to terms with the loss of his beloved, in the mind's realization that what has been in reality, and is in memory can never be extinguished. 

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