The concise guide to the Anglo-Sri Lankan lexicon - IV by Richard Boyle
Lankan birds get Oxford recognition
Birds form the largest category of the fauna acknowledged in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED2) as being exclusively or closely associated with Sri Lanka. Some of the names are familiar (devil-bird, sun-bird), while others are distinctly alien (anhinga, tantalus). Only one - malkoha - bears a name derived from Sinhala. This is a late entrant, to be included in the OED3. Date of first use is provided in brackets.

Anhinga (1769). Sinhala Ahikava. According to the OED2 it is "Any bird of the genus Anhinga, especially the American snake-bird." The earliest reference given in the dictionary is from Pennant's Indian Zoology (1769:13/1): "The black-bellied Anhinga. We give it this epithet, to distinguish it from an American species with a silvery belly. This kind is found in Ceylon and Java . . . neck extremely long, the bill straight, long and sharp-pointed." This bird is now known as the Oriental Darter (Anhinga melanogaster), commonly called the snake-bird because of its mode of swimming with only its head and long neck above water.

Dial-bird (1738). Sinhala Polkichcha. "An Indian bird, (Copsychus saularis), also called Magpie-robin, sometimes extended to the genus Copsichus. James Emerson Tennent is quoted from Ceylon (1859 [1977]: II. 254): "The songster that first pours forth his salutation in the morning is the dial-bird."

Devil-bird (1849). Sinhala Ulama. This is the only term common to both OED2 and the second edition of Hobson-Jobson (HJ-2). "b. The Brown Owl of Ceylon (Syrnium Indrani)." Today, however, the name ulama is generally applied to the Spot Bellied Eagle-Owl (Bubo nipalensis), a large bird characterized by its distinctive black and white ear tufts.

The three illustrative quotations given in the OED2 all come from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka. The earliest is by Charles Pridham from 'A Historical, Political and Statistical Account of Ceylon and its Dependencies' (1849: II. 737): "Devil's Bird … the wild and wailing cry of the bird is considered a sure presage of death and misfortune."

Two quotations by Tennent (1859 and (1876) are also given. However, I prefer the following by Samuel Baker from 'Eight Years in Ceylon' (1854 [1983]: 217): "The name for the devil-bird is Gualama and so impressed are the natives with the belief that a sight of it is equivalent to a call to the nether world, that they sometimes die from sheer fright and nervousness. A case of this happened to a servant of a friend of mine. He chanced to see the creature sitting on a bough, and he was from that moment so satisfied of his inevitable fate, that he refused all food, and fretted, and died; as of course any one else must do, if starved, whether he saw the devil-bird or not."

Then there is this reference by Thomas Skinner from 'Fifty Years in Ceylon' (1891:25): "I was awakened by the melancholy call of an owl, named by the natives the Devil Bird, because its presence is considered a certain precursor of death. It perched itself on the ridge-pole of my cottage, about twelve feet above my head."

The synonym demon-bird (used prior to the mid-19th century) is included in the OED2, but no connection is made with the devil-bird of Sri Lanka. An early reference, but possibly not the first, is by John Davy who writes in 'An Account of the Interior of Ceylon' (1821:424): "We heard the cries of the demon-bird, or Ulama as it is called by the natives. Perched in a neighbouring tree, it made loud and hideous screams, conveying the idea of extreme distress. Its harsh and horrid notes are supposed, like those of the screech-owl, to be of evil omen, and a prelude to death or misfortune."

Malkoha (1769). "[Sinhalese mal-koha, literally flower cuckoo, ultimately Sanskrit mala, garland + koka, taxonym relating to kokila cuckoo] any of several species of large, non-parasitic cuckoos of the subfamily Phaenicophaeinae, having very long tails and colourful bills, and found in the forests of South and South-east Asia."

The earliest reference in the forthcoming OED3 entry is once again by Pennant (1769.6): "The red-headed Cuckoo . . . The Cingalese give this species the name of Malkoha; it inhabits the woods, and lives on fruits." Tennent (1859[1977]: I. 149) writes: "Phoenicophaus pyrrhocephalus, the malkoha, is confined to the southern highlands."

The species to which the name malkoha is applied are: Blue-faced Malkoha (Phoenicophaus viridirostris), Sinhala Watha Rathu Malkoha, the Red-faced Malkoha (Phoenicophaus pyrrhocephalus), Sinhala Watha Nil Malkoha, and the Sirkeer Malkoha (Phoenicophaus leschanaultii), Sinhala Patha-atikukula.

Oil-bird (1893). Sinhala Madi-muhuna. "Name for various birds exuding oil . . . (b) a Frogmouth of Ceylon, Batrachostamus moniliger …" This can be antedated, however, for Tennent (1859[1977]: I. 148) notes: "Batrachostomus monoliger. The oil-bird; was discovered amongst the precipitous rocks of the Adam's Peak range by Mr Layard." The name frogmouth (1888) is recorded in the OED2.

Red-tailed gallinule (1785). Sinhala Laya Sudu Korawakka. The earliest reference reads: "Red-tailed Gallinule… This species inhabits Ceylon." This is the former name for the White-Breasted Water Hen (Amaurornis phoenicurus). Gallinule - a little hen or chick - was the term used by Gesner (1555) for the common Moorhen or Water Hen with reference to its cocked tail and halting progress. When cocking the tail the White-Breasted Water Hen reveals its red underside.

Sun-bird (1826). Sinhala Dam Kati Sutikka, Dam Sutikka, Lotenge Sutikka. "Any bird of the passerine family Nectariniidae, which comprises small birds with brilliant and variegated plumage, found in tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, Asia, and Australia."

Though not quoted in the OED2, there are many descriptive references from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka. For example, Tennent (1859[1977]:II.254) notes: "The little gem-like sun-birds (the humming birds of the East) quiver on their fulgent wings above the opening flowers."

Then there is Constance Gordon Cumming, who provides an appealing description in 'Two Happy Years in Ceylon' (1892[1901]: 414): "Still more fascinating are the dainty little sun-birds, which, with long brush-like tongue, capture insects, and also feed on nectar of flowers. Some have maroon bands on the breast, others primrose-colour; they love the fragrant pink oleander and scarlet hibiscus with glossy dark-green foliage. The Singhalese call these dainty creatures 'Flower-honey birds.' One of very brilliant plumage is distinguished as the tiny sunbird, being only three and a half inches long. It is, however, very rare.

"Happily the lovely little purple sunbird is more common. Its head and throat are of metallic green, shading into the glossy purple of back and tail, while beneath each wing is a tuft of gold, displayed when the dainty chirping creature is fluttering over flowers to extract their honey."

My final example is by Bella Woolf, who states in How to See Ceylon (1914: 100): "A sun-bird with long curved beak may be seen extracting honey from a canna blossom."

The name sunbird is applied to three different species in Sri Lanka - the Purple-rumped sunbird or Dam kati Sutikka (Nectarinia zeylonica), the Purple sunbird or Dam Sutikka (Nectarinia asiatica), and the Long-billed sunbird (Loten's sunbird) or Lotenge Sutikka (Nectarinia lotenia).

Tailor-bird (1769). Sinhala Battichcha. "One of a number of species of Asiatic passerine singing birds, belonging to the general Orthotomus, Prinia, Sutoria, etc., which stitch together the margins of leaves with cotton, etc, so as to form a cavity for their nest. Originally applied to a particular species (Motacilla Sutoria) of Pennant, now variously called Orthotomus sutorius, Sutoria longicauda, or S. sutoria of India and Sri Lanka."

No references from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka are given, although Robert Percival writes in 'An Account of the Island of Ceylon' (1803: 299): "The tailor-bird is particularly remarkable for the art with which it constructs its nest. The bird is of a yellow colour, not exceeding three inches in length, and slender in proportion. To prevent the possibility of its little nest being shaken down, it contrives to attach it in such a manner to the leaves of the tree, that both must stand or fall together. The nest is formed of leaves which it picks up from the ground; and it contrives, by means of its slender bill and some fine fibres, which it uses as a needle and thread, to sew these leaves to those growing on the tree with great dexterity. Hence it receives the name of the tailor-bird."

Tank-runner. Sinhala Savulpenda Diyasana. "The pheasant-tailed Jacana, or Water-pheasant, Hydrophasianus chirurgus, of India and Sri Lanka, so-called from its ability to run over floating lotus leaves, etc." There is no historical evidence for this term in the OED2, which is why it remains undated.

Tantalus (1824). Sinhala Lathuvakiya. "A genus of storks, including T. Ibis (formerly erroneously identified with Ibis religiosa of Egypt; the wood stork or wood ibis." The 1824 reference reads: "The White-headed or Ceylonese Tantalus is the largest of the genus." This is the former name for the beak-rattling Painted Stork (Mycteria leucocephala).

Promising poetry rising from social ruin
Kaleidoscope by Premini Amerasinghe Review by Carl Muller
Language has two great classes: those that abound in grammatical inflections and those completely destitute of them. It is this difference, actually, that gives us the more ready adaptability to accept the many forms of poetical composition. After all, poetry accommodates itself readily to the laws of arrangements, sequence and the recurrence of sound - rhythm, metre and rhyme. It is the ear that finally decides: is it poetry or is it prose?

Today, modern poetry is mostly unrestricted in the arrangement of words which compose it. What it has done is resorted to a sort of metrical convenience that has at times even inverted the licence of poetry. We have, as a result, an abundance of consonances and a rich variety of terminations. Actually, poverty of rhyme has been the greatest formal difficulty in English poetical composition. Even Chaucer, you will remember, lamented this in "Complaint of Mars and Venus".

And eke to me it is a great penance
Sith rime in English hatch such scarcitie
To follow word by word, the curiositic It is this poverty in rhyme that has led many of our own poets to improvise and this has developed to an astonishing degree. It is, therefore, time to turn to Premini Amerasinghe whose first book of poems, 'Kaleidoscope' gives us offerings that stand out and make themselves known. Before I deal with them, let me also add fuel to the fires of those who will go on making poetry in their own style. Ben Jonson had a most unfavourable opinion of rhyming verse. Milton condemned rhyme as "the invention of a barbarous age to set off wretched matter and lame metre" and he congratulated himself on having, in 'Paradise Lost', set the first example in English epic of avoiding "the jingling sound of like endings".

That said, I want to add that Premini has not rejected rhyme. That would be impossible, for it would mean the abandonment of accentual rhythm. Her poems carry their own metrical sweetness and, above all, the purpose and intent of the poems are couched in words that do not jar the senses.

Depth of meaning, too, marks her every poem and there is a careful word-use that presents forms and combinations that impinge. We find this remarkably so in her poem "Genesis".

The blood of Christ was forced down trembling throats
Menikes converted to Mary
And Daya to Dias...
A land was splintered by the sword and the cross,
The cracks widened
Into gaping chasms.
There is the inevitability of it all in those lines and they make no apology for the way they are written. The genesis of enforced colonization with the spirit of a new assailant God moving across the face of the land.

In "Horton Plains" we are reminded of the trespassers of the modern world - tarred roads, vans, holiday-makers.

And infinity is reduced
To a littered picnic park
These are poems that challenge. They hold in them the rapier flicks of a challenging Zorro as well as their perspicacity. Premini finds much to sing about in the desolation of our own country, beaten to its knees by a senseless, brutal war that has only served to unchain the beast in man. Her "Rustic Scene" takes us back to the days of atrocity and the resultant hardening of mind when an infernal blood-lust saw many victims of the shadow-killers burn beyond all human recognition:

A cluster of people
Impatient children astride their mothers' hips
Eyes which say nothing
Surround a smoking body
Black as granite
Contorted limbs
Stick out like branches
Wisps of idle conversation
Float above the smoke.

Premini has infused fresh life and spirit into the movements of the muses. I thought of the ballet-master introducing new forms, bolder salutations. There is an inspiration that proclaims: "I have no poverty of thought! My poetry may be good or bad but I have not denationalized it. I have written of this land and of the lands of my travels and I feel in my pen the same beat I feel in my heart."

Her conscience worries her in "Mea Culpa"; her mind swells steely in "The Roulette Wheel" and is stroked with blood-tipped feathers in 'A Village Tale'. Many of the poems concern the times of terror - of that unleashed by the JVP and met with bone-crushing venom by uniformed killers. "Aftermath" tells us of the racial hatred - where the Tamil's black pottu became both the stigma of her suffering and that of Sinhala shame.

Premini does not pull her punches. She does not like to rewrite either and this is made evident in "A New Poem" where she admits that any re-crafting will lose all fervour. Too often, critics look for rhythms where none exists. Many of Premini's lines are, to all intents and purposes, mere prose. They even violate the established canons of metre. Yet, taken as a whole, we have something quite sensational.

"Kaleidoscope" holds a promise. Premini had many of the poems in this book short-listed at the 1998 Gratiaen Awards.

There is certainly a promise of more, an assurance that she will continue "to find a new romance in every new poem" she writes. As a first publication, "Kaleidoscope" is an island in itself and Premini's own lines serve best:

..... from each island continent universe the miracle of language blossomed....

It has. It certainly has!

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