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Abdul Karim Abdul Razak. —Dawn photo

COLOMBO: Abdul Karim Abdul Razak is an oddity. This Urdu-speaking Memon Muslim from what is now Pakistan, is a leading light in Tamil literary circles in Sri Lanka as a poet and writer!

Tall and fair with a stubble and betel stained teeth, Razak is every inch a Memon, who no one would associate with Tamil poetry at first glance.

But he has managed to break into a literary circle which has been the close preserve of ethnic Tamils and indigenous Sri Lankan Muslims whose mother tongue is Tamil.

In fact, the 54-year-old Razak has the distinction of being the world's first and the only Tamil litterateur from the Memon community.

It was trade which took the Memons from Sindh to Gujarat, Mumbai, East Africa and Sri Lanka. Razak's forefathers, who had migrated from Sindh to Junagadh in Gujarat, finally landed in Colombo to take advantage of the growing trade links between Ceylon and India during British rule.

But while the Memons of Colombo were immersed in commerce, showing little inclination towards scholarship, literature or poetry, school student Razak was a different kettle of fish. He not only loved to read but had a passion for the Tamil language, with a burning ambition to be a revolutionary Tamil poet.

Fittingly known as “Memon Kavi”, Razak has several volumes of poems in free verse to his credit, one of which, Naalayay Nokkiya Inril (Today Looking Towards Tomorrow), had won the Lankan Sahithya Award for the best Tamil poem in free verse in 1990.

“It was the first time that such an award was given. It marked the recognition of free verse in Lankan Tamil literature,” he said, stressing the award's larger significance.

Memon Kavi had broken through the fussy world of Tamil literature in Sri Lanka, and conservative Tamil Nadu quite early in life.

In 1976, when he was only 19, a leading Chennai publisher, Narmada Padhippaham, had brought out his first book of poems entitled Yuga Raagangal (Ragas of the Age).

Narmada went on to publish his other poetic works Hiroshimavin Herokkal, (Heroes of Hiroshima) in 1982; Iyanthira Sooriyan (The Mechanical Sun) in 1984; and Naalayay Nokkiya Inril in 1990.

Poet of the City

On his mastery over the Tamil language, he has received kudos from no less a person than K.S. Sivakumaran, the noted Sri Lankan Tamil literary critic. But he also has something new to give.

“His works have a unique flavor. Not being from the Tamil milieu, he sees things differently,” Sivakumaran said.

Most of Memon Kavi's poems have been on the contemporary condition of man, today's mechanistic city life, the pervasive corruption, exploitation, criminality, violence, and insensitivity. In a poem on 9/11, he brought out the irony of a “civilised” world avidly watching the live coverage of death and destruction.

Commenting on the quality of his work, Sivakumaran said: “His initial poems were political sloganeering, but over the years, he has matured into a deep observer of the world, society and human beings. His superb poem, Saga of Colombo, evocatively sketches life on the streets of Colombo after dark. He is truly a poet of the city.”

Testifying to his commitment to the spreading of Lankan Tamil literature, using both the printed word and the internet, Sivakumaran said that Memon Kavi had been applying himself to Tamil literature even at the cost of his business.

Memon Kavi's family, steeped in Islamic orthodoxy, was alien to the Tamil language and the arts. But young Razak turned out to be an odd ball, thanks to an unusual decision taken by his father.

“For reasons not known to me, my father put me in a Tamil medium school. I hated the curriculum, but was fascinated by the Tamil language. Even as school boy, I would attend literary gatherings at the Colombo Tamil Sangam, where I would seek out litterateurs like Karthigesu Sivathamby and K.Kailasapathy and read the books they mentioned in their conversations. I began writing, taking the pen name Memon Kavi to draw attention,” he said.

As leftist thinking and progressive writing dominated the literary scene in the 1960s and 70s, Memon Kavi latched on to the progressive writers' movement led by the Dalit writer and publisher, Dominic Jeeva.

One of the aims of the progressive movement was to rid Sri Lanka of the baneful influence of pulp literature from Tamil Nadu.

“We ensured that Sri Lanka did not produce pulp writers like Pushpa Thangadurai, even if it did not produce a Jayakanthan or Pudumaipiththan (creative writers from Tamil Nadu in India),” Memon Kavi asserted.

He pointed out that Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims had gone on to create a new genre in Tamil literature by writing on the social and psychological impact of the war, displacement and migration to distant lands.

Seeing the need for ethnic reconciliation after the war, he got together a band of writers who could translate works from Tamil to Sinhalese and vice versa. Godage and Co., a leading Colombo-based publisher, has been roped in to bring out the translations.

“I believe that writers, and not politicians, can bring about ethnic reconciliation and lasting peace in Sri Lanka,” Memon Kavi said.

Currently, he is on a mission to increase the reading habit by exploiting the internet. He puts his works and those of others on the net.

According to him, over 10,000 Lankan Tamil works are already on the net, enabling Lankan writers to reach readers in Tamil Nadu and the 1.5 million-strong Lankan Tamil diaspora.