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Click here for a BBC Article on the Black July
Here’s an excerpt – ‘People were burned alive in their cars, stripped naked. Women were raped. In Colombo and provincial towns, soldiers stood by and even supplied petrol.’
How does the poet highlight the tragic elements of racial violence in ‘Big
Match, 1983?’ Discuss with reference to the poem.
Yasmine Gooneratne wrote the poem ‘Big Match, 1983’ as a response to Black July, 1983, which marks one of the most harrowing and brutal instances of racial violence in Sri Lanka’s recent past. It captures the violence that gripped Sri Lanka and alludes to the politics that led up to that moment. This essay will elaborate on how the poet frames racial violence and then move on to analyze the poetic devices that emphasize the violence, and finally shed light on the possibilities that are presented in the poem.
The poet reflects on the ramifications of the ethnic tensions which are deeply rooted in the history of Sri Lanka. The title ‘Big Match,1983’ acts as an appropriate double entendre: while one meaning is a matchstick which can set something on fire, the other meaning is of a cricket match which connotes a game played for entertainment and profit.
The poem maps out the matchsticks which ignited the fire according to the narrator. 1956 is mentioned, which is significant because of the implementation of the Sinhala Only Act. This instigated protests as the Tamil civilians of Sri Lanka were subjected to extreme inconveniences and injustice because of the Act. It was a political move which served to appease the Sinhala Buddhist majority of the country, which guaranteed the largest chunk of the votes. She also mentions 1958, when an anti-Tamil pogrom swept the nation. In this way
she points out the political choices and other ramifications which stirred up the tragic elements of the ethnic tensions.
She uses strong visual imagery and juxtaposition to convey the extent of the violence which is perpetrated. A stout man, sweating with fear, falls to his knees beneath a bo tree – this phrase juxtaposes religious imagery with imagery of violence, which is ironic as it suggests the impotence of religion without true followers. The bo tree is a symbol of Buddhism which preaches love and kindness to all living beings. The Lord Buddha attained enlightenment under a bo tree. However, the poem captures a moment where cold-blooded violence is committed right under the symbol of love. By juxtaposing the venerated symbol of Buddhism and vicious violence, the poet exposes the hypocrisy of people. It is a tragic moment when a philosophy which advocates love and kindness is used to justify hatred and violence.
The poet writes ‘a child lies dead and two policemen look the other way’, which points out the deliberate
ignorance of the policemen. This is ironic because the police is supposed to prevent crime. However, in the poem, they are portrayed as willfully facilitating crime, without interfering in the atrocities which were unfolding right around them. This is even more dystopian because it is the institution of the state (the police) that seems to advocate the violence meted out against Tamils. When the state which is supposed to protect its civilians is willfully partisan to the violence, it is a most tragic situation to live in. The little boy that lies dead is a symbol of innocence and love. This is a disturbing, yet powerful image which suggests how innocence
and love has been snuffed out by the hatred. The people have fallen to such a shameless position that even a child dead on the street is ignored. By using such devices and visual imagery, the poet effectively paints a grim picture of the tragic elements of racial violence.
The use of the metaphor ‘match’ to compare the violence connotes the callous opportunism of the political leaders. A cricket match is played for entertainment and profit. The civil war and the deaths are trivialized by politicians who use it for their own strategies for maintaining their power. The lives of the soldiers are devalued; they are counted like scores in a match. The poet also points to the fact that civilians who want to end the violence are ‘powerless’ to do anything as the ‘game’ is in others’ hands. Thus, she emphasizes how the dehumanization of the soldiers and the inability of the civilians to end the violence is a tragic element.
A crucial element that is brought out through the poem is how possibilities of coexistence is denied and ravaged. The poet writes of how the narrator had sheltered and cared for the victims of racial violence and how she wants to do so. Even though the man says ‘some lines are still not cut’, we understand that in her helplessness, the narrator cannot change the fate of her friend. The tragedy is that they were friends across racial lines. She further states that ‘joys of our childhood, friendships of our youth’ are ravaged by pieties and politics. She laments the social destruction that is caused by racist ideologies, which prevent people from
believing in one another and living in harmony. For the narrator, it is personal as she herself is unable to help her Tamil friend. This possibility of co-existing and how it has been crushed emphasizes another important tragic element of the poem.
The poem explores the attempt to trace the escalating violence, and shows the irony and brutality of the violence in visual language. It also laments how racist ideologies spread xenophobia and hatred which discourages friendships between ethnicities and ignores the possibility of coexistence in harmony. The portrayal of these tragic elements of racial violence makes it an effective poem.
Harrowing – Extremely distressing / upsetting / sorrowful
Ramifications – complex and unwelcome consequences of an action
Implementation – putting a plan into action
Instigate – bring about / initiate – usually something bad, undesirable.
Subjecte – make someone undergo (usually harsh treatment)
Appease – satisfy someone by doing what they want
Perpetrate – commit a crime
Impotence – helplessness
Vicious – cruel / violent
Hypocrisy – the practice of claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case.
Advocate -a person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause or policy.
Justify – show or prove to be right or reasonable.
Deliberately – consciously and intentionally; on purpose.
Willfully – with the intention of causing harm; deliberately.
Facilitate – make (an action or process) easy or easier.
Callous – showing or having an insensitive and cruel disregard for others.
Trivialize – make (something) seem less important, significant, or complex than it really is.
Escalating – increasing rapidly.
Xenophobia – dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries.