Beyond the fiction of Alborada | Sunday Observer

Beyond the fiction of Alborada

12 December, 2021

Continued from last week…

According to the connections with the low caste community that lived between Wellawatta and Bambalapitiya along the seashore (Bambalawatta) in the 1970s, the writer collected some stories and information from them from time to time. One family (father, mother and son) came to clean toilets at the Government College of Arts and Crafts, No.46, Horton Place, Colombo 7. The writer got this information in 1975, after 45 years from the incident. When I examined information and stories, they can be attributed to Pablo Neruda’s above statement.

A young attractive girl of ‘Cakkiliyar caste’ (Neruda said Pariah caste) suffered from Idiopathic Psychological Disorder. According to the symptoms of this disease, she spoke very little, liked to live alone and most of the time sat silently looking at the sea. Due to her father’s illness, at 18 years, as the elder in the family, she was sent by her father to clean toilets at one of the colonial officer’s Bungalows at Wellawatte. People in this caste sent only males and married women, and never young girls, for toilet cleaning. House owners kept an empty can/tin with a few coins on the doorsteps of toilets as payments.  


In 1930, one early morning, she was raped by the owner of the Bungalow. A young male relative of the girl attacked the white officer with a dagger which he used to cut arecanuts with at the seashore when the officer was on his morning walk from Wellawatte to Mount Lavinia.

The bodyguard or caretaker came behind the officer and counterattacked the relative with a dagger. As a result, the relative lost consciousness and broke his backbone. The bodyguard was a fearless strongman from the South. People called him Mahakalusinhalaya (black Sinhala Giant). The relative suffered for the rest of his life paralyzed in bed. Probably, Mahakalusinhalaya was Burampi in Neruda’s text. When Neruda left the country, this man also went with him.

The young girl was given in marriage to an elderly person in the clan by her parents because she lost her virginity. Within a short period, the elderly husband died from alcohol poisoning. He probably drank too much either because he was delighted with his beautiful young bride or perhaps due to grief.

Sathi pooja

People in this caste usually drank Methylated spirits mixed with lime juice. There was a rumour among the community that she was unlucky and born at a bad time. The paralysed man’s family also blamed the girl. At the cremation of her husband, the young girl jumped into the cremation fire and committed suicide.  Some interpret this incident as ‘Sathi pooja’. Some said that relations motivated her to jump into the fire. The tragedy was that she jumped into the fire with her unborn child. According to their beliefs, if a widow does a Sathi pooja, she becomes a goddess. Afterward, people in this caste never mentioned her name and forgot her altogether.   

This community was brought to Colombo by the colonial administration in Ceylon to do the cleaning service in the city. They lived along the seashore. After the expansion of urbanisation, non-aligned conference in 1976 and restoration program in the coastal belt, this community moved into marshy lands between Peliyagoda and Wattala. They were from Andra Pradesh, in India. They spoke Teligu or Andra Tamil. Sri Lankans call this language Andara Demala. They were very poor and lived with little facilities in slums. They were considered untouchables and encountering them was a bad omen for people from high castes. Therefore, they went to work at dawn and they stayed in their slums during the daytime. Knowledgeable and wise people in the community called themselves Arunthathiyar meaning ‘the People of the dawn’. 

Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda, the internationally acclaimed Latin American poet, was born on July 12, 1904 in Parral, Chile. His original name was Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto. Pablo Neruda was his pen name, which he legally adopted in 1946. He was the son of Jose del Carmen Reyes, a railway worker, and Rosa Basoalto. His mother died within a month of Pablo Neruda’s birth.

He entered the Temuco boys’ school in 1910 and finished his secondary schooling there in 1920. Neruda was a voracious reader and was encouraged by the principal of the Temuco Girls’ School, Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957), a gifted poet who later would become a Nobel laureate winner.

From 1927 to 1945, he served as Chilean consul in Rangoon, Ceylon, Java and Barcelona, and was writing continuously. Neruda fell in love with a Dutch woman Maria Antonieta Hagenaar when he was serving as a counselor in Batavia, currently Indonesia. However, they separated in 1935, and Neruda met a young Argentinian woman, Delia del Carril, who would be his second wife until their divorce in the early 1950s. Matilde Urrutia Cerda was the third wife of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, from 1966 until his died in 1973. His only daughter Malva Marina Reyes, was born in Madrid in 1934. She died in 1943 when she was nine years old, having spent most of her short life with a foster family in the Netherlands after Neruda ignored and abandoned her, forcing her mother to take what jobs she could. She was suffered from severe health problems, especially from hydrocephalus.

Young poet

Neruda became known as a poet when he was 13 years. His creative writing had various styles, such as surrealist poems, historical epics, prose autobiography, political manifestos and passionate love poems, ‘Country love with twenty’, ‘Love Poems’ and ‘Song of Despair’. Colombian novelist Gabrial Garcia Marques (1927-2014), once introduced him as ‘The Greatest Poet of the 20th century’. Neruda became a world-recognised symbol throughout his life. He was a Chilean poet, diplomat and communist politician.

Pablo Neruda was greatly influenced by events of the Spanish Civil war. He was elected as a senator in 1945, and also joined the Chilean communist party after the Second World War.

After two years, he was expelled from the position of senator and was ordered to be arrested by President Gabrial Gonzalves Videla. He lived in hiding and in 1948, left Chile crossing the Andes Mountain by horseback. During this period, he visited the Soviet Union and various other countries including the West European communist bloc. From 1970 to 1973, he served under Allende as the Chilean Ambassador to Paris.

From then on, he regarded poetry, not as an elite pursuit, but as a statement of human solidarity addressed to simple people. Canto General (one part of which is The Heights of Macchu Picchu, translated by Nathaniel Tarn) is a poem of epic proportions, tracing the history of Latin America and evoking the grandeur of its landscapes. It also introduces political polemic. Always a prolific poet, Neruda continued to write poetry throughout the fifties and sixties, and he was awarded the International Peace prize in 1950, the Lenin Peace prize in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for Poetry in 1971.

The Chilean army toppled the democratically appointed President Salvador Allende’s Marxist socialist government on September 11, 1973, and came to power. The coup was led by General Augusto Pinochet. Neruda at that time was hospitalized in Santiago as he had gone through an operation for prostate cancer. Twelve days after the conspiracy, he died on September 23, 1973. The reason for his death was not clear as there were several views on it. One view was that he died of a heart attack and another was poisoned by the army. At a time when the meetings and demonstrations were banned and thousands of people were under custody, a massive number of Chilean people came to his funeral destabilising the army to carry his body from home to the cemetery.

Neruda is often considered the National Poet of Chile. His poems have been popular and influential worldwide.

Women’s rights

In November 2018, the cultural committee of Chile’s lower house planned on naming the Santiago Airport by Neruda’s name. Several feminist and human rights groups demonstrated against this plan and demanded that he should not be revered like that. They read notes that Neruda had written and accused him of sexually assaulting several women at the foreign ministry office.

Research papers, psychological analyses and articles about Neruda’s vision about women are being published at present. These papers interpret that he looks at women with male supremacy. This equals to words that are being used in our society at present to call women, such as baduwak or kallak (a piece of good or a piece). Areeba Tayyab, analysing Neruda’s ‘Country Love in twenty love poems’ says that he objectifies women.

During a demonstration on university students’ human rights and sexual harassment, Karan Vergara Sanchez, an active student said “There is no clear reason to rename the airport, and it is happening at a time when women are only beginning to dare denounce their abusers”, “we have started to demystify Neruda now because we have only recently begun to question rape culture”. When rediscovering Neruda, it’s being questioned whether he is suitable to receive international awards for peace and justice. Likewise, it’s being questioned through Neruda whether the real life of an artist and his art can be considered the same. It’s ironic to use his poems to find the answer.

“If you ask me what my poetry is, I’d have to say: I don’t know.

But if you ask my poetry, she’ll tell you who I am.”

Pablo Neruda, 1943