Read time: 2 mins

Two Capital Cities & Uttara

by Ahilan Packiyanathan
12 July 2021

Translated from Tamil to English by Geetha Sukumaran  

Translator’s note

The three-decade armed conflict in Sri Lanka ended in 2009. During this war, 40,000-70,000 people were killed, and thousands remain unaccounted for, while scores of civilians were displaced. Packiyanathan Ahilan lived through the atrocities of the war, and his world of loss and trauma is located in the lives of everyday humans and their bodies. Calling himself the voice of those countless human beings whose flesh and blood seek witnessing, he says his poems are essentially witnesses.

In rendering Ahilan’s poems—which draw heavily upon Tamil cultural and literary practices over space, time and language—I have to mediate words and silences, tradition and myths and the poet’s voice, which steps in as a witness and chronicler. In the poems presented here, I was acutely aware of the urgency the poems emote and gave importance to the images, diction and voice at work. For instance, the poem ‘Uttara’ has a strong theatrical element combined with dense, condensed words. For a Tamil reader, the connection between Uttara and Ahilan’s world is obvious, while readers from other languages will not notice the context immediately. I maintained the performance in the poem and repeated the last sentence to keep the dramatic effect shifting the work from being an iconic translation of the original. I also added a note to draw the parallels between the widowed Uttara and the young widows of the civil war in Sri Lanka to explicate hidden references in the poem. In ‘Two Capital Cities,’ the poet uses a long, complex syntax familiar in the Tamil poetic landscape. I have retained the poet’s diction while discarding his syntax.


Two Capital Cities

When fireworks rain down

from the sky,

elephants walk in procession

with majestic gait,

a long strand of electric lights

drenches your nights.

Your city, dazzling,

your midnights stumbling—

intoxicated, as you turn over,

in your sleep—

another oppressed city

splits open to

tanks and shells,

midnights caught

in pain, hunger

and an endless terror.


Humans in

another capital

tread across the

bleeding streets

with sleepless eyes.



She saw the moonlight pouring

into the basket of screwpine flowers

in the garden.


At a distance,

the fiery rings in the watchtowers

appeared as dots.

The grave silence was scary.


As usual,

she gazed intensely at the

long, towering shadows

of the ruined palace,

brushing aside

her curly tresses

that cascade stubbornly forward,

expecting his arrival.


She breathed a deep sigh.

The crowd had dispersed.


She looked at herself in the mirror.

O dream of Virata!

O beauty queen of Abhimanyu!

This is not you,

someone else—

one among

the crowd of young widows

of Hastinapura.


Lamenting, she looked outside.


On the deserted streets,

there was nobody.


There was nobody

on the deserted streets.


*In the North and East of Sri Lanka, there are many households headed by single women due to the long ethnic war. In this context, Uttara represents the young widows of the region. As per the Mahabharatha, Uttara is the wife of young Abhimanyu (son of Arjuna), one of the five brothers of the Pandavas. His killing in the final battle of Kurukshetra was a conspiracy that violated the laws of war and thus turned into a political murder.

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Illustration by Nur Khalisah Ahmad

About the Author

Ahilan Packiyanathan

Ahilan Packiyanathan, born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, is a senior lecturer in Art History at the University of Jaffna. He has published three poetry collections: Pathunkukuzhi Naatkal (2001),  Saramakavigal   (2011) and Ammai (2017). An English translation of his poems, Then There Were No Witnesses, was published by Mawenzi House in 2018.  He writes critical essays on poetry, heritage, theatre and visual […]