Some write about remembering and the pain of remembering. Anne Ranasinghe, who died in 2016, wrote about forgetting. In her best poetry, as she informs us, she tries to forget, to get away. She could only tell us to live, even as those around us died. We didn’t always agree, but we didn’t have to. She was a poet. She had lived. We were the readers. We had not.
And to a large extent, that had to do with her life. Born Anneliese Katz in the town of Essen in Germany, she witnessed the horrors of war at an early age. She saw the rise of Nazism, saw her town’s synagogue being burnt, and more than anything else, the night of broken glass in 1938. Her parents, frightened, sent her to an aunt in England, where English became her adopted tongue and where, until much later, she wouldn’t hear of their deaths and the deaths of every other relative back in Germany. She was not quite 15.
After passing out as a nursing sister and meeting a medical student (whom she married), D. A. Ranasinghe, she moved to Sri Lanka where, in 1956, she became a citizen. Her husband began teaching at the Medical College and this encouraged her to obtain a Diploma in Journalism from the Colombo Technical College. Of what she learnt, she recounted: “News reporting. The law of defamation. Novel writing. Practical journalism. Short story writing. The Polytechnic journalism section had a nice logo on their stationery: a hand holding a pen inside a heart! With the slogan ‘with heart and hand’.”
That’s all biography, of course. They reveal, however, the artist in the woman. Anne, who made Colombo her permanent home in the sixties, saw from afar the trials and tribulations of a world (in particular, Europe) trying to shed its past. Sri Lanka, as she (rather) correctly inferred, was not burdened with those tribulations, so in whatever form of chauvinism or extremism she encountered in Sri Lanka, she encountered in gushes and torrents and then turned into poetry. We were not, after all, aware of the horrors of the War, at least not to a great extent, to make us forget.
For that reason, she will be reflected on more than anything else for the theme she resorted to the most: the thin, fragile line between the past and present, between forgetting and remembering.