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Chelva Kanaganayakam: A ‘shining beacon’ for Tamil literature

Chelva Kanaganayakam was a founding member of the Tamil Literary Garden, an annual charitable event in Toronto that brings people together to listen to Tamil poets and intellectuals.

Courtesy of the family

Credited with introducing Tamil poetry and culture to the English-speaking world, Chelva Kanaganayakam brought together writers, scholars and intellectuals through his teaching and academic leadership, and provided a welcome community in Canada for transplanted Tamils.

His work at the University of Toronto, as a professor of English and distinguished scholar of postcolonial literature and South Asian studies, revitalized Sri Lankan Tamil literature at a time when a dialogue between two disparate cultural and literary traditions was most necessary.

"Chelva possessed the best properties of scholarly brilliance – warm collegiality, illuminating critique," said George Elliott Clarke, poet laureate of Toronto and professor of English at the University of Toronto.

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Prof. Kanaganayakam, considered to be the leading translator of Sri Lankan Tamil poetry into English, was recently elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, an honour reserved for eminent scholars who have made remarkable contributions to their fields and to public life. Surrounded by family, friends and colleagues, he was inducted to the society on the morning of Nov. 22 in a ceremony in Quebec City; that evening, he died of a heart attack in Montreal. He was 62.

He was born on May 7, 1952, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the youngest of four children. His father was a Tamil scholar at the University of Peradeniya, where Chelva earned his bachelor of arts degree in English language and literature in 1976. He then taught at the University of Jaffna, a newly created university in the predominantly Tamil capital city of the Northern Province, before a Commonwealth scholarship brought him to Canada. He earned his doctorate in English from the University of British Columbia in 1985.

He left Sri Lanka at a time of intense political upheaval, marked by state repression, an emerging Tamil militant struggle and violence. It was not a political climate to which he wished to return. After his doctoral studies, he joined the Department of English at the University of Toronto in 1989, the first person hired at the university to research and teach what was then called Commonwealth literature.

One member of the search committee that recommended his appointment was impressed by his air of quiet authority as a scholar in an emerging field. "We thought we had recommended a good appointment," recalled John Baird, a now-retired professor in the English department. "We had no idea just how good it would turn out to be."

Prof. Kanaganayakam went on to serve as director of the university's Centre for South Asian Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs and as co-ordinator of the independent studies program at Trinity College.

He was also a founding member in 2001 of the Tamil Literary Garden, an annual charitable event in Toronto that brings people together to listen to Tamil poets and intellectuals, and a founding member in 2006 of the annual Toronto Tamil Studies Conference at U of T, now the largest conference of its kind in North America.

He became known as "a leader in the development of postcolonial theory and South Asian studies at the university," said Alan Bewell, chair of the university's English department.

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Although Prof. Kanaganayakam's geographic focus remained South and Southeast Asia, his research and teaching interests extended beyond postcolonial studies, diasporic writings and translations. He was constantly in search of new understandings of vernacular languages and the imagination, and new perspectives on how modern writers in conflict-ridden contexts challenge traditional ideals and formulations of aesthetics.

Aparna Halpé, an English professor at Centennial College in Toronto, was one of his students. But she first met him when she was a young girl and he was a student at the University of Peradeniya.

Her father was Chelva's teacher and head of the school at a time when Sri Lanka's universities, after the first insurrections of the southern states and the shift toward a militarized left, were considered hotbeds of corruption.

Suspected of spouting anti-government rhetoric, Chelva and several of his classmates and teachers were made examples of during what came to be known as the school's "reorganization scheme." The arts faculty was disbanded and its members sent to new universities that had no local or regional standing. Chelva was among the handful of language and literature students, many of them gifted scholars, who were moved to a place that later became the University of Kelaniya. Once there, in buildings no better than cattle sheds, Prof. Halpé explained, they were meant to learn one thing only: that they were not free, to live, choose or think for themselves.

Prof. Kanaganayakam rarely spoke of these days, she said. "He was never the kind of man to capitalize on the violent burden of history that marred so much of his youth and adult life," Prof. Halpé said. "And truthfully, it isn't politics that we remember. What I remember is Chelva's big, infectious grin, and his curly hair."

Neil ten Kortenaar, director of U of T's Centre for Comparative Literature, worked with Prof. Kanaganayakam in the English department.

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He said his former colleague's secret was to laugh at the things that exasperated him, including himself. Prof. Kanaganayakam saw things through a larger lens, and although he was tolerant and a peacemaker by nature, he wasn't afraid to disagree with ideas or agendas, Prof. ten Kortenaar said, adding: "He made the university a more considerate, humane place."

Prof. Kanaganayakam translated most of the leading contemporary Tamil writers from Sri Lanka, including nearly every poem by R. Cheran, one of the most significant and best-known poets. Now a University of Windsor professor, R. Cheran came to Canada from Sri Lanka to study and work as a journalist and researcher. His poems are written in the Tamil lyrical tradition.

The first poem Prof. Kanaganayakam translated in the late 1970s was by Prof. Cheran's father – known as Mahakavi, "the Great Poet" – while the last poem he translated was by Prof. Cheran himself, Sundari, written in 2013 as an elegy for a close friend. Prof. Kanaganayakam was deeply moved by the poem. Part of his translation reads:

"Your life the essence of kindness.

Divided by land and sea and space,

our dreams

a constant bridge …

A short life, what did we learn?"

Prof. Kanaganayakam edited many books on a variety of subjects. In Our Translated World (2013) was a collection of poems by dozens of Tamils from India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and the Western diaspora. You Cannot Turn Away (2010) was the first translated volume of R. Cheran's poems, covering three decades of his work.

History and Imagination: Tamil Culture in the Global Context (2007) was a landmark collection of essays examining social, cultural and political changes in India, Sri Lanka and Canada. Counterrealism and Indo-Anglian Fiction (2002) provided a fresh perspective on the cultural and political challenges of Indian writers writing in English, while Lutesong and Lament (2001) brought together for the first time the writings of post-independence Tamils living around the world.

Prof. Kanaganayakam had recently completed work on an edited collection of post-1948 Tamil literature, entitled Uprooting the Pumpkin, and at the time of his death was working on a book for Cambridge University Press about the literary history of South Asian writing.

He leaves his wife, Thirumagal, his daughter, Shankary, and son, Jegan, two grandchildren and extended family.

In the House of Commons on Dec. 8, Arnold Chan, the Liberal MP for Scarborough-Agincourt, paid tribute to Prof. Kanaganayakam, calling him a "shining beacon in the world of Tamil poetry."

At his memorial, Linda Hutcheon, University of Toronto's university professor emeritus of English, said Prof. Kanaganayakam will be remembered for his passionate dedication to his scholarly field.

"Also part of his legacy will be warm memories of his deep devotion to the many students he taught in the classroom and those whose doctoral dissertations he supervised and who now, themselves, work in that field," she said.

"They all know that they have had as an academic – and human – example a most valuable guide."

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