Within this piece, the poet discusses an outbreak of ethnic conflict in the country, later known as the Sir Lankan Civil War. Specifically in 1983 as the title, ‘Big Match 1983′ suggests. The violence started with an insurrection against the government by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as LTTE. They sought an independent Tamil state and were defeated after 26 years in May of 2009. The poem speaks on themes of violence, struggle, and endurance.
The poem begins with the speaker addressing the conflict, its origins and its consequences for the average citizen. She speaks on the fires, riots, losses of life, and the larger political actions that led to the riots in the first place. The poet takes the reader into the lives of a few cities of Sri Lanka, depicting their attitudes, fears and even deaths.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Poetic Techniques
‘Big Match 1983’ by Yasmine Goonaratne is a fifty-nine line poem that is contained within one block of text. The poem does not contain a specific rhyme scheme, but Goonaratne does make use of several poetic techniques. These include alliteration, enjambment and caesura.
The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “cower, cancel” in the second line.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. For example, line twenty-eight: “not a dull moment. No one can complain”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are a number of instances in which this technique influences a reader’s understanding of the text. They include the transitions between lines fifteen and sixteen, as well as lines thirty-one and thirty-two.
Analysis of Big Match 1983
In the first lines of ‘Big Match 1983,’ the speaker begins by bringing the reader into a world of headlines and tourists. These tourists take a glance at the “headlines in the newspapers” and move quickly, like bugs, “scuttling for cover”. These headlines appear in the fourth line of the poem, they read “‘Flash point in Paradise.’ ‘Racial pot boils over.’”
These quick bursts of information describe an area that’s not quite as safe as these tourists might like. They “cancel” the time they intended to spend in rooms with “views of temple and holy mountain”. “Paradise” is quickly becoming untenable. The conflict is between the government and the Tamil Tigers, as outlined in the introduction to this article.
In the next lines, the poem moves to speak on a boy who had “gone away”. He was seeking out his own history in Toronto, Canada. It appears as though this boy returned to Sri Lanka, deciding that Toronto was “quite romantic enough for his purposes”.
In the next lines, the poet adds that “we,” presumably the people of Sri Lanka, were unable to “share” or “shelter”. Together, they are seeking to find the “match that lit this sacrificial fire”. This alludes to a quest to the deeper origins of the conflict and a cultural desire to understand the match that lit this fire. It was a “big” one, as the title suggests.
When looking back on their history, this collective “we” remembers “‘Forty Eight ‘and ‘Fifty Six’”. These dates mark important pivot points in Sri Lanka history that led up to 1983. The first references the independence of the British Colony of Ceylon, which decades later came to be known as Sri Lanka. These second, 1956, is in reference to the Ceylonese riots, the first outbreak of Vince between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority.
The new lines refer to other moments of “treachery” on the part of the government and political figures. The “first sparks,” the poet says, were fanned into the enormous flame in “Nineteen Fifty Eight”. This is in regards to the 1985 anti-Tamil pogrom and further riots in Ceylon. The pogrom, or a violent riot aimed at the massacre/prosecution of an ethnic or religious group, was targeted at the Tamils.
Despite coming to an understanding of the origins of the Civil War, the speaker and her collective “we” “find no comfort in [their] neat solution, / no calm abstraction, and no absolution”. On top of that, there is no way for them to change what’s going on anyway.
The speaker explores in the next lines of ‘Big Match 1983’ the larger implications of violence. There is a “fever” that gripped both sides. The match that sparked the fire is burning “high and fast,” as if on headed straight for complete destruction.
Moving into a new scene, the speaker describes a “tall house dim with old books and pictures”. This is juxtaposed with the imagery in the previous lines of fire and death. There are “calm hands” handling a “clamouring telephone”. The next lines of ‘Big Match 1983’ contain the words of one person on the phone. They speak lightheartedly and optimistically about the conflict going on around them. There is nothing “boring” about it they say. Then, they go into detail about how they are “Up all night keeping watch”.
The speaker on this end of the phone is revealed to be a man in line thirty-five. He sends a woman, who is presumably his wife, along with his children “to a neighbours house”.
Describing his own life in more detail, the new male speaker says that he’s always been a drinker, but now that the conflict is raging, his intake has been stepped up. He speaks in clear, seemingly unworried language about the “torches” and what happens when they get within “fifty feet of this house”. His statements are off the cuff, and appear to be making light of the situation. He muses that he’ll be the first to go up in flames, rather than his books because of how much he drinks.
The narrator of ’Big Match 1983’ describes a pause on the phone line, and then the male speaker resumes talking. Thanking the narrator for calling and expressing the opinion that this call was similar to those they might’ve shared when they were neighbours in 1958.
The male speaker concludes the call by thanking the narrator again and stating that he’s glad that some “lines haven’t yet been cut”. This is a reference to both the phone lines and the larger relationship between the areas rife with conflict, and those outside the most dangerous areas.
Goonaratne’s speaker goes on, describing how there are “a hundred guns” outside the fences of Jaffna, the capital city of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. They are ready for action, “bristl[ing]”. The imagery grows darker, with the speaker depicting childhood haunts melting in the flames of the riots. There are dead children, blood stains and crowds that are unable to help, looking the other way. The streets are desolate.
In the last lines of ‘Big Match 1983,’ the speaker adds that “Near the wheels” of one dead boy’s bicycle there are “two policemen” who avoid looking at the child’s corpse. In contrast to this attitude, is another man who falls in anguish to his knees as sticks and stones pelt him. His neighbour is responsible.
Within the conclusion, the speaker says that the “joys” of youth, friendship and childhood are being ravaged by politics, policies and ideologies. Sri Lanka as a country is personified in the last lines. She’s a screaming woman, burning alive as her people murder one another.