STRANGER AT YOUR DOORWAY
On Jean Arasanayagam By Anders Sjöbohm,
literary critic, Gothenburg, Sweden.
I watch her
She takes the hem of her garment and
Wipes the sweat off her brow
The thin cotton is damp and stained.
She tells herself,
"I am common
Anonymous like all the others
No one knows that I have magic
In my brain."
In the writings of Jean Arasanayagam, I find her playing two main roles, one as a painter, the other as an explorer. These roles are both complementary and contradictory. As a painter in words, Jean Arasanayagam allows the landscape, in its broadest sense, to come to the fore. Light, colours, destinies, faces, voices and characters are all part of a painted picture, an atmosphere, a cultural pattern with a shimmer of ritual and enigma. The writer does not tell her own story. Rather, she is a medium, observing and listening. Simultaneous with the painting, comes a deeper exploration of the meanings of culture and history, the examination of injustices and painful change. Jean Arasanayagam questions the traditions that hold such fascination for her, and realizes that the picture she is painting is a transient one.
Jean Arasanayagam has written prolifically. While her writing reflects her own life and immediate experience, her short stories and poems also reflect the tragic ethnic, social and political conflicts of her native country, Sri Lanka. She refers to herself as an "outsider", and perhaps, outsiders are always the best witnesses.Jean Arasanayagam was born into one of Sri Lanka's minority communities, and married into another. By birth she is a "Dutch Burgher" - one of her ancestors was among the men who embarked on the Colonial ships in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. The "Dutch Burghers" are the offspring of intermarriages between Dutchmen and women of the i ndigenous communities - a split inheritance. "I have suckled on a breast shaped by the genetics of history."
She herself married a Tamil, and this marriage proved to be totally unacceptable to her husband's family. Her writing expresses, time and again, the pain of being ostracized by a family of high caste and high lineage. This cultural collision is embodied above all in her hidebound mother-in-law:
In July 1983, the antagonism between Sri Lanka's Tamil minority and its Sinhalese majority culminated in bloody riots. The "outsider" and her family became refugees. Jean Arasanayagam bore a writer's testimony of these events. The outsider was no longer only an observer:
At the same time, in the middle of chaos , horror and humiliation, loss of safety and a sense of home, loss of identity itself, Jean Arasanayagam experienced a paradoxical sense of freedom:
It is mainly as a poet Jean Arasanayagam has at tracted attention. Collections such as Apocalypse '83 (1984) an d Trial by Terror (1987) tell the cruel story of "Black July". A Colonial inheritance (1985) explores the writer's own Burgher background and identity. Out of Our Prisons We Emerge (1987) i s a more introvert, personal collection while Reddened Waters Flow Clear (1991) and Shooting the Floricans (1993) contain some of the very best of Jean Arasanayagam's poetry.
However, Jean Arasanayagam is also an eminent s hort story writer. The Cry of the Kite (1984) is a collection with intense poetic descriptions of the bare, desert-like landscape in the neighbourhood of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, the traditional homeland of the Tamils. It also describes the decay of the small villages , their marginalisation through rapid modernization. Peacocks and Dreams (1996), a series of vignettes from Tamil village life, narrated from the point of view of a boy, won a prize for non-fiction in 1984 but was not published until twelve years later. It is characterized by a finely tuned, precise and objective prose. Fragments of a Journey (1992) and All is burning (1995) show us once again the writer as a painter as well as an explorer. Jean Arasanayagam is, as always, an excellent observer. She seldom tells a straighforward story in the conventional sense. Different time planes, insightful character portraits, a circular composition and a rhythmic, detail-shimmering prose are some of the characteristics of her short stories. Some of the stories explore the bitter truth of ageing and loneliness, some bring the bitter fighting between the armed forces and the guerilla of the Tamil Tigers into focus.
In Jean Arasanayagam's short stories there is also something more than transience and decay. A cultural pattern is much more than a set of habits and rules. It is an attempt to give expression to the enigma of existence, the presence of God. And in this sense, Jean Arasanayagam seems to say, the old religions have to be defended against a new age of brutality, ethnic division and spiritual death: "She wakes early, the call of the prayer from the Muezzin and the Hindu theravams from the temple fill the whole city with the waves of sound. There is no contradiction, no argument between gods and prophets, only reminders of man's sinfulness and his need for both hope and penance."
Shooting the Floricans (Kandy : Samjna, 1993);
Reddened Waters Flow Clear (London&Boston : Forrest Books, 1991);
Trial by Terror (Hamilton : Rimu, 1987);
Out of Our Prisons We Emerge (Kandy, 1987);
A Colonial Inheritance and Other Poems (Kandy, 1985);
Apocalypse '83 (Kandy, 1984);
Poems of a Season Beginning and a Season Over (Kandy, 1977);
Kindura (Kandy, 1973)
Peacocks and Dreams (New Delhi : Navrang, 1996);
All is Burning (New Delhi : Penguin Books India, 1995);
Fragments of a Journey (Colombo : WERC, 1992);
The Outsider (Nagasaki University: Bulletin of the Faculty of Liberal Arts, 1989);
The Cry of the Kite. A collection of short stories (Kandy, 1984)
On Jean Arasanayagam
De Mel, Neloufer: A Question of Ident ity : A Note on Jean Arasanayagam's Landscape of the Nation (Essays on Sri Lankan Poetry in English, 1995)
Kanaganayakam, Chelva: Interview. (Configura tions of exile : South Asian writes and their world, 1995, pp 12-25.)
Robinson, LeRoy: An interview with Jean Aras anayagam on aspects of culture in Sri Lanka. Keiei to Keizai, Nagasaki University, vol 67, no 4, March 1988.
Simms, Norman: Introduction. (Arasanayagam, Jean: Reddened waters flow clear, 1991, pp vii-xiv)
Sjobohm, Anders: "Someone smashed in the doo r and gave me my freedom" : on the writings of Jean Arasanayagam. Worl d Literature today. Winter, 1992.
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