By Jennifer Rodrigo
When the news of my pen friend’s passing reached me, my first thought was that the world is now void of a lady who possessed the grace, humility, eloquence, and good nature of a bygone time; something that is truly rare today. She was soft in her speech, powerful with her words in her books, and benevolent with her advice on life. Sri Lankan poet and writer of fiction and non-fiction Jean Arasanayagam was 88 when she said her final goodbyes in Kandy.
No, the true poet is never the victor, never seeks the cheers and vociferous voices or the applause of surging crowds drowning the voice of spontaneous utterance.
The Life of the Poet, Jean Arasanayagam
Arasanayagam, who has numerous accolades to her name – the most recent of which was the Sahityaratna lifetime award for invaluable service towards the advancement of the field of literature in Sri Lanka at the State Literary Awards, and the Gratiaen Prize in 2017 for her book The Life of the Poet – always described herself as a “poet who is human”. As an author whose words are unpolluted and poignant, she captured everything from her colonial heritage to ethnic troubles in her books, all of which greatly influenced her writing. Her very first collection of poetry – Kindura – was published in 1973 by Sithumina Press. Some of her other publications include Apocalypse ’83 (1984), The Cry of the Kite (1984), A Colonial Inheritance and Other Poems (1985), Out of Our Prisons We Emerge (1987), Trial by Terror (1987), Reddened Waters Flow Clear (1991), Shooting the Floricans (1993), The Outsider (1989), Fragments of a Journey (1992), All Is Burning (1995), and Peacocks and Dreams (1996).
A childhood replete with imagery
She discovered her private enclaves as a child, wherever she wandered – in the garden her father created in Kadugannawa and the abandoned tea estate on the hill behind her childhood home she climbed every day “alone and unattended”. All that she experienced on that hill has been documented in her writing. Her parents, she said, cocooned her but also gave her the freedom to grow.
“The narratives that began to form and take shape in my mind and imagination belong, I now feel, to the realms of magical realism. I continue, up to this day, to find inspiration for my writing in all its varied genres in the germinal thoughts, ideas, discoveries, and explorations that were given birth to in that genesis,” she shared in the most recent interview I had with her.
During the interview, she recalled, from her childhood, the varied landscapes that she used to create her personal universe full of colour and vibrant imagery. “As for feelings and emotions which were inchoate and unformed, I gradually began to understand and apprehend how my mind, body, and spirit absorbed it all, often through the sensitive antennae of sensation in ways that my tender body reacted to pain, my spirit to sadness, joy, happiness, and love.”
She remembered in minutest detail each day in her young life – the happenings and discoveries – and savoured the freedoms of mind, body, and spirit with “very few curbs” to restrict her. Her father – a district mechanical inspector – was a heroic figure to her, and her mother was a “beautiful human being” who sang to her.
Her mother also spent countless hours reading to her and also shared narratives of family history which would’ve never seen the light of day had she not narrated them. “Some stories really meant for adult ears, combined with fables, fairy tales, and family history, helped me through the long years of self-discovery, self-interrogation, even self-confessionals, to create a complex identity.”
Arasanayagam had an older sister and brother, both of whom she adored, and she was surrounded by an array of aunts, uncles, grand-aunts, grand-uncles, and cousins. Her paternal grandfather, W.H. Solomons, was a “complex individual” who had been the Headmaster at Richmond College, Galle before moving to practise law in Anuradhapura.
Innumerable “railway parties in the railway reading room” were also part of her young days, and so were picnics at the Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya – “holidays upcountry living in the quarters of the Postmaster, my uncle Bonnie Solomons, in Nuwara Eliya and Bandarawela, holidays on Uncle Bonnie’s coconut estate in Maho, which my father inherited after Uncle Bonnie’s death, historical meanderings in Anuradhapura, where my father was involved as a railway bureaucrat in the trans office.”
Then there was the move to Kandy to continue the education of both her and her sister at Girls’ High School, Kandy.
“So much more to write of, but the reader will find my life story in my books.”
Books that speak volumes
Arasanayagam’s book “Enigma of a Left-behinder”, which is a collection of poetry exploring the legacy of colonialism, was born due to complex reasons, one of which was her need to think long and hard on the legitimacy of her kind – Burghers – having lived within a politicised landscape and having had to withstand the historical past.
“One of my ancestors, Captain Arthur Johnston, had invaded the Kingdom of Kandy in the year 1804 and left behind a military narrative of his disastrous incursion.” Captain Arthur was Arasanayagam’s great, great grandfather, who had left one daughter behind, Susan Johnston, who married the offshoot of another colonial ancestor: “Adriaan Jansz VOC; Susan married one of his sons, Adriaan Jansz, and so it went on and on. I was confounded by the investigations that I was curious about, my ties, indeed my bondage, not bonds with those colonial forebears.”
Arasanayagam had no wish to justify or legitimise that ancestry, but out of her historical sleuthing she was left with an identity that she had to survive with. “When almost all my people emigrated to other climes and I was left alone to find my way”, and while she was trying to unravel those strands, Enigma was conceived.
Her book that won the 2017 Gratiaen Prize – The Life of the Poet – was a result of her writing poem after poem on what it felt like to live, think, and write as she did. “I am looking at myself and my existence on this planet as someone who has never sought to be placed on a pedestal of exclusivity,” she shared in the interview, adding that she had mixed and mingled with all and sundry through her “long and excitingly challenging, hazardous and trepidatious journey as a writer,” often marginalised for her ideologies, ignoring her nonpartisanship in all the “political and ethnic divisiveness that has rent the world apart”.
As someone who coloured herself open to everything that was around her, she extended her literary and “human demenses beyond the narrow and rigidly demarcated territories that might have hedged me in and stifled my utterance, and I have interrogated myself time and time again to arrive at self-knowledge”.
A legacy unlike any other
Of recognition and applause for her work, she stood firm in the belief that her existence on this planet was never meant to be placed on a pedestal of exclusivity. Although recognition did come from time to time, “often from the greater world outside my habitation”, what she felt about herself is that she was as human as anybody else. “But I do possess sensitive antennae that enhance my sensitivity and perceptions.”
Arasanayagam felt that anyone who passed her by on the “thoroughfare of the world” would recognise those qualities that she possessed; and she was right, they did.
Her faith along with her sensitivity to the world around her stood out and was inspirational.
“I walk unrecognised on the crowded streets of the world, indistinguishable, but I have that interior knowledge and enabling power within myself, with that implicit belief and trust in the divine powers that speak to me and grant me that benison. I am not the poet of self and self alone, but the poet with those bardic qualities, a kind of wandering minstrel who wanders through the ways of the world, a poet without arrogance, a poet who is human, who has experienced every emotion under the sun, all the vicissitudes, the harshness of the elements, withstanding the forces that often tried to destroy me, but I have survived, and possess the freedom that every writer has who speaks with truth and integrity to exist without contumely.”
Her last days in Kandy, albeit of a “quieter” setting, were also characteristic of waking up early and spending time in meditation on her verandah. She’d talk to the cats, who after being fed make their “forays into the wilderness”, and then she’d plan the day’s events. Skyping with her daughter Devi in Canada and reading emails and responding to them with her other daughter Parvathi’s help were all part of a day in her life.
“Yes, life is quieter now and I am deeply concerned in completing my books, retaining friendships, and being of help to those who need my help in monetary or material handouts – church, communion services, celebration of festivals (both cultures involved, my husband’s and mine). Life goes on. I now have more space and time, but I am very aware of mortality…”
Jean, your words will be cherished and you will be dearly missed.