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Such a long journey

Jean Arasanayagam's writings emanate from a distinctly perturbed mind over issues universal


THE 20TH century has been the century of the refugee. Among the many ethnic conflicts that crowd our news is the never-ending one in Sri Lanka. And among the many who catalogue the isle's angst is one woman who has unceasingly spoken about places where things fall apart - homes, relationships and identities.

Jean Arasanayagam has been the voice of protest, her tone acerbic, her stories an archaeology of the oppressed. She has written prolifically and her writings reflect her own life and immediate experience and the tragic conflicts of her native country.

Born a Burgher (descendants of the Dutch who married indigenous women) she married into another minority community, that of the Tamils. "I have suckled on a breast shaped by the genetics of history," she writes in one of her poems.

Mirror of experience

It is mainly as a poet that Arasanayagam has attracted attention. Collections such as Apocalypse'83 and Trial by Terror tell the cruel story of `Black July'. "1983 was a watershed in my life. It marked my regeneration as a writer and human being after I found refuge in a camp so full of inevitable barriers that had grown overnight. My writing had a direction earlier.

Now I was more aware of my identity. The context that I lived in, the stance I needed to take and the responsibility of the writer - unprejudiced, unbiased. I couldn't allow my experiences to colour my judgment of people."

Arasanayagam is also an eminent short story writer. She seldom tells a straightforward story in the conventional sense. Different time planes, insightful character portraits, a circular composition and a rhythmic, shimmering prose are some of the characteristics of her short stories.

"My marriage has given me a tremendous body of literature. It enhanced investigation and exploration. The Cry of the Kite is about my husband's childhood in a Jaffna that one no longer recognises and The Dividing Line was for my daughter who has now become part of the diaspora in Canada," she says.

At the foyer of the Taj Residency her eyes mist when she speaks about what conflicts do to families and to people. "There is such divisiveness and parting. For the diaspora there is a burning desire to get back.

As a writer I intellectually deal with the suffering. I discipline my emotions by writing. But how do others cope with it? They retreat into shells often reminiscing about what was once good."

Of Tamil diaspora

The hallmark of her works is the reflection of a personal sense of alienation and she writes from a doubly marginalised space. "I write with relationship to my experiences. I have not explored the feelings of the Tamil diaspora. Of how they are coping when they are so far away. But I know what it has done to families. It is a violent wrench, a trauma that you never get over. Home becomes a metaphor, a signifier. There are no maps or signs to tell you that you are safe. Journeys and pilgrimages are fascinating when you are not forced to take it. I am aware that there is a sizeable Telugu diaspora but if it's dreams you are chasing it is not half as bad as being forced to find an alternative home. I am a pilgrim. My sandals thongs are worn out - physically, emotionally. We tried moving abroad but that did not work. My girls left because they were worried about their future."

Arasanayagam's writing is not just about brilliant stories on war, rebellion, displacement and dispossession. Written with great sensitivity, lyricism and rare power, there is more to them than transience and decay. "My experiences have made me what I am even if people think I'm lesser. We have all become spinners of endless sagas, which we read in the silence of our eternal loneliness. We inhabit the world of exile, which lies within the Babylon of ourselves. The post-colonial is my biography."

DEEPA ALEXANDER

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