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With one foot in either world

With both the blood of the colonizer and the colonized running in her veins, yet belonging to neither group, Jean Arasanayagam searches for her own identity in her latest novel as in her other work.......

By Smriti Daniel - Sunday Times Jun 3 2007

Going down to Kandy to see Jean Arasanayagam is always a pleasure. She lives in what used to be her grandfather’s house, on Peradeniya Road. A small but lush garden protects the house from the sight, if not the sound, of the busy street. Within her little fortress, I know Jean spends her time pleasurably engaged in sketching, cooking, taking care of her small family and writing her novels. And it is the last that I have come to chat with her about. As I make my way into the house, I feel the pleasant weight of Jean’s newest and possibly best book - ‘A Nice Burgher Girl’ – lying heavy in my bag.

Jean Arasanayagam

The book, laced as it is both with rollicking humour and heart wrenching memories, is a wonderful chronicle of an entire way of life - one that is to all intents and purposes no more. A world of lace and ribbons, of milk punch and Rita Toussaint Vanlangenberg’s Christmas cake; and people – so human, yet somehow so exotic. Aunty Girlie and her extravagant banquets; Uncle Bertie and his gallery of dreams; Aunty Thomas, mistress of a boarding house, accomplished at reading tea leaves and the young Scotsman who called himself Johnny Walker, all stride across the stage of Jean’s memory. “I can still remember all their faces, even up to this day,” Jean says, adding that, “I still can’t get over the fact that so many people had been crowded into my childhood, and into my adolescence and into my life.”

On her mother’s side, Jean can trace her roots back to the Grenier and Jansz families, while on her father’s she draws from the Johnstons and the Solomons. Her father Henry Daniel Solomons and her mother Charlotte Camille Grenier Jansz had four children of whom Jean was the youngest. Surrounded by numerous aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and “colonial vagabonds” in all shapes and sizes meant that Jean had a colourful childhood, one she faithfully chronicles in her book. ‘A Nice Burgher Girl’, “grew from episodes, encounters, happenings, memories…all of these,” she says today.

Recalling parties, boarding school and attending service in her starched, rustling Sunday best, Jean’s account of her childhood reveals the life of a young girl, lucky to be living a cocooned life. A reader would expect this when they picked up this book – after all the Burghers enveloped in English traditions and mannerisms did live a life apart, markedly different to that of their Ceylonese counterparts. But what tugs at the heart is watching Jean forming her first tentative bonds with her motherland and its people…bonds that grow strong and effortlessly because Jean had Mungo; Mungo who played with her, watched over her and rocked Jean to sleep on her lap, singing ‘doiyi, doiyi, doiya, doiya, babo’; Mungo who told her thrilling tales of Rakshasis who strung Kevun from trees to lure children close and cautioned Jean to never leave her nail clippings where they might be stolen and used in a spell.

It seems that such opposing influences have always struggled within Jean. And so she tells her stories, and her stories within stories, from a unique perspective - with one foot in either world. With both the blood of the colonizer and the colonized running in her veins, yet belonging to neither group, Jean searches for her own identity, for something in which to anchor herself. And while she sifts through her memories, stopping here, then there, chuckling, tearing, agonizing, lost in thought, she achieves what she set out to do: she has created a record of her inheritance. “I wanted to investigate this childhood of mine, this past of mine, and I wanted to recall and reclaim all these wonderful stories,” Jean says.

She takes these stories – some told to her, some enacted in front of her, some overheard (“my mother would always say ‘potatoes have eyes, walls have ears’”) – and uses them sketch in quick yet dramatic detail the lives and times of her family and friends. Whether her subject is scandalous or sentimental, factual or intensely personal, Jean’s pen weaves pure magic – her prose is intensely lyrical and entirely iridescent. She only enhances the reader’s experience when she includes poems written by long dead relatives, historical research, letters exchanged, photographs, folk tales, lyrics to popular ditties and even cherished family recipes including two for ginger beer and Christmas cake.

Throughout it all, Jean seems to say: this is me, this is where I come from, and these are the people who have shaped me. “In a sense this book is also a tribute to my parents who were wonderful people, and who gave all the freedom I needed to be myself.” It is also a tribute to some of the most inspiring people Jean will ever know – her single, determinedly individual aunts. “They were such fabulous women,” she says, having dedicated several pages to them. “I think I learnt a lot from their sense of responsibility towards others and the importance they placed on family,” she says, adding that “women of that generation – they would not suffer to be nonentities.”

Written in segments, ‘A Nice Burgher Girl’ does not proceed chronologically and instead is a colourful pageant of Jean’s own memories of her childhood and adolescence. She restricts herself to those alone, even though her life as an adult far outdoes her childhood in terms of sheer drama; reserving the details of her departure from this safe enclave for another time. Despite everything this book is testament to the fact that Jean is still very much in touch with her roots. “I have tried to maintain a certain way of life in the way that my parents did,” she says, ruminatively, remembering how hospitality, for instance, has always been a key part of her parents’ lives.

And it’s true that Jean seems to delight in describing tables packed with guests and groaning under the weight of delicious delicacies – authentic lamprais, roast beef and roast bismore, stews, curries and pies, coming in course after course with light, flavourful sweet omelettes for dessert, or blancmange, love cake or rich cake, guava preserves and pancakes.

Today Jean and her husband Thyagaraja Arasanayagam, (whom she fondly calls “Arasa”) and their daughter Parvathi (her other daughter, Devi, resides in Canada) still lay a grand table – the solid old wood covered in steaming dishes. Talking and laughing around the table, it is easy to see that Jean not only embraces her complex inheritance but that she revels in it: with each new memory, each new acquaintance, each new challenge taking her one step further on the road we must all travel: the path to self discovery.