We are all pilgrims in this word: Celebrating Jean Arasanayagam

By Jennifer Rodrigo

When Parvathi and Devasundari Arasanayagam responded eagerly to my email asking about working on a piece celebrating their mother Jean Arasanayagam on her first death anniversary (30 July), I saw in them a desire to keep a remarkable woman’s legacy alive. I have been fortunate enough to have connected with Jean when she was alive, albeit via physical letters and eventually emails, and I wasn’t surprised by their reaction. Jean was remarkable – kind, resolute, courageous, and full of wisdom for current times, even though she herself belonged to a much older period.

Jean has numerous accolades to her name, the most recent of which is 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. She wrote about everything, from her colonial heritage to ethnic troubles in her books, all of which were subjects that 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 Water Flows Clear (1991), Shooting the Floricans (1993), The Outsider (1989), Fragments of a Journey (1992), All Is Burning (1995), and Peacocks and Dreams (1996).

Recalling, fondly, how I’d eagerly open one of her emails, penned with so much thought and always come away with some trinket of a life lesson, I wrote to the twin daughters, who promptly invited me over for a meal the next time I was in Kandy. I made a mental note to take them up on the offer.

A house she loved and made a home

“The entire house reminds me of mum,” shared Paru, short for Parvathi, referring to their home Sunnyside Gardens in Kandy. The immediate family that remains is made up of Paru, Devi (Devasundari), and their father Thiyagarajah Arasanayagam.

They are coping comparatively well since Jean’s passing, although they do miss their mom’s vibrant, loving, and effervescent presence in the house.

Paru still feels her presence in her life. “As a Christian, I have the firm belief that mum has been reunited with our creator and Lord Jesus Christ who was her guide through life’s journey.” She shared that she was prepared for the end because her mother often spoke of the transitory nature of life, death, and mortality.

“To me, to us, mum was mum,” chimed in Devi, talking of the images she has of her mother seated at the dining table, chopping and slicing vegetables finely, preparing lunch with all the things Devi wanted to eat. “I have not inherited the art and the patience to do what she did; she prepared the most wonderful vegetarian curries – beans, ash plantain, brinjal, cucumber.”

Jean loved her garden, which Devi described as being filled with thick foliage and birds, squirrels, and “cats pouncing on butterflies”. The daughters recalled how their mother, dressed in colourful, jewel-hued clothes with manuscripts beside her, also enjoyed observing the life that passed her by, beyond the gate. “Schoolchildren hanging onto the gate and peering in, the hoot and clash of buses, vans and tuk tuks, the gate opening and closing as visitors often stopped by to chat, often staying for tea and lunch,” Devi painted a picture.

The sitting room, shared Paru, made up with antique furniture, also reminds her of her mother as it was her study with the ambience of literature and creative writing.

Two daughters, two experiences

Devi was the daughter who chose to leave the country years ago, but her memories of her mother are no less poignant. “We exchanged letters, made phone calls, and when things got safer in Sri Lanka, I was able to make an annual trip,” she shared.

Skype and email made sure that the mother and daughter stayed connected. They emailed at least once a day and had their almost daily calls.

“We talked about everything under the sun – from what we were eating that day to what was going on in the world,” she recalled, adding that the stories and images of migrants tossed in frail boats as they sought refuge, and her own daughter being so far away sometimes did hurt her mother a lot.

“Today I miss those daily Skypes – we would have examined all that is happening today – Covid, Black Lives Matter. She would have written about it all.”

Their resemblance to each other is strong. “I am my mother’s daughter – looking, sounding, and feeling,” said Devi, proudly adding that her mother was strong, judgemental, fierce, and hated injustice. “She was outspoken and brave.”

Her forthright nature even led to issues with some of Sri Lanka’s more chauvinistic writers and academics. “Being a Burgher married to a Tamil led to her being immersed in a world that was almost unknown to her,” she said, adding that Jean suffered a lot as an outsider to the family, but through that pain, she found creativity and understanding of alienation, as reflected in most of her writing.

Constantly working on multiple manuscripts, Devi recollected that she used to describe her mother as more prolific than the writer Joyce Carol Oates. “Our house in Kandy was and is still filled with writing pads and notebooks filled with her words.”

Paru’s memories of her mother whenever she went with her to the town of Kandy are of her stopping at a bookshop and buying them storybooks by writers like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Enid Blyton, and Ruth M. Arthur. “She inculcated in us the love for literature,” she reminisced.

She too attested to her mother’s courageous nature, sharing that she protected her father, sister, and her from ragging and violent mobs in the ethnic riots of July ‘83. “She also did a lot of social work in the refugee camps we were in and reached out to many refugees.”

One of the lessons she’s learned from her mother is her great capacity for compassion for both human beings and animals. “Mum had a sense of humanity for people and would reach out to people from all walks of life.”

“She also taught me lessons in humility and even though she was a gifted writer and lecturer, she never lost the human touch,” shared Paru, adding that as a writer, she used her talents to speak for those who were marginalised in our society. “Many of her writings also had a message to the whole of humanity. She also taught me self-discipline and a sense of duty towards one’s family, friends, and the rest of society. She was also simple and unassuming, and was committed to her profession as a teacher and writer.”

Paru misses her mother’s voice, vibrant and full of life, reading out poems to her. She also misses their shopping expeditions to stores nearby, mainly in search of gifts for others. Describing her mother as a philosopher, Paru remembered that her mother was able to communicate with others and exchange thoughts on various aspects of life. “She was selfless and committed to her career as a mother, wife, teacher, writer, and friend.

“Even strangers on the road meet and commiserate with me about my mother’s loss since they remember mum’s kindness and generosity towards them. Mum was also a wonderful dramatist and every conversation was interesting. She was very otherworldly, and money and materialistic things never attracted her.”

Wisdom for these times

I was curious to know what Jean would have been like as a mother to a child of this generation, and Paru indulged me.

“Mum would have taught the child the virtues of goodness and kindness towards others including animals,” she detailed, adding that the child would have also been coached about the value of integrity, honesty, reaching out to others, adaptability, and leadership.

“Good manners and refinement too were values which mum inculcated in children,” shared Paru, referring to her mother’s art classes for children many years ago; she also helped students learn the fundamentals of the English language in her teaching career.

Understanding that life isn’t perfect and that we need to accept both the good and the bad are also lessons Paru has learned from her mother.

“My mother taught me to accept the challenges in life, even though there were times when I knew that I had made mistakes in my career by not opting to follow a career in law rather than in the languages and psychology. She was very glad when I became an English teacher and successfully saw many students pass through my hands and enter university or colleges of education.”

Paru sees herself going down her mother’s path as a teacher and writer. She spoke of how her mother loved her vocation of teaching and spreading knowledge, at both St. Anthony’s College where she taught for 25 years and later at Peradeniya Teacher Training College. “She would make literature come alive in the classroom.”

Paru also wants to see that the four books her mother was working on at the time of her death – two poetry books and two books of prose – see the light of day.