A Review of Jean Arasanayagam's poem Family Photographs

A Theoretical Analysis of Jean Arasanayagam poem Family Photographs

An English language poet and writer of fiction, Jean Arasanayagam, in her powerful poems, deals with themes of ethnic as well as religious turmoils that once prevailed in Sri Lanka during Nineteenth Century.The poem centers on the aesthetically remarkable domestic photographs that has just arrived from England. They are ordinary images of few important people but it unravels stories that are deeply personal as well as historically significant.
More than a mere documentation of time, place, people , objects , events and history it portrays something beyond it and possess a narrative veneer of a rich cultural legacy . They are rich in meaning and at the same time historically significant.
On scrutinizing every single aspect of those freshly arrived photographs,  bearing the images of her  English Sister in law , Dravidian brother-in-law and their family, the poet realises how far apart they are culturally as well as physically. the first lines throw light on the 19th Century Sri Lankan milieu . The poet herself being a Dutch burgher she could aptly  represent the anxieties and anguishes of a typical burger with specks of hybridity in their veins ,but no way physically identifiable with  their  English relations.  The burghers are small Eurasian ethnic groups in Sri Lanka who descended from Portuguese, Dutch and British origin during the nineteenth century.  The burghers enjoyed an elevated social status and highly significant place in economic life as well. burghers may vary from generation to generation in physical traits .some of them intermarried the British and produced င်္european  phenotypes including fair skin and heavier physique while other Burghers were almost indistinguishable from sinhalese and  Tamil.  they also preserve European culture and Customs Though they are not physically homogenous, they have very strong interest in family history . They preserved European Culture and Customs.
the poetic persona , probably a dutch Burgher confronts with extreme difficulty in identifying herself with her English sister-in-law ,physically. Distraught ,she feels how far apart they are in  every way.  She  cannot “mimic” their ways   even if she tries her best . There is something that hinders her from reaching  their  world that is full of differences . The poet’s ambivalence is being exposed here. these photographs are representations of their lives and the poet painfully realises that their world is full of differences. Their body shape, their mannerisms ,their culture etc  are entirely different from that of the native  burgher’s. Even their languages are different. if the poet attempts to speak in her nuanced tongue she feels that it may find that” patois  “ strange and unfamiliar .

To her stranger gaze, everything in those photographs seemed alien .through the window which represented the vistas of their life she could get the glimpse of the Seasons which were at the brim of change .she was indeed trying to identify her own  legacy in her British relations .She was in search of family resemblances among the children in the photographs . But with  an air of disappointment, she realises how” Ordered and cyclic “ is life, for “new generations are born to inherit a different territory”.
in the following stanzas, the poet brings out the magnitude of cultural differences that she notices in both groups. She points out that  each culture stands apart  and they are rich and diverse in their own ways. The English Burghers have a diverse culture to claim; one that of their native tradition, history and geography. They have their own native myths and folk heroes like Robin Hood. For that their culture is woven into the “ complex warp and weft “ of the historical Sherwood forest webbed in sun and shade.Here the poet tries to bring home ,the idea that the Sri Lankan culture is also no way inferior . Their culture is also rich with its on native Folk tales and history.
Observing these photographs at close quarters she could get a glimpse of the perfect lawns,trimmed grasses, potted geraniums ,indoors chairs  and the baroque architecture of queen Anne , which gives a feel of “settled bodies enclosed in their comfortable lives” .This description hints that the  Western world is something that is perfect, ordered and beautiful but the East is not ordered, not perfect and not beautiful. At this point the poet seems to be  disturbed  but she is never offended because her veins are loaded with traits of hybridity , the mixture of East and West . But she is stricken with Despair for  she realises  that there “is no room for the hybrid in their greenhouse”
she feels the intensity of the transition that has affected the life and culture of her British relatives. They are far away geographically as well as culturally and therefore  she says that there's only  little chance of their return   
They can never know the poet’s ruined home, those thorn- racked paths and fruiting trees whose  harvest remains un gathered. These photographs can never quench  her longing but it can only trigger her memories.Her British relatives can never understand the language and mixed emotions of the poet and her tribe. The poet’s native epics and its secrets are quite unintelligible to them, except for their translations. But the spirit is lost in translation. Those precious ancestral secrets archived in crumbled pages shall remain incomprehensible to them because they doesn't know the poet's mother tongue. Here language is far more than a medium; it is indeed a strong emotion