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Peacocks, dreams and the children of Saturn

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  • Jean Arasanayagam is one of the best known Lankan poets and easily the best known internationally

  • She is less well known as a prose writer, though she has no less than twelve works of fiction and non-fiction to her credit;

  • Bhairava: A childhood in Navaly State Literary Award for non-fiction in 1984

  • It is about her husband’s childhood days in the village of Navaly in Jaffna in the 1940s and 50s. 

 

Jean Arasanayagam is one of the best known Lankan poets and easily the best known internationally now that Patrick Fernando, Anne Ranasinghe and Lakshmi de Silva are no more.
She is less well known as a prose writer, though she has no less than twelve works of fiction and non-fiction to her credit; hence, coming across a reprint of her Peacocks and Dreams while browsing at the Public Library was a delight.
The book, which won the State Literary Award for non-fiction (as ‘Bhairava: A childhood in Navaly) in 1984,   is about her husband’s childhood days in the village of Navaly in Jaffna in the 1940s and 50s. 
Reading it, you feel there isn’t much of a difference between her poetry and her prose. The whole narrative reads like a prose poem. Take for example the following passages.
“You know then, pain, and you toss on the mat with the cloth drawn up to your armpits dreaming of the churning milk sea and the great serpent spitting out venom, while the nagas and naginis roam the bare land, desolate, in the walawu.
“Nobody cared whether you grew up or not, like a root you sprouted from the palmyrah seed flung down in the grove among the bitter yellow-brown vembu flowers, but you saw gods and goddesses, Amman combing her hair, stands alight with sun, Bhairava, Siva, walking within the Kailasa of your dreams.”

 

"There is no such thing as superstition in this context. This book takes me back to my own childhood years when the world was shared by demons, gods, ghosts and people alike"


The society she describes has vanished, but not in cultural essentials such as religious fervour and ritual. Many of the nineteen chapters are concerned with Hindu rites, rituals, festivals and architecture. We see life as lived then through the eyes of schoolboy Arjun, who may be a fictitious version of her husband. The Amman temple is discovered via Arjun and his friends who go there to pluck ichampalam.
There is a Bhairava image under the tamarind tree near the temple. As he watches, the spiked iron trident begins to move, making him fear the power of Bhairava.
There is no such thing as superstition in this context. This book takes me back to my own childhood years when the world was shared by demons, gods, ghosts and people alike. 
But one feels that Arjun soaks up the culture of Jaffna through the eyes of Jean Arasanayagam, whose attempts to bring east and west together culturally with a monumental personal commitment (as a Burgher writer married to a Tamil academic) remains unparalleled in our literature. As the following passage shows, she is obviously dazzled by what she saw.

 

"Reading it, you feel there isn’t much of a difference between her poetry and her prose. The whole narrative reads like a prose poem"


“You remember the table spread with red-hot portals and the fresh keerai leaves piled up for cutting, the small peeled red onions filling the coconut shells, the fish and vegetables sliced sharply against the upthrust blade of the ariwharl, to cook, simmering in milk on wood fires. Your mother fed you with myths, legends, reciting those epics of the gods while she moulded balls of rice in her hands from the steaming mound on the plantain leaf, but the years passed and the pettagams hissed with emptiness, the staring weevils creeping about in the residual dust left behind from the harvested years, the fields sold off, one by one, dowry for a younger sister grown late for marriage; then there were no more harvests to be gathered in, no red rice to give you strength; no straw bales for you to drowse on and the women ceased to come with their reed baskets to peck like birds at those rich seams of grain mice-garnered and packed into the earth.”
Here she has encapsulated, in prose which shimmers like well-crafted verse, the spirit of a rural, agrarian society, its culinary rituals based on grain and victuals and kitchen utensils which are now museum pieces, its worldly goods and fragile wealth, and the organic cycle of life where even the households insects and rodents have their role to play.
This book isn’t one of those sunny romps across an exotic culture. There is humour, too, but a darker side of childhood in rural Jaffna emerges.
In the chapter titled the Butterfly Wars and the Children of Saturn, children massacre butterflies, focused like little demons waging war on beauty. 
But the most interesting episode is perhaps the one about school, and Arjun’s eccentric schoolmaster Perambalam who likes to show off his biceps rolls little pellets of opium from his ‘duppi’ when he thinks his students aren’t watching and takes sadistic relish in caning the more vulnerable of his wards.
It makes for fascinating reading.

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