3rd September 2000
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Memories of women both ordinary and extraordinary

Women All Women 
by Jean Arasanayagam. 
Reviewed by Alfreda deSilva 

Award-winning poet Jean Arasanayagam's new book of poems - 'Women All Women' is an elegant limited edition, printed on an offset machine by Shilalitya Roy and Abhijit Nath in Lake Gardens, Calcutta. The calligraphy and layout, are by P. Lal in this workshop publication. 

In an interview with Mickey Pearlman for the latter's book 'Listen to Their Voices', the writer Terry Tempest Williams asserts ".... memory is the only way home. I don't think we can even really know what we've been through, or how we have changed, unless we use memory as a tool for reflection." In Jean Arasanayagam's case, memory goes hand in hand with a deep feeling for the apt word, the felicitous metaphor and the desired music with which to express it. The most potent imagery is thus a response to the ebb and flow and cunning use of her language. 

In an interview given by Jean at the University of Iowa, to which she has gained an Honorary Fellowship from the International Writers Workshop of this institution in 1990, she said: "My writing is an exploration of women's identity in all situations generated by the social and political climate they live in." 

Across this wide stage these women move and speak and have their being. They take on all sorts of identities, not necessarily those of career women! 

Most poignantly and forcefully captured in her opening poem, 'A Woman I Once Knew', are lines for a domestic who worked in her home. 

"Woman, an ordinary woman

Who cooked food for others, washed their clothes, 

Scrubbed pots and pans had a child, 

Fatherless, who wore other people's outgrown


Even her name, Alice, that all we

Knew of her, was not her own, 

To history she is anonymous, 

But to me who once knew her, 

She is Medea, she is Antigone." 

This celebration is followed by another poem, also about someone who served her family. 'The Garden Grows Darker' (for Mungo).

The lines of the verses refer to the tradition of a bygone age, where an ayah lulled a little child to sleep on her outstretched legs, with its head on a pillow at her feet? 

"I lie on her camboy-wrapped knees

My brain emptying its dreams

Into her body as she lulls me to sleep

On the mat-covered floor...

Lulled in the hammock of her body

"Feeling myself swing, swing within its

Fleece-wrapped cradle, seeking the warmth

Of her generous heart!" 

Years later, Jean went in search of Mungo, but her hut had vanished and so had she. 

There are poems in this book, of young girls being abused - In Child/Woman - Innocence I- we have these lines. 

"And you entered caves without windows of light 

Felt your flesh bruise, grow spoilt, corrupt

Your new sleep would never know those first

Dreams and the cool ferns are jagged

That notch the years so fast before your early death" 

The short poem 'Child/Woman Innocence II - ends with the lines: 

"Your lips are sweet fresh fruit

But how bitter is the juice that drips

From your wounded mouth" 

Poems dedicated to friends and others include those for Mali Cooke, Ingrid Squirrel, Parvati Homer Vanniasinkam, Emmeline Nona and her daughter, Beatrice; Kamala Vaithianandham and Jean's mother, Charlotte Grenier Jansz, for whom she recreates her Dutch heritage, in a bygone Christmas with her poem, Women's Narratives: 

"A huge copper pan set on the jakwood dining 

Table, in which to stir that mixture, 

The amalgam of a bloodline redolent with 

Indigenous flavours, preserves, spices

And dried fruit from colonial, orchards...

"Remember, the whole house then, fragrant with 

Decantered memories, the claret cups 

Filled to brimming as the guests gathered round

For singsongs, endless toasts and echoes

Striking the glass, 'One for the road'...", 

Tea with Mrs. L. captures the glory and agony of the migrants in their plush houses abroad: 

"We had only three pounds in our pockets

When we arrived from India

Now? Yes we are wealthy...

"My neighbour used to say

'Mrs. L why don't you go back

To your country?'...

'The husband comes in. Tired. With briefcase

Bows, his smile is sad

Caught like fragile motes

In a shaft of sunlight...

"I listen my ears glued to the bird cage

Why, I feel pity 

We have everything but...

'Yes, Mrs. L?'

"We have lost our identity."

There is both drama and pathos in the poems of conflict - never - resolved between a traditional Tamil Hindu mother-in-law and her Burgher Christian daughter-in-law: 

"It's too late now, she will

Never know me, nor feel the rage of my tears

Course through in torrents...

Yet it will be my husband's duty

That of her youngest son, 

To light her funeral pyre, 

His heart the 'urn

That will forever bear her ashes." 

This book is vintage Arasanayagam. Its interior and exterior landscapes and pilgrimages are peopled with the ordinary and the extraordinary. 

The battle can be won

By Tania Fernando
They say that where there is life there is hope and there is hope for all - even for an alcoholic who has spent long years desperately seeking a way out of an addiction that strips away, not just his Imageself-esteem, but ruins his relationships with family, friends and - his life.

Why do people become addicted to alcohol? Those who have been down that rocky road to alcohol addiction will tell you there is no single reason why anyone turns to drink. For some it's peer pressure. For others it may be the demands of their job. Others will say it just happened. 

Still, there are others who do have a 'social' drink and claim that they will never be alcoholics because they 'know their limits'. But they might be treading a thin line to disaster, for want of the strength to say 'no'.

Alcoholics' Anonymous (AA), an organisation with many branches the world over, has for many years been helping those who finally face up to the fact that they do have a serious problem by providing them with counselling and support to overcome their addiction.

Lal, (name changed) a father of two who started drinking from the time he was 18-years-old says that since his father and brother both regularly took alcohol, he thought that it was only natural that he should do the same. "As far as I was concerned an alcoholic was a person who drank and fell on the road," he said. With time his need for a drink grew insidiously and his life began to fall apart. His addiction saw him fritter away all his money. He finally lost his job and was reduced to living in a hut. With great regret, he recalls that his craving for alcohol was so intense that one day when he had no money, he even sold the only bed they were left with - the one his children slept on - for a paltry Rs. 150, just so that he could buy himself another drink.

"It starts eating into you, it leaves you with no self-respect, no family and no friends," he says. "When I was sober I would hallucinate that people were trying to kill me. Once I even tried to kill myself, but luckily someone saw me in time and stopped me."

Lal's wife had to finally go overseas in order to earn money for the family.

Ten years ago he finally realized that his addiction had to come to an end as it was destroying his life. Having heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, he made the decision to seek their help. He feels that it's the strength he got from them that has helped him to survive. Although he still has no permanent job, he is a lot happier.

"I still feel like drinking when I see a bottle, but I am scared that I will not be able to stop if I do start, so I avoid it," he said.

Lal's story is no different from that of many young men who have unwittingly been led to addiction. One leads to another and another, till one day they wake up and realize that they need the drink to keep them going.

This is not to say that everyone who does have a social drink is an alcoholic. According to members of AA, an alcoholic is someone who has let his drinking disrupt his family life, job and wallet.

Rohan (name changed) is what AA calls a 'slip'. He says that although he wants to have a happy family life, his greed for alcohol overrides all else. He has joined AA at least six times, but when faced with a drink, his resolve fails him.

"I find that I have more strength after a drink and can face any situation, but when I am sober I seem to be so weak." 

For the most part, admitting that one does have a problem takes a lot of courage. The first thing people with a serious drink dependency problems have to do when they come for an AA meeting is to say "I am an alcoholic". Most don't want to accept that they have a problem.

Further, most men don't realise the trauma they subject their family members to. For Mali, recalling the years of her husband being an alcoholic brought tears to her eyes. She recalled the humiliation of seeing him drunk on the road. "He would say that he was going to work but go elsewhere," she says. It was like hell living with him and the physical abuse was terrible, she recalls with a shudder. But one day on his own, he had told her that he wanted to stop drinking. "We still do have problems, but now he is more in control and we can sort out our difficulties amicably," she said.

Alcoholism is a disease. The recovery process is long and painful. All those in AA have no long term plan even though they have been sober for many years. Their battle is to stay sober for the next 24 hours.
The Alcoholics' Anonymous support services can be reached at the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Colombo 3, Fatima Church, Deans Road, St. Anthony's Church, Mt. Lavinia, Community Centre, Nugegoda, Al-Ano Treatment Centre, Wennapuwa and the Kandy City Mission. 

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