Jean Arasanayagam is a Sri Lankan poetess. Most of her poems are based on her own socioeconomic background. Jean Arasanayagam who is considered one of the leading Asian poets has written many poems on various issues; ethnic conflict, 83 riots, customs, etc.
In her poem “Wedding Photographs” the poetess talks about practices related to marriage among the upper class Tamils. The poem takes the form of a dialogue between two women; a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law. The daughter-in-law wants to see a wedding photograph of her mother-in-law’s wedding.
“Have you any wedding photographs,” I ask achchi,
“No nothing,” answer my mother-in-law,
The older woman’s reply is that there aren’t any as the marriage had taken place “over a half century ago”. But that does not keep the naturally imaginative voice from imagining what it would have been like. In her mind’s eye she sees her thirty-six-year-old father-in-law and his wife sitting on a “velvet-covered divan”. Above them she sees a “flower bedecked manaverrai”. Her mother-in-law’s fragile neck is “weighed down by that thali of twenty gold sovereigns.” Thali is the symbol of marriage. The young girl of sixteen could be feeling oppressed by the responsibilities thrust upon her by her new status as a married woman. Yet, it must be noted that sixteen was considered a good marriageable age for girls in the early 1900s as the life expectancy was low and girls were not preoccupied with studies and careers. However, the narrator looking at her mother-in-low from a modern feminist point of view sees her as exploited and abused woman forced into marriage at a very young age. She seems to pity her mother-in-law.
So fragile, weighed down by that thali of twenty
In the next stanza the poetess takes the reader to the very end of her mother-in-law’s marriage life. With the death of “Pata” the mother-in-law loses the right to sleep in her marriage bed. The reader is compelled to ask what else she had lost or forced to give up as a widow. Hindu families are strongly patriarchal. A widow is an ill omen and as a result loses many of the privileges a married woman enjoys.
That marriage bed, once strewn with flowers
Vacated by Pata’s death, the bed dismantled,
Cast aside, its purpose over.
The act of dismantling of bed and casting it aside has a very significant symbolic value.
Immediately, the 4th stanza takes the reader to the morning after the day of the marriage. The poetess visualizes her mother-in-law, still in her wedding finery, walking in the garden of her new home. Morning is the time if rebirth and new beginnings. Her loose hair implies her passage into womanhood. One is forced to question whether the new bride had felt like the jasmines on her hair, crushed, no longer fresh. But it must be noted that crushed jasmines still give out a unique fragrance.
What the older woman mutters to herself has a note of monotony found in often-repeated words – “Now I am a woman I will carry on the sacred traditions. Worship the gods and goddesses at my shrine bring forth sons and daughters.” They could be words uttered by her mother as a piece of advice. Jean wonders whether her mother-in-law regretted the loss of her childhood. Once again the readers are taken to the present. The two women are seen sitting face-to-face “musing over each other’s lives”. In her mind they see old feet walking among the remains of their ruined house. They were no longer young and are thinking about the passage of time and individual losses. One may ask whether the ruined house was a metaphor for the lives of the two women.
In the last stanza the mother-in-law summarizes her life as a married woman. She has led an affluent life. Her whole life as a married woman had been spent being a proper married woman.
I lacked nothing, I followed the sacred rituals,
Walked round the yaham with everlasting
Flame, I remained faithful unto death to Pata,
He was handsome with his milk white skin
And slender limbs, I was so young,
He was twenty years older.
Her husband is dead, the woman continue to follow the same traditions she had followed for a greater part of her life.
It is rather a long poem with long uneven lines and stanzas. The poet uses terms of the Tamil language. It adds a sense of authenticity to the poem. Her use of the flashback and flash forward techniques allows her to be quite economical with words. Jean Arasanayagam uses many symbols such as crushed jasmine, thali, toe-rings, dismantled marriage bed, ruined house, etc. to discuss different stages and important events of the woman’s life. the use of dialogues adds a dramatic quality to the poem.