The nice Burgher girl

Writer Jean Arasanayagam reflects on her Burgher identity, her experience of 1983 — “the watershed” moment in her life— and what it’s like being married to a Jaffna man. Photography by Kannan Arunasalam and Menika van der Poorten.

Join the discussion: 12 comments

  • Kannan Arunasalam says:

    Everyone in the household came out to meet us on the veranda of their home on the Peredeniya Road in Kandy. Jean lived with her husband Arasa, their second daughter, Parvathi, and two excitable dogs. For a while it was a little chaotic as introductions were drowned out by the incessant barking. The key, Jean told us, was to sit down and remain seated otherwise the dogs would start up again. It was going to be a challenge to capture this interview I thought.

    I hadn’t met Jean before, but we later discovered that we were both at the same funeral in Jaffna in 1979. I was just 6 years old and that would have been my last month in Sri Lanka. My father had come from England to attend his sister’s funeral and then take my brother and I back to England with him. Jean knew my aunt and uncle well from their days at Peredeniya University. Kandy had been a big influence on my “Kandy mama” and mami.

    Eventually the dogs quietened down. Concerned they might get provoked again, I wanted to get straight into the interview with Jean. But Jean insisted on feeding us first. We were served cucumber sandwiches and afternoon tea. It was all part of the Burgher hospitality that I’d hear more about during the course of our conversation.

    Like most artists’ homes, Jean’s work was scattered all around the front room. Everywhere you turned there were drawings and a great many of her books.  Jean said she had started to paint again and was keen to show me some of her drawings. I particularly liked one self-portrait she had done. Her early inspiration for her work were the murals and frescoes around the Kandyan devalas. But the family’s experiences of the troubles of 1983 and Arasa’s reflections about his hometown of Jaffna inspired much of her writing. As we talked, Arasa filled in the gaps when Jean struggled to remember a date or a name of a character in her stories of “facing the mob” or the “unknown world of the refugee camp”. She said she would not have been a whole person without these experiences, however terrible.

    Despite having many cultural experiences through a father who had entertained all communities in their house, she felt she had been compartmentalised, largely because of Jean’s marriage to a man from Jaffna, however atypical a Tamil he was. She had even been branded a Tamil terrorist by a principal at one of the schools she taught at.

    At the end of our interview, Jean wrote a message in a book of poetry. One of the poems was about my aunt. I was going to be meeting my cousins at a family wedding in London and Jean wanted me to pass the book on to them. They had left Sri Lanka during the 1980s. Although many Burghers had left Sri Lanka much earlier, after the Sinhala Only laws of 1956, Jean remained in Sri Lanka. Even after threats of violence close up during 1983, the couple refused to leave their hometown. I wanted to know why.

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  • Sandy Austin says:

    Thank you for this article, but what is Jean’s maiden name?
    I am a Dutch Burgher born in Colombo, Ceylon.

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  • Nancy Fernando says:

    I sometimes feel I have walked into the privacy of someone’s home when I read some of these articles. I enjoyed this story though.

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  • Jennifer de Silva (Pereira) says:

    Thanks for this. Jean is related to me through my grandfather – her paternal great-grandmother and my grandfather are siblings.

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  • ranmalee perera says:

    Jean is my grandmother Lilian’s friend, actually one of her very good friends. They got to know each other when they were young women and continued their friendship even after Thathi Mamma migrated to Australia. My thathi mamma is now in a home for those suffering from memory loss. I remember when we used to visit Jean when I was a little girl, when I lived in Sri Lanka. Thank you for the memories.

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  • Shamil Ranasinghe says:

    Jean and her husband are very close family friends of ours. Aunty Jean is always a character and I used to love going to her home and I can vouch for the “Jean’s work was scattered around” :) My mom is the same way. I wonder who the principal was who branded her a terrorist. I’m sure Aunty Jean didn’t keep quiet though! :) Anyway these are the faces of Kandy, no doubt about that.

    Warm regards to Aunty Jean, from Shamil Ranasinghe (son of late Mr. Eric Ranasinghe and Chitra Ranasinghe).

    Reply
  • (@iam_project) (@iam_project) says:

    To mark the anniversary of Black July listen to Jean Arasanayagam: “Then I knew what fear was. What alienation was” http://t.co/xuyAJAdw

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  • jkanakaratnam says:

    Jean is my grandmother’s cousin.

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  • Jerry Peck says:

    Beautiful, beautiful piece describing a part of our heritage that only writing like this can preserve in time to come.

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  • geoffrey moreira says:

    So true. wonderful memories, sadly Sri Lankans adopt the Western attitude of “no time “. That’s why we long for the good ol’ days of Ceylon.

    Reply

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