What is the meaning of the poem "Self-Portrait," by A.K. Ramanujan?

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belarafon | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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"Self-Portrait" is a short poem by A.K. Ramanujan, a well-known Indian poet and writer.

by A.K. Ramanujan

I resemble everyone
but myself, and sometimes see
in shop-windows
despite the well-known laws
of optics,
the portrait of a stranger,
date unknown,
often signed in a corner
by my father.

This poem is about identity, specifically the identity of a son to his father. It is commonly stated that we all grow up to be our parents, and in this case, the narrator can see only others in himself. His personal identity is vague and unformed; when he catches a glimpse of himself in a window, the first thing he sees is a stranger as "painted," or created, by his father.

The suggestion of parent as artist is derived from genetics; the child contains genetic information from both parents, and a son is more likely to resemble the father. The "stranger" in the window is not an explicit replica of the father, but instead a separate person with no origin -- "date unknown." However, the portrait is signed, showing the son's heritage; although his identity is uncertain, his ancestry is not.

The reference to "the well-known laws / of optics" shows that the son is well aware that his vision is being tricked by circumstance, and yet he cannot be anything but aware of his identity crisis. The stranger in the window is himself, but looks more like others: his father, his friends, people with whom he identifies, and perhaps people with whom he doesn't want to identify. The lack of focus in his own life is reflected in the window: "the portrait of a stranger," and he cannot relate to the reflection.