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

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belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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

Self-Portrait
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.

favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The speaker seems to be experiencing a loss or absence of personal identity.  He feels that he can only see the similarities that he shares with other people, and, despite the fact that his reflection in a shop window can only show him what is true, when he sees his reflection it seems as distant from him as a painting of a stranger.  That this portrait was painted by his father allows us to understand it as a metaphor for himself.  As himself, it ought to be familiar, but it is, instead, separate and strange: only linked to him by his father's name.

This poem is unusual because, often literary works focus on the presence of identity, a presence so strong that it causes conflict between the protagonist and his or her society or family, for example.  However, this poem portrays what it feels like to experience a lack of identity, when one doesn't seem to know or understand oneself at all.  Perhaps what this poem means, then, is that feeling that one lacks an identity is as painful or even more painful than feeling that one's identity conflicts with others'.  We learn that a lack of identity makes one feel as devoid of substance as a window's reflection.