Friday, December 24, 2010

Not a historian

One of the things I have in common with my grandfather is that we are not historians.  This is a disadvantage to me in writing this part of the blog, and it was a disadvantage to my grandfather in preparing the material for his pamphlet "Race Antagonism in Christian Missions".  However, the primary purpose of neither of us was to enlighten readers on the truth of some aspects of the past.  Mine, I suppose, is to find out, chiefly for myself, what makes me (feebly, unreliably) tick.  My grandfather's--well, here I shall just reproduce the first two paragraphs of his pamphlet referred to above.
"It is by no means a simple or pleasant task for one to put before the world the facts connected with his
 own marriage.  Yet, in the interests of truth I believe such is my duty as the facts relating to my inter-  
 national marriage reveal an alarming state of affairs in Mission Circles [his capitals], a revelation
which ought to lead all lovers of truth to unite in prayer and work for a great revolution of missionary
 policy in the East.
      There are of course those who look upon international marriages as not merely unnecessary and
 unwise but as positively wrong and ruinous to society.  It is not the intention of the writer to discuss
 the propriety or impropriety, the advantages or disadvantages, the rightness or wrongness of
 international marriages.  But recognizing that international alliances do exist, it is proposed in
 chronicling the events connected with my own case, to examine some forms and phases of
 opposition and the causes thereof, as well as to show that the worst forms of racial antagonism
 are met within quarters where one would least expect them."
Yes.  Before I go on I think I must find an alternative way of referring to my grandfather.  Oddly, my grandmother in her diary couldn't decide on what to call him--sometimes Chris (short for Christmas) and sometimes Kanaga (more often K.).  I was mildly tempted to call him, by expanding his initials S.C.K.R., "The Sucker" but that doesn't really seem appropriate to the man, always formidable despite many lapses.  So I shall call him Samuel, as his parents surely did, surely also knowing that Hannah, wife of Elkanah of Ramathaim-zophim, chose the name for her long-prayed for son because it meant "asked of God".
Samuel, then, earns some good marks as a historian in the ensuing pages by letting his enemies speak for themselves at considerable length.  Here is an example, from two sisters, the Misses Leitch, who had themselves worked in Jaffna from 1880-6 and then, on their return to the USA, performed such prodigies of fund-raising as to achieve for themselves overwhelming prestige in what Samuel called 'Mission Circles".  They addressed this letter in mid-1897 to Mary Irwin after hearing of an engagement between her and Samuel.  It is a long letter, and for the moment I will content myself with quoting a single paragraph:
"It is true that Mr Rutnam is somewhat light complectioned (sic).  But many of his relatives are very
dark and some of his children might be almost black.  And what about the laws of heredity?  Would it
not be reasonable to expect that the Hindoo traits of deceit, falsehood, in short moral crookedness
would appear in his children?
On 6 June 1906, Mary wrote in her diary:  "Chris said last night, the Eastern people had 'finer feelings' than the Western.  I wonder whether he thought that because I am Western I must consequently be stony-hearted and not feel the sting of deceitful and faithless conduct.  I think we of the West are trained to a finer perception of right and wrong and have more acute feelings than the phlegmatic East."

Monday, December 6, 2010

Guilt and Shame

These three words do not, in the present context, summarize my life but my feelings today, when I think of having started this blog chiefly in response to my friend Jon's curiosity about my family, without reading a publication, already in my possession, called "Race Antagonism in Christian Missions" of which my grandfather claimed authorship, though a few pages were written by my grandmother.  I was unaware of the existence of this pamphlet till three or four months ago, when there arrived in Colombo a new Canadian High Commissioner with an energetic wife who discovered that there had been a fellow graduate of the University of Toronto who had led a life of notable philanthropic activity in the island called, in her lifetime, Ceylon.  Ingrid Knutson felt that her ignorance about Mary Irwin Rutnam was a fault to be remedied as soon as possible, and invoked the aid not only of myself and my two cousins still resident in Colombo but of the eminent social historian Dr Kumari Jayawardena, who in 1993 had published, with Canadian funding and under the auspices of the Social Scientists' Association of Sri Lanka, a short biography of  "Dr Mary Rutnam--a Canadian pioneer for Women's Rights in Sri Lanka".  The interest Dr Jayawardena felt in my grandmother (with whom she herself had been personally acquainted in her youth) had led her, a few years later, to pounce on this little pamphlet, and cause it to be republished in 2000, again via the S.S.A.S.L.

My grandfather's name appears as that of the author, but in fact the last eleven of the fifty-two pages were written by my grandmother.  The original publication was a round in a battle that was raging in some sections of the press (especially the evangelical Christian section of it) about my grandparents' marriage, and may be said to represent my grandfather's "case" against the relevant ecclesiastical institutions.  It seems to me that neither of my grandparents' statements would quite satisfy a probing cross-examination, intent on finding inconsistencies or at least lacunae, but then why should they?  Even in 1899 marriage was not a crime.  It is quite clear however that for many of these Christian missionaries marriage between a Ceylonese and a Canadian was a hideous moral offence.

My own guilt is certainly of lesser magnitude, but if I had read through these fifty-two pages earlier I would have avoided, for instance, the error of saying that my grandparents married in 1897.  It was, I learned today, on the 16th July 1896, that two New York clergymen, one Congregationalist and one Episcopalian, performed a 15-minute ceremony which was later to provide Mary's employer with an excuse to dismiss her.  My grandfather, without going into detail, makes it clear that the ceremony was not followed by consummation, and indeed both the parties to the transaction refer to it variously as their 'engagement' and their 'marriage' in subsequent pages.  "We looked forward," my grandfather writes, "to a repetition of the ceremony in Ceylon five years later when, and when only, Dr Irwin would change her name and we would become man and wife".

Friday, December 3, 2010

My grandfather and the Raj

My grandfather was a school principal in India when British politics impinged on his life.  Mr. Gladstone, returned to Downing Street for the fourth time in 1892, felt obliged to answer criticisms from idealists, his natural constituency, of Britain's supposedly lucrative participation in the supply of opium to China.  I have been happy to read that Belgaum, now in the southern Karnataka state of India over the constant protests of neighbouring Maharashtra, has a cool equable climate but presumably being a headmaster of a mission school there did not afford S.C.K. Rutnam enough outlet for his energies.  When Lord Brassey, the previous high point of whose life had probably been his hosting of Mr and Mrs Gladstone on his yacht for a lengthy cruise of the Mediterranean, arrived in India to chair the Royal Commission of Enquiry one of the witnesses who strove to enlighten him on the unpleasant realities of the opium trade was my grandfather.  I have read some examples of my grandfather's prose and can well imagine that his evidence was delivered with power and pathos.  Certainly he attracted some international attention.

Among the ears pricked up were the pretty ones of Lady Henry Somerset.  The story of how this beautiful and characterful daughter of an earl found herself diverted from the normal pursuits of a married woman in the highest society and forced to find satisfaction in public service can be found, in outline, in Quentin Bell's life of his aunt Virginia Woolf, for Lady Henry, like Virginia Woolf, was a descendant of Mrs James Wilson Pattle, wife of a Bengal civil servant and mother of seven daughters so beautiful that even their mother's questionable racial purity  could not prevent them from finding husbands, some of them in the nobility.  I am happy to find that William Dalrymple, the informative and entertaining historian of India, shares this Pattle ancestry, and of course claim him as well as Mrs Woolf as honorary cousins.

Anyway, Lady Henry Somerset caused Rutnam to visit both Britain and the USA as a lecturer on the opium trade.  In the latter country he stayed on after his tour to obtain a Master's degree at Princeton, as I have said before, and in 1897 was in New York when he was asked to give a crash course in Tamil language and culture to Dr Mary Irwin, a 24-year old medical graduate of the University of Toronto who had signed on with a mission which operated a well-known private hospital in Manipay, not far from Jaffna.  Three or four weeks later they were married.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Fathers, sons and names

My great-grandfather seems to have regarded the surname he took for himself as personal, embodying his special experience with Christ.  None of his three sons was given Christmas as a surname--the eldest was something Christmas Gunaratnam (this great-uncle of mine, and his descendants so far as I know, stayed in Jaffna and was not in contact with any of my relatives known to me) ;  the second, my grandfather, was Samuel Christmas Kanagaratnam;  the third Joseph Christmas Vijayaratnam.  For any readers whose Sanskrit is rusty I should explain that Rutnam or Ratnam means 'jewel'.  So Gunaratnam means 'jewel of virtue';  Kanagaratnam 'jewel of leadership' and Vijayaratnam 'jewel of victory'.  All three are unremarkable as Tamil surnames.  However, my grandfather's wishes did not accord with those of his father.   As I have mentioned, I knew nothing of my grandfather's elder brother, not even his existence, until in the late 1960s I noticed an obituary notice of a Jaffna resident called Samuel Christmas Gunaratnam.  Within a month of this I met a Jaffna gentleman who, when I mentioned this, told me that the dead man had been my father's first cousin.  In 1992 on a visit to Colombo a second cousin of mine, grandson of S.C.K. Rutnam's sister, provided me with a family tree showing, I believe, all the descendants of the Rev. J.S. Christmas.  I cannot lay my hands on this document but cherish the hope that it will turn up one day soon.

As I say, I know nothing of Christmas Gunaratnam but the two younger brothers were university graduates--I must not forget to include the priceless information that my great-grandmother, whose name I only know as Julia, had at the age of seventeen written a history of the world which was used as a textbook in Jaffna schools.  My grandfather took his first degree in South India and then, thanks no doubt to the Presbyterian connection, a Master's degree in either logic or mathematics at Princeton.  He emerged from his stay in the USA with a conviction that polysyllabic surnames were un-modern.  He not only suppressed Kanaga as part of his own surname but prevailed upon his younger brother to do likewise, making Vijaya an additional given name and Rutnam the whole surname.  My grandfather's choice of the letter "u" in spelling his new surname reflects a conscious Westernisation--the first syllable in Tamil is, though stressed, an indeterminate vowel sound best rendered into English as "uh".   Both brothers, however, lived most of their lives in the Sinhalese-speaking southern part of the island, where the first syllable would naturally have been pronounced like "u" in "but".

My grandfather was to return to the USA, with momentous results, but for some years he functioned as principal of a Christian mission school in India.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Wrong title?

Anachronisms, I suppose, are a special variety of anomalies, and if so I could have called these "anomaly memoirs".  In my intro I referred to the vitalizing effects on my life of Bach, Haydn and Dickens.  But I was born in Asia.  Of course, like hundreds of millions of others, I was born in a British part of Asia.  I can still remember that after every film I saw before 1948 (when Ceylon became independent) the British National Anthem was played while on the screen was a photograph of King George VI in the uniform of, I believe, an Admiral of the Fleet. Not even then, at 5 or 6, did I find the monarch's countenance inspiring but I did think the blue of his uniform rather especially beautiful.

Furthermore, again far from uniquely, my family was one that thought in English.  My sisters and I were indeed bilingual, because our household servants did not speak English, but there wasn't the faintest doubt in our minds that English was our real language. Except for school text books, my parents never bought any books for us that weren't in English, nor would we have considered giving presents of Sinhalese or Tamil books to any of our friends.  One additionally anomalous aspect of our family, however, was that my father was not a brown-skinned Englishman as were, in a relaxed kind of way,  most of his friends and acquaintances, but a brown-skinned American.  How and why he became one is, I think, an interesting tale and goes back, perhaps to his grandfather.  I only know (at present) of my great-grandfather as the Reverend Joseph Seth Christmas, but he was born a Hindu Tamil with a different name, almost certainly a polysyllabic one.  

In the 1860s American Protestant missionaries were accomplishing many conversions from Hinduism in the area of Jaffna in northern Ceylon where my great-grandfather lived--one important factor in this was the excellent education in English available in their schools.  This phenomenon aroused my great-grandfather's deepest ire, and he was especially enraged by one particular conversion, of a close friend or kinsman.  He decided to lie in wait for this young man as he returned home after his baptism and chastise him severely for his backsliding.  However, his ambush was a literal, physical bush and he was staggered by the apparition of a face and voice in the bush. The apparition introduced himself as Jesus Christ and said, with authority, that the new Christian had found the way of truth and that my great-grandfather would do best to follow him rather than remain in his primal darkness.  So impressed was he that he not only converted to Christianity but was ordained a Presbyterian clergyman.  Like most other Tamil converts he shed his original name (which I am now trying to discover, rather pessimistic about success) but showed a certain nonconformism in not taking the surname of the clergyman who baptized him.  He was Christ's convert not that of any earthling.  So he became Joseph Seth Christmas--Joseph Seth, the family believed, was the name of his baptizer but an acquaintance who has recently been researching the American missions in Jaffna has failed to find any American clergymen of that name.  The alternative explanations are (1) that he selected the names of Joseph and Seth, perhaps from the Bible;  and (2) he received his baptism in South India, easily reachable from Jaffna.

Monday, November 8, 2010


I've used a mobile phone twice, very gingerly.  I get dizzy at the thought of what I could do with an I-Pad.  Why am I still around?

There are a couple of reasons.  In recent weeks I've listened with keen delight to music by Bach and Haydn--neither of whom seemed to spark any fires before.  Then I have responded similarly to Dickens' Little Dorrit--definitely never read before.  Bach died in 1750, Haydn in 1809, Dickens in 1870.  Why are they sparking me now?  The last novel I read before Dickens was Martin Amis' House of Meetings which I am fairly sure was published in the 21st century, but though I did admire it, I felt none of the frissons which the older works stimulated, and it didn't give me that glow of life being, after all, worth the effort.

This being so, I feel it somehow fitting that the land of my birth is no longer to be found on any recent map of the world.  I was born in 1940 in Ceylon.  The geopolitical entity is now called Sri Lanka, the world in which my parents moved non-existent.  Some time in the late 1960s I was taken by an actor friend to visit Ceylon's best-known film director, Lester Peries.  The conversation drifted around to Turgenev's Fathers and Sons.  I said that though the novel was set in Russia in about 1862 it could easily have been in Ceylon in 1950, and Lester agreed, saying that in fact the idea of filming it had crossed his mind.

What am I to do in Australia in 2010?