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?