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.

1 comment:

  1. The name "corundum" is derived from the Tamil word குருந்தம் "kuruntam" meaning "ruby", itself derived from the Sanskrit "kuruvinda".