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.

No comments:

Post a Comment