By Prof. Yasmine Gooneratne
Writing a family history is a formidable undertaking. When Rajiva asked me to say a few words on the occasion of the launching of his book, I am amazed now at the light-hearted way in which I accepted his invitation. I was recalling, I think, the playful spirit in which I started writing a book about my own family in 1980, and I had quite forgotten the hard labour that occupied the five and a half years which passed before Relative Merits appeared in print in 1986.
Rajiva, who is, as you know, an erudite, sensitive and extremely hardworking teacher of literature, tells me that Relative Merits established a ‘genre’. Such a statement, coming from a person trained to make careful literary judgments, seems to indicate that in many places in this land, there must be people beavering away at putting on record the stories of their own families.
Well, good luck to them, I say. I had no intention of establishing any kind of genre. But, given the deep interest most Sri Lankans take in hunting out and talking about their own ancestries – not to mention hunting out and talking about the ancestries of others, especially of people they don’t like very much –it is more than likely that there are numerous people here this evening who are engaged in biographical writing of one kind and another.
I would therefore like to give you some idea of what is involved in writing a family history. And also, perhaps, some insight into what writing this book must have involved for Rajiva.