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.
Hunting of any kind is detective work, and readers of crime fiction know that the first thing a detective must do is to list the names of the principal suspects. Sir Peter Wimsey does it in the novels of Dorothy Sayers, Hercule Poirot does it in Agatha Christie’s books.
Accordingly, Part 1 of The Moonemalle Inheritance gives us the names and backgrounds of several families connected with the ‘Old Place’, a walauwa built in Kurunegala during Queen Victoria’s reign by Edward Gregory Gunawardena, an enterprising young lawyer from Galle. Gunawardenes, Moonemalles, Hulugalles, Wickremesinghes, Wijesinhas – there was room in that spacious mansion for them all.
And that is saying a lot, for families were large in those days, possibly in imitation of the Queen herself, and the comforts of those families were attended to by an army of live-in retainers.
In dealing with numbers on such a scale, some organising principle is essential, and the traditional system, common to nations everywhere which own large and ancient families, is the Family Tree, on the trunk of which can be grafted slips from varied sources. When Rajiva prepares this book for the hard-cover publication such an important book deserves, I hope he will include a Tree that identifies the slips, and shows where and how they attached themselves to the main trunk.
That would certainly be a great help to the researcher who is not, as one might say, to the manor born. Such a researcher may find the connections between individuals and families obscure. A Family Tree also exercises a cautionary warning regarding the dangers to future generations of the continuous inter-marriage that has for so long been practised among landed families.
What are the clues to the mysteries of who was who, and what was what? A biographer will find them in a Family Tree. Our society is not only multi-ethnic and multi-religious, it is multi-layered. Imagine a cake such as the famous Bolo Folhado, which our first Western conquerors, the Portuguese, introduced to this country in the 16th century.
Now consider how closely our multi-layered society resembles that cake, in which pastry is alternated with fruit and sugar. Look at the Family Tree of any old Sinhalese family, and you are looking at over three centuries of social change, as the names of Portuguese fathers and godfathers give way in the 17th century to surnames such as Jansz and Jansen, Van Langenberg and Van Cuylenberg, prefaced by the Christian names of Dutchmen and Dutchwomen. These yield place in turn to the Jameses, Alberts, Stanleys, Alfreds, Georges and Percivals that were adopted in the 18th century as our families built up fortunes, entered the professions, and prospered under the Pax Britannica.
Finally, with independence in the 1940s, came the recollection of a Sinhalese/Buddhist past. ‘Louis’ transformed into ‘Lalita’, ‘Peter’ into ‘Piyasena’, ‘John’ into ‘Jayasena’, ‘Albert’ into ‘Ananda’.
If you want to trace your forbears, look at their names, and see them with fresh eyes, not just as beloved grandparents and honoured great-grandparents, but as flag-carriers of history.
Biographies, like novels, require memorable characters, and Part 2 of this book brings into view a remarkable personality who makes magic and weaves spells. I saw Ena Aluvihare first when, as a child of about six, I was taken by my parents to see a film, The Blue Bird of Happiness, at the Regal Cinema in Colombo. The foyer was crowded with people, and while we were queueing up for our tickets, there was a great buzz of talk – apparently someone special had just arrived, and was, at that moment, walking into the theatre.
My father lifted me on to a chair so that I could see what was going on. That was when I had my first glimpse of Rajiva’s aunt Ena. Her extraordinary beauty was already a legend; in her kingfisher-blue silk osariya, tall and slim, with her black hair in a knot, and a single black kiss-curl on her cheek, she was unforgettable. And I never did forget her.
For years Ena in her blue silk sari was remembered by me as an authentic symbol of beauty, truly a blue bird of happiness, and it is a special joy to me to be associated with a book that gives substance to that memory.
Ena de Silva appears in Part 2 of this book as a real-life wit and charmer. She is also a great traveller, constantly on the move to see new locations and meet new people. Channa Daswatte will speak of her artistic skills, her feeling for the handicrafts of the island’s village people, and her unique contribution to Sri Lanka’s developing ideas about furnishing and interior design.
And Ena appears again in Part 3, as a fictional character, the creation, partly, of her nephew’s imagination, and partly, of his political vision – though not, I was amused to find, of hers! For Rajiva has told me that his aunt Ena became extremely cross when she discovered that that ‘her’ fictional character (Phyllis) becomes in his book the wife of ‘Tom’, the novel’s fictional version of the late Mr J.R. Jayewardene.
That said, let us consider – as all detectives must do – the motive that inspires the writing of a biography. First and foremost is, I think, the wish to put things on record, and a useful exercise, preparatory to the writing of one’s own book, is to borrow or buy, but certainly to read the biographies written by others.
That is the quickest way to get to know what had been done, what is expected, what is acceptable to one’s contemporaries and prospective readers.
This, alas, can be a disappointing exercise in the Sri Lanka of today, in which most new biographies are ‘Lives’ of politicians. Although some of these people may be personally known to you, and some of them may be relatives or lifelong friends, you may find them unrecognisable in print.
The inconvenient wives of first marriages, for instance, have been known to be air-brushed out of existence, glaring political gaffes that are well-known to everyone have been omitted or glossed over, and haloes have been painted around the heads of every stumbling sinner.
There is, alas, no shortage of sycophantic literature around these days, and praise is lavished on public men by the writers of their lives, with an extravagance that beggars belief. What is the desire, the hope, that motivates the writing of such nonsense? Let’s not ask. The mindset of such writers has not changed in many years: it’s just got more firmly set and cemented.
A motive of an entirely different kind, and one with which I have every sympathy, is the one created by an author’s awareness that a valued way of life is passing, and by his wish to capture and explore it on the page before it vanishes for ever. Old houses fall into disrepair, old families scatter and dwindle, but the written word can hold them steady, and endow them with permanence for posterity.
Among the outstanding virtues of this book is the fact that, despite the political connections – and in some cases, eminence – of some of the people who inhabited the Moonemalle walauwa, Rajiva’s account of them stays scrupulously this side of idolatry. Not even when writing of Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, a person so much admired and honoured by others beside Rajiva himself, or of the enormously gifted Ena Aluwihare, clearly the heroine of this book, whose talents have become part of our own lives, does our author fall into the traps of sentimentality or sycophancy.
And although resentments and regret do occasionally pulse beneath the book’s civilised surface, the reader is left at the end with memorable impressions only, of affection and of love.