A Good Story Will Be Told – even after 85 years

Every family has skeletons in the closet. Some members actively drag them out for catharsis and reconciliation– hence the proliferation of memoirs and autobiographies in the literary market today. Others try to bury them even deeper in the detritus of those closets, leading to pretence, guilt, and unhappy lives.

Titled “Sins of the Father,” I chose to write the story of my grandfather, Henry, warts and all, based on the anecdotes my grandmother, Nanna, told me at night when we lay down to sleep in our old home in Nawala. She shared my bedroom after coming to live with us during the last seven years of her life. From her, I learned old Burgher-isms such as “I always clean my backside when I have a ball” (I clean my backyard when I have a party), “My backside tap is leaking” (the tap in my backyard is leaking), and “Border catch and go, child” (hold onto the banister when descending stairs). I also learned about Grandpa Henry.

Henry died of a heart attack in 1938 at the age of thirty-seven when my father was only seven, and Nanna was pregnant with her fifth child. Dad had vague memories of his father: a dandy, who played billiards, sold life insurance (but who never took out a policy on himself), and lived for many years in Singapore while his growing family expanded in Ceylon. After all, Singapore and Ceylon were like Winnipeg and Toronto in those days, both in the same colonial empire, no passport or visa needed to travel between them; not much need for keeping birth records either, we soon found out.

Henry had no relatives. No one from his side of the family showed up at his wedding, and Nanna never inquired, being the dutiful wife. And he always provided for his family. When Henry died, no one showed up at his funeral either, except for a woman in a saree, who looked like a servant, and who kept crying “Magey putha, magey putha!” (My son, my son!). Apparently, my outraged, pure-blooded Burgher uncles and aunts on Nanna’s side of the house had sprung up from their mourning and bundled the poor woman into a taxi, packing her off, never to be seen again.

“I think she was his mother,” Nanna told me bluntly one night, making me jump up in bed. “How do you know?” I asked in a panic. How could we have mixed blood in this otherwise “pure Burgher” family? Think of the shame – at least that is how I thought back then, raised in a country where skin colour mattered. Even the Sinhalese majority graded superiority by how light a person’s skin was.

“I know,” Nanna said. “Whenever we went for groceries, he would buy a large parcel of food for us and a smaller one that he would drop off somewhere in Kochchikade, he said, on Sundays. At first, I thought he had a mistress. But he was too honest for that. A wife knows.”

Nanna’s theory was that Henry was a love child of a prominent doctor and his housemaid. The doctor had paid for his “mistake” by taking care of Henry’s education and board from the sidelines, without revealing his identity, as he had his own “legitimate family” to think of. But taking care of material needs ignores the psychological ones, and they creep down the generations. Then Nanna too died, and her secret was locked with me; no one else in my family knew about it, including my father.

When the Burghers were mounting a big exhibition of the VOC (Dutch East India Company) heritage in Melbourne, Australia that was to subsequently tour other Burgher enclaves such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Ceylon (now renamed Sri Lanka) and finally wind up as a permanent exhibit in Holland, I was asked to submit a story about my family heritage. As I couldn’t trace Henry’s antecedents beyond him, I submitted a story about Henry himself, captured on the last day of his life as recounted by Nanna and lightly embellished by me for dramatic impact. I never heard back from the Burgher Exhibition – I guess my story was not promotional of our illustrious European heritage, but scandalous instead. I then sent the story to my relatives around the world. I was met with silence in some quarters and derision in others – how dare I let the cat out of the bag if indeed there was a cat? I then read the story to Dad who was nearly blind and entering the last stage of his life. At the end of my reading, he had tears in his rheumy eyes. “Publish it!” he roared. He was a man of few words. That’s all the permission I needed.

One thing I took away from Henry’s story is that although we are the products of our fathers’ loins, we are not guilty of their sins. Therefore, those who are prone to piling guilt on the present generation for the sins of their ancestral, colonial past, take heed. Furthermore, pedigree is subject to favourable winds blowing for several generations over which wealth and prestige accrete; one shift in the currents and the ride ends – just ask the Romanovs of Russia or the Rajapaksas of Sri Lanka.

Now, I’m happy to say that ten years to the time of writing Henry’s story and 85 years after his death, “Sins of the Father” finally came out this Christmas in Thirty Evocative Recollections: 2024 Edition, an anthology published out of the UK. It goes to show—you can’t keep a good story down!

I hope Henry is smiling…

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