Pondering family, community and history in Sri Lanka

Written by Mia Partridge

 

In December 2016, my family and I finally went on a trip that we had been planning for years. We visited Sri Lanka, the beautiful country where my father was born and spent the first years of his life. His father had moved from England to Sri Lanka to manage a tea plantation, and his mother’s family had been part of the Dutch colonial community since 1747.

 

Whilst in Sri Lanka, we met my father’s second cousin, who lives there with his family. We spoke to Dominic Sansoni a great deal about our mutual relations and his amazing project, the Ceylon Memory Project. This is an online photographic archive of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which consists of family albums dating from 1972. Hearing about this project, paired with my father’s nostalgia as we travelled around the country where he was born, made me question how I see myself and my ‘community’.

 

Considering that my family and the people in my life can be classed as my community, I was struck by the question: how do ancestors fit into this? My family, from 1747 right up until my father, have lived in Sri Lanka. Yet, I hardly know anything about the place, nor do I feel any particularly strong connection to it. Of course, I was mesmerised by the country itself, the awe-inspiring landscape and nature, the friendly and welcoming attitude of the people, the delicious food – but I did not feel any deep stirring in my soul or any feeling of belonging or of being at home. Yes, this is understandable as I had never been there before, but I cannot help but feel a little disappointed. For hundreds of years, half of my family have lived diverse and dynamic lives in Sri Lanka, and here I am, in 2017, 330 years later, and I know nothing about them or the country they called home.

 

Tracking family history has certainly enjoyed a recent surge of popularity since archives and records have become so readily available online. Recently, I was on a train journey and a fellow passenger gave me a lecture for half an hour about the importance of learning about one’s family history – indeed he had a good point; do we not all have a duty to learn about those to whom we owe our existence? Many people today are afraid of being forgotten after death, and although things will be very different for us because of the internet and social media, the fear of temporariness has surely always been ingrained in human nature. Perhaps this extends to my ancestors – I am sure this is why Dominic has put together his archive, before all the memories and photographs turn to dust. As humans, we are plagued with a key existential question: are we just random individuals passing through time and space? This makes us question how far our communities matter. Do they only last a generation or so? Can we be a part of them and not even know it?

 

Looking through the Ceylon Memory Project online, I stumbled across a few photos of relatives I had only ever heard about. As I scarily recognise some physical resemblance, I wonder in what other ways we may be similar. Perhaps my sense of humour is similar to that of my great grandfather’s? Perhaps I have the same twinkle in my eye that I can see so clearly displayed in a photo of my great grandmother taken in 1947? Surely, I have inherited aspects from countless individuals in the past. They have shaped me in ways that I cannot ever know, yet that does not belittle their significance. Equally, although at this point in my life, I do not know as much about my family history in Sri Lanka as I would like, that does not mean that it is not a huge part of who I am. It seems that I need to extend my narrow sense of community that is stuck in the present and expressed through social media – beyond what is immediately available and known to me – and instead enjoy discovering that I am part of a far bigger and more personal community that spans time and space.

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