A Window to the Past

By Niki

I recently returned from a family holiday in Sri Lanka. Actually in the calendar year of 2011, it was the 4th time that I had been in Sri Lanka, which is pretty remarkable. But then again it’s been a pretty groundbreaking 12 months for me. And that is in no small part related to my connection to Sri Lanka.

My interest and participation in peace-building and reconciliation work, which has really blossomed this year, has left me with a much deeper understanding of the many challenges and opportunities that Sri Lanka faces in its future. In one sense this heightened awareness and engagement has made me feel more truly Sri Lankan and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. But in all the emotional upheaval that it has caused over the past year (at times frustrating, at times heartbreaking, and at others immensely rewarding), I think I forgot slightly what Sri Lanka has always signified to me in the past: family.

So it was wonderful to catch up with all my family members on this recent visit, as they were all assembled from across the globe to celebrate a wedding. I can’t actually remember the last time we were all together like that.

But what brought our family even closer together was the discovery of an amazing collection of photographs and documents, spanning well over 50 years, carefully and painstakingly put together by my late grandmother. It was great to sit with my aunts, uncles and cousins and look through the photographs and hear them nostalgically recount tales about particularly amusing or joyous occasions from bygone years. The photographs, especially the black and white ones were so evocative of past eras, including the questionable fashion trends of the times!

1972 - 70s fashion at its finest!

But it was the letters that really moved me. There were letters from when my parents first moved to the UK 30 years ago (having never been on a plane before, having never been to a foreign country before!), and the stark culture shock of that move, with interesting comparisons to life back in Sri Lanka. There were letters from when my mum was struggling through a difficult pregnancy with my brothers and I. More emotional still, there were letters written by and about a grandfather I never really had a chance to know (whose sudden death when I was 2 left me with very few memories of him). But reading them was a way of getting to know him, all these years later.

And all of these my grandmother had lovingly and painstakingly preserved. It’s a little bit bittersweet really that it’s thanks to my grandma’s efforts that I have all this, but she’s not here to go through everything with me, she’ll never know how much I appreciate it. But as her 1 year death anniversary approaches in a few days, she is very much in my thoughts.

My grandparents share a moment in 1987.

Once I tell people about this, their immediate response is often to ask if I’m going to make a family tree with all of this information. But in all honesty that thought never really crossed my mind. I could map out the different blood ties that connect the different (and extensive branches) of my family, but that’s only the skeleton of a relationship. That would explain how we are all related to each other, biologically, but not how much they cared, how much they did for each other. These letters have shown me a deeper connection; the acts of kindness, the heartbreak, the affection that is the flesh and substance of a relationship.

A Family gathering in 1977.

Since the discovery of this treasure trove, I have been indulging in many a trip down memory lane, often dragging family members along too for the journey. But I think they enjoy the reminiscences. I have learnt so much about my family – it’s been amazing. Ironic really, since these are the people I should know best. It was like reading a novel, but a novel about everyone I know and love! I could just picture the events taking place, I could visualize the characters and almost hear them speaking the lines. Thanks to the photos, I didn’t even need to use my imagination. I already had the complete picture in my mind: I knew what everyone looked like (and what they wore!), and the settings where everything took place.

The letters were a window into the past. My history was literally in my hands, not just as a member of this family, but also as a Sri Lankan. Because those letters also told of Sri Lanka’s past, the lived history, how momentous events were experienced by my family members. And that is truly fascinating. For hindsight can often bring the benefit of a wider awareness, but on the other hand it obscures other details. There’s something to be said for the visceral experience of the moment; how events were seen in the present, how they were reported, and how it felt to live through them. And the letters are a powerful testimony to that. Their value is not just sentimental, but also sociological as documentary evidence of the past. You really get the sense of how life and society has changed even within the last few decades. And yet we never really stop to appreciate it.

Family 1962. My favourite picture from the hundreds i've looked through. The muted colours, the old car, the palm trees swaying in the background, this snapshot captures an informal family moment and with it evokes the spirit of a Sri Lanka of a different era.

This whole experience has made me grateful on many levels – to my late grandmother for preserving every photo, letter, and birthday card so diligently, so that I could rediscover them years later, and particularly to my parents, for doing so much, leaving their homes and families to come to the UK. I feel really lucky, for being able to grow up in the UK with all the comforts and advantages that entailed, but also to have a deep connection to Sri Lanka. I’m also appreciative of everyone who has shaped my life, before I even entered it: family members I never knew, and friends who did so much for my parents. I feel closer now to my family and to Sri Lanka than I ever have before.

It also made me a little sad to think that the art of letter-writing has really disappeared. These letters were amazing for their length, their descriptive detail and the emotion they conveyed. It’s a shame really, now we are privileged with so many different means of communication, and yet we don’t make the most of them. Or while we might communicate more frequently, it can sometimes be more superficial.

So that’s why I’m writing this blog post. I know many of the Geckos, as fellow 2nd generation Sri Lankans have similar histories to mine. I wanted to share my story, to urge others to find out theirs, to use these new communication technologies at our disposal to reach out and reconnect to family members and to our culture, before it’s too late. As the older generations leave this earth one by one, they will take with them an extraordinary wealth of knowledge and information, unless we can preserve it for the generations still to come. And if anyone has any technology that will help me in the mammoth task of archiving the thousands of letters and photographs I have now inherited, let me know!

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About geckosrilanka

Gecko Sri Lanka is a UK registered charity founded in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami by a group of second generation Sri Lankan students.
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5 Responses to A Window to the Past

  1. Rasieka Jayatunga says:

    Dear Niki, Well done for taking so much interest in these documents of a bygone era. Thank you for sorting them during my lifetime; something I regret I was unable to do with my mother. It also highlights to all of us that each generation of parents take so much effort and undergo so much personal hardships in order to carve a better lifestyle for their offspring. They have made far greater strides into unknown territories than most of you youngsters have as yet. This is no mean feat considering how reluctant the youth are to be outside their comfort zone. Yet each successive younger generation takes it for granted and do not always appreciate this; specially when the older generations are not as versatile with the most modern technology!

  2. Ajantha Jayatunga says:

    As usual very well written. I think you should send it to Raja Seeya who will appreciate this.

  3. Nilmini says:

    My favourite gecko post ever! I can’t stop looking at the photos! n.x

  4. Yas says:

    Excellent post. Insightful on so many levels.

  5. Pingback: Theatre Review: Looking For Kool | Gecko Sri Lanka

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