• Despite the many connections to my culture, forged at my father’s behest, I had very little insight into my familial history pre-1988. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
When my father passed away six years ago, I managed to learn more about him and my family history in the lead up to his funeral than I knew growing up.
By
Vyshnavee Wijekumar

6 Aug 2020 - 8:34 AM  UPDATED 10 May 2021 - 4:15 PM

Growing up, my parents invested a lot of time and money ensuring my sister and I retained our Sri Lankan Tamil heritage. As a child, I learnt Bharathanatyam (South Asian classical dance) from the age of four, for 17 years. I attended a Tamil language school in my local area, and at my father’s insistence, only spoke Tamil at home.

Despite the many connections to my culture, forged at my father’s behest, I had very little insight into my familial history pre-1988 when we migrated to Australia.

Sri Lanka was embroiled in civil conflict from 1983 to 2009, the fallout of which, still informs the country’s political and socioeconomic realities.

When my father passed away six years ago, I managed to learn more about him and my family history in the lead up to his funeral than I knew growing up. I watched as my Dad’s siblings and friends reminisced over cups of Ceylon tea about their childhoods in Sri Lanka. Grief and nostalgia opened up a doorway to my parents’ past that had remained locked for decades.

But with these revelations came nagging doubt: did I know my father at all?

But with these revelations came nagging doubt: did I know my father at all?

In his youth, I knew that he was an avid cinephile and music lover. He saw Sound of Music at the cinema with his family, watched a lot of Alfred Hitchcock, and loved ABBA – all things he still appreciated as an adult. However, I also learnt that he was also a ballroom dancing enthusiast,which may not seem unique in a western context, but was quite surprising if you knew him as a parent.

He was also involved in grassroots community activism in Colombo during the 1983 riots (known as Black July), and still kept abreast of the conflict and its developments after our move to Australia.

At our family home in Western Sydney’s Auburn, Appa had a knack for making friends across communities and religions. When greeting local business owners, he learnt to say hello and goodbye to each person in their native tongues.

At our family home in Western Sydney’s Auburn, Appa had a knack for making friends across communities and religions.

His default was always to understand, empathise and educate, taking the compassionate route in any situation or whenever he encountered systemic racism. Working at Australia Post, which was a diverse workplace, he had become quite the local celebrity, with many community members knowing who he was by face and name. We would often have strangers turning up at our doorstep asking for his assistance with passport applications or sending packages back to family overseas.

When my sister was in Year 11, he campaigned heavily to the Board of Studies and her local high school to allow her Tamil language studies to contribute towards her University entrance exam. Following several unrelenting emails, letters and phone calls, the administration conceded – a win in his own mode of activism.

As one of six children, frugality was a central family value. My grandmother hand-stitched my father’s and his siblings’ clothes when they were kids. To continue this tradition, as an adult, my father rarely bought new clothes, maintaining his 70s and 80s wardrobe from Sri Lanka until they were in tatters.

I learnt that one night, in his adolescence, he took the family car out for a drive to meet his friends at the movies – without his father’s permission.

There were teenage anecdotes that also surprised me. I learnt that one night, in his adolescence, he took the family car out for a drive to meet his friends at the movies – without his father’s permission. When he eventually arrived home, my grandfather made him sleep outside as punishment. I was grateful that all I got as punishment after arriving home drunk, post-clubbing at 4am, was a stern lecture and the silent treatment.

Despite knowing him as a parent, I only got to know my father as a person after he was gone. Sometimes, being a parent inhibits you from opening up to your kids, the fine line of being a disciplinarian and an empathetic ear. This reluctance can also be compounded by trauma and cultural values.

It’s easy to forget that our parents had lives long before we were born, that they have the capacity to be vulnerable, fallible and just plain human. There’s pressure as parents to have all the answers but maybe as children we need to be asking more questions. Often there’s only space for a relationship like this once you moved out of home, and unfortunately this window of time for me was short lived.

It’s easy to forget that our parents had lives long before we were born, that they have the capacity to be vulnerable, fallible and just plain human.

Reaching the age now my parents were when they first came to Australia has allowed space for reflection. As the children of first generation migrants, perhaps it’s up to us to open up dialogue and be more perceptive. Because isn’t knowing our parents and their past the key to understanding ourselves in the present?

Vyshnavee Wijekuma is a freelance writer.

RECOMMENDED
Saying goodbye to my mother after her unexpected death
Her body was placed in a hearse to be transported to the cemetery, usually only attended by men. I defied tradition and attended the burial.
Fighting our human fate: to better life and beat death
Can technology help us to beat death?