SINGAPORE - Lawyer Paul Supramaniam, 56, grew up with a deep sense of family history.
The house at Berrima Road, off Dunearn Road, in which he used to live with his parents and two younger siblings, was filled with old family photos, portraits and furniture.
On special occasions, silver and glass utensils that had been passed down from their ancestors - Jaffna Tamils from the northern part of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) - were carted out for use.
Before the Sri Lankan civil war broke out in 1982, he and his siblings would often visit their maternal grandparents and great-grandmother, who lived in the family's larger ancestral house in Jaffna. The house still belongs to the family, but was partially damaged following the recent civil war in the country.
As his maternal great-grandmother and his paternal grandmother were cousins, he also had the opportunity to meet his paternal great-grand uncles and great-grand aunts in Jaffna.
"As a young boy, I was more interested in catching crabs at the beach than in catching up with the older folks," he says.
However, he had subconsciously imbibed a sense of family history. And when he chanced upon a printout of an old family tree in his father's study when he was 18, his interest was kindled.
The tree showed six generations of the family, back to the early 1800s.
He says: "Seeing the unfamiliar names in the family tree whetted my appetite to find out more about those people."
But national service and studies in England intervened, and it was only after he started practising law in London in his late 20s that he was able to embark on seriously tracing his family history.
Coincidentally, his father, Dr James Supramaniam, a former deputy permanent secretary (health) who was at the forefront of helping to rid Singapore of tuberculosis in the early 1960s, had also retired and had moved to Kent, England, with his mother.
The older Supramaniam had embarked on his own research on family roots in the 1950s, based on the research of his father, Reverend James Supramaniam, who had been a respected community leader and headmaster of a number of Anglo-Chinese Schools in Malaya.
On weekends, Mr Paul Supramaniam would visit his parents. Father and son would pore over old family papers together. They also wrote to several institutions, libraries and archives, including those in England, India and Sri Lanka, seeking information on their ancestors. "I had always been in awe of my father because he was such a distinguished person," says Mr Supramaniam.
"But when we worked together on family research, it was as if we were equals. It was very enjoyable." They interviewed elderly relatives and old family friends in Singapore and overseas, in person as well as by telephone.
In 1994, he and his father made a three-week trip to Kuala Lumpur to interview his father's eldest brother, Samuel. Being the eldest son, Mr Samuel Supramaniam, who died seven years ago when he was in his 90s, had a lot of information passed on from his father.
There, they found a family tree similar to the one Paul had found in his father's study. But this one went back 11 generations, to the 1700s, and traced both the male and female lines of the Supramaniam family to the king of Jaffna, Kulasekara Singai Aryan Pararajasekaran Arya Chakravarty, who ruled Ceylon from 1240 to 1256.
Says Mr Paul Supramaniam: "My maternal great-grandmother had told me and my siblings that we were of royal descent. It's good to have this confirmed, though it is of little significance in egalitarian Singapore."
He moved back to Singapore in 1992.
His parents followed suit in 2001. Since his father died of pneumonia at age 87 in 2008, Mr Supramaniam has continued in his research.
Finding out about his ancestors is an ongoing process, he says.
Unfortunately, the number of people that he can talk to is getting fewer. He says: "Of the older generation, only my mother, my father's younger brother, who is 90, and my parents' elderly cousins remain."
In his generation, Mr Supramaniam is the only one in the family who has spent time gathering information about his ancestors. His English wife of 22 years, Margaret Seale, who is in her 40s, has also been helping him with the research.
Ms Seale, who teaches English at the British Council here, says that learning more about her husband's family has made her feel "more connected to them as well as to Singapore".
Th couple are also trying to interest their sons, James Timothy, 20, who is serving his national service, and Matthew, 15, a student at Eton College in England, in helping them in their research.
Says Mr Supramaniam: "Families are a bit like kaleidoscopes.
It's good to have multiple pictures from different viewpoints. I was really fortunate to have known my maternal great-grandmother and my paternal greatgrand uncles and great-grand aunts, as they gave me a glimpse into the past."
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