Encyclopedic awareness

Speaking up for late scholar

Smriti Daniel’s article on writer Richard Boyle (“Finding His Own Serendib”, The Sunday Times, April 20) quotes Mr. Boyle as saying: “I have been able to ferret out a lot of information that has not been in print here before, or was unheard of, or little known”.

My late husband, C. A. Gunawardena, compiled and published the first “Encyclopedia of Sri Lanka” (Sterling Publishers, 1st edition 2002; 2nd edition 2006). The book can be found in any good Colombo bookshop. There, Mr. Boyle will find (without having to resort to any ferreting), the following information:

1. For both Serendib and a detailed description of “The Travels and Adventures of the Three Princes of Serendib”, see page 330. Also referenced there is the work of the eminent American sociologist Robert K. Merton and his colleague Elinor Barber, who traced the history of the word “serendipity” in their much-acclaimed study, “The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science” (Princeton University Press, 2003).

2. For the story of Florence Farr in Jaffna, see page 142. Jayantha Padmanabha, the distinguished journalist and former editor of the Ceylon Daily News, described Florence Farr (clearly a colourful personality) as a “Victorian Cleopatra”.

3. For Anaconda, see page 16.

4. As for D.H. Lawrence and his petulant sulks in Kandy while on a holiday there in 1922, see page 225.

I enjoyed reading Smriti Daniel’s article on Richard Boyle, and I wish Mr. Boyle well in his work. However, I am, to say the least, very surprised at his absurd assertions.

Mrs. Yvonne Gunawardena, London

Reply from the writer

Yvonne Gunawardena assumes I am unaware of her late husband’s Encyclopedia of Sri Lanka: in fact I possess both editions. Maybe she is also unaware that I influenced a second edition entry.

In my obituary of bibliophile Ian Goonetileke in The Sunday Times (June 8, 2003), I lamented that he would soon be forgotten, “especially since the Encyclopedia of Sri Lanka commits a sin of omission by failing to allocate an entry for Ian Goonetileke”.

A friend of Charles Gunawardena’s told me that this remark prompted the second edition entry for Goonetileke. Furthermore, Mr. Gunawardena sent me a copy of this edition for review in the magazine I edit, travelsrilanka (November 2006).
Mrs. Gunawardena’s comments on my subject matter in relation to the Encyclopedia may not have been written at all if she had read my book “Sindbad In Serendib”.

Her remarks on “serendipity” epitomise her misunderstandings. Mr. Gunawardena’s entry comprises two paragraphs, my chapter 6,000 words. It includes a précis of the long sought-after English translation of the 1557 “Three Princes Of Serendip”, (even the late Mr. Goonetileke had never seen it), and a lexicology of “serendipity” undertaken over many months in my capacity as Sri Lankan English consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the type of detailed, little-known information I refer to as “ferreting out”.

For the serious researcher, an encyclopedia provides the first step. Not that the Encyclopedia provided me with initial momentum. My chapter consists of two articles, one published in The Sunday Times (December 8 and 16, 1996), the other in Serendib (March-April 1999), before the appearance of the Encyclopedia. I should also mention that the Merton and Barber book on serendipity that Mrs. Gunawardena urges me to read was reviewed by yours truly for the British Times Higher Education Supplement (June 3, 2005).

Mr. Gunawardena’s three-line entry for “anaconda” mentions the word’s derivation from the Sinhala henakandaya. My 11,000-word chapter includes the obscure 1768 “Description of the Anaconda”, a story set near Colombo significant to lexicographers as it is the first reference to “anaconda” in English, and a study of how the Dutch mistakenly applied the name “henakandaya” to a South American snake. The original article was published in The Sunday Times (June 25, and July 2 and 9, 2000), again prior to the Encyclopedia.

Mrs. Gunawardena writes that she is surprised at my “absurd assertions”. I trust she will now revise her opinion.

By Richard Boyle, Talawathugoda

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