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Identities in an uncertain history

Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Identities

Author: Nira Wickramasinghe

C. Hurst: London and University of Hawaii Press 2006

pp. 360, Price: Rs. 1,100

Vijitha Yapa Bookshops, Colombo

Review: Amit DHOLAKIA

HISTORY: In her earlier works, Nira Wickramasinghe, a history professor at the University of Colombo explored diverse themes as ethnic politics, the role of civil society and the politics of clothing in Sri Lanka. In this new 360-page book she offers us a narrative history of 20th century Sri Lanka through the prism of 'identities'.

Ground-breaking changes in the modes of writing, understanding, interpreting and explaining history have occurred over the past two decades.

Setting off from the post-colonial, post-structuralist and post-Orientalist historical perspectives that have been evolving through a loosely connected body of literature since the 1970s, Sri Lanka in the Modern Age then breaks free from these previous approaches to make its own significant contribution to Sri Lankan historiography. Critically interrogating the founding texts of Sri Lankan historiography.

Critically interrogating the founding texts of Sri Lankan history Wickramasinghe argues that the prevalent liberal, Marxist or nationalist interpretations of modern Sri Lankan succeed in telling us only a part of the country's complex story.

These approaches undervalue the role of the common people in major political developments and the evolution of social identities.

The book attempts to correct the biases of the positivist and static view of what constitutes political history by exploring the impact of colonial and postcolonial knowledge and rules on the Sri Lankan people's consciousness, culture and identities.

She challenges the idea of an essentially stagnant Sri Lankan society unaffected by colonial era happenings.

Religious identities

The author works to deconstruct established understandings of national, ethnic and religious identities in Sri Lanka. She does this by decoding the myths of their continuity and monolithic character that have long constituted the standard fare of most of the narratives of Sri Lankan nationhood.

The Sinhala, Tamil, Buddhist and Sri Lankan identities have been continually constructed and reconstructed over the last hundred years in response to the political conditions of the colonial and the post-independence era.

Wickramasinghe does not write 'ordered' history. She purposefully inserts disjunctions and discontinuities to open the reader's eyes to the uncertainties of history and identities. How vaguely defined identities were transformed into those of nation and territory forms the central theme of her book.

The interaction between identities and their political milieu has taken place in many forms and through a multitude of agents. The cases analyzed here demonstrate how Sri Lanka's communities negotiated modernity during the period of late colonialism, and how political consciousness was culturally grounded.

The author's goal is to unravel the many layers of multifaceted associations between culture, identity and politics. The book sensitizes the reader to the fact that Sri Lanka's multiple identities have not remained passive or dormant as social symbols.

They have often politicized themselves into passive social movements and sometimes violent political movements.

Apolitical splendours

Readers need not be misled by the book's title and identify Sri Lanka in the Modern Age as a typical political history of Sri Lanka.

The book belongs to a different genre of Sri Lanka's political history than the type popularized by earlier historians such as K. M. de Silva, James Manor, James Jupp or C. R. de Silva. 'High politics' is only a peripheral subject of this work.. The narration of regime changes or activities of political parties are conspicuously absent.

Of course, the author does discuss all the familiar political themes of modern Sri Lanka: the colonial conquest, Tamil migration, constitutional developments after independence, Tamil separatism and violent ethnic conflicts, the role of welfare state, rise of civil society and so on.

However, the point of reference for these themes is not the State or elites but rather people and cultural understandings.

This book is an illustration of a 'history from below' - an examination of the national from the local perspective.

Wickramasinghe forcefully states that "writing a political history of the twentieth century that does not incorporate the richness of multiple experiences is ... an enterprise that lacks heart and soul."

She, therefore, attempts to understand twentieth century Sri Lanka not in the context of its institutionalized politics, upheavals and conflicts, but rather through the prism of its peoples and identity-centred politics.

The study, therefore, captures the many-splendoured aspects of the recent history of the country: the lifestyles, food and drink habits, changes in clothing, preferences for cosmetics and the like.

Exploration of images

Through the exploration of images, practices and symbols, the book reflects upon the role of identities in addressing the country and its meaning. It highlights the growing recognition that there is no single, definitive interpretation of what constitutes Sri Lanka.

The alternative perspectives challenge the traditional and often misleading perceptions and representations of Sri Lankan nationhood, and suggest possible lines for its reinterpretation. The Sri Lankan nation thus becomes 'an imagined community' and an area of contestation.

Such an approach is in line with the post-Orientalist interpretation of the construction of social identities in South Asia.

It resonates with what such scholars as Partha Chatterjee, Ranajit Guha, and Gyanendra Pandey accomplished during the 1980s under the rubric of subaltern studies - which studied history through the perspectives of non-elites and later with respect to nationalism in India. While this work may not exactly be a subaltern history, it is an effort in that direction.

At another level, Wickramasinghe's work demonstrates flexibility in transcending many of the limitations of the subaltern project in India, particularly its Marxist shadow and over-privileging of the peasantry as the 'underneath' of the society.

Importantly unlike some of the subaltern studies, her project does not remain one of fragmentary local histories - local and community histories are also contextualized within the national political context.

Avoiding dichotomous ways of interpreting history, the author has not posited the local against the national or the non-political against the political, but sought to uncover the connections between them - though in some cases such connections are not very apparent.

Absorbing style

Wickramasinghe has traversed vast ground in this theoretically-informed and conceptually sound volume, a work that should be valuable both for the interested layperson and for the professional historian.

The author' has the ability to write lucid, eloquent and her narrative and absorbing style is coupled with a discursive approach that makes the work eminently readable.

There is a dearth of good general histories of modern Sri Lanka with most of the extant works on the era limiting themselves to examinations of specific themes such as ethnic politics, religious conflict and communalism.

The present work is one of the very few general history books available that functions as a general history of 20th century Sri Lanka, albeit one that focuses on the evolution and transmutation of identities.

The one disadvantage is that the book's wide canvas has left little scope for its author to dwell on any one aspect intensively.

Histories of peoples and communities, as distinguished from histories of the State, are difficult to write, and still more difficult to interpret. Wickramasinghe's critical reading of modern Sri Lankan history has raised a series of timely and trenchant questions.

Hopefully this will inspire other scholars to carry out deeper investigations into the areas of modern Sri Lankan history into which she has delved and to help correct some of the biases and silences in the conventional histories of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka in the Modern Age also engages in several boundary-crossing disciplinary experiments to appear, in the end, as a mixture of history, anthropology, cultural studies and political theory.

The book should prove useful in furthering our understanding of the complex relationship between social identities and political process in the context not only of Sri Lanka but of the larger South Asia as well.

Himal Southasian
The writer is Reader in Political Science, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Gujarat, India.


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
Sri Lanka

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