25 July 2023

History is new(s)

The late Jayalath Manoratne was arguably one of the finest actors this country has seen, on stage and on screen. He made each character he portrayed utterly memorable. Among all of them, perhaps the strangest character he had to play was ‘history.’ Let me explain.

‘History’ was one of a trio of characters featured in Udayasiri Wickramaratne’s ‘Suddek Oba Amathai (A white man — or ‘whitey’ — addresses you.’ So we had ‘History,’ a white man and a woman addressing us. In the initial performances, there was a fourth, ‘baya vuna minihek oba amathai (a terrified man addresses you),’ but that fourth soliloquy, so to speak, was dropped later.

History, in script and portrayal, was quite a character. Udayasiri is a clever dramatist. His scripts are fluid and are amenable to the interjection of ‘the political moment.’ They make people laugh. They also constitute serious commentary on politics and ideology. It’s the same with ‘History addresses you.’

There’s a line or a passage, rather, that I remember well.  ‘History is news.’

Things historic come into the ‘news’ frame if someone who is ‘in the news’ mentions something from the past but it would, at best, warrant just passing mention. History can be ‘news’ if there’s some kind of archeological discovery.

For example, not too long ago someone chanced upon a ‘mass grave.’ That was news. Immediately, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachalet inserted this story into the section on Sri Lanka in a report presented at one of the UNHRC sessions. Evidence of mass killings and mass burials during the last stages of the war (against terrorism), she implied. News. Entertaining as news has to be these days. Tendentious and absolutely irresponsible. [see 'When you have a bone to pick']

Now after it was revealed that the skeletal remains in this grave were hundreds of years old, these euphoric news-spinners who got undies twisted went silent. The media didn’t bother to delve into the real story. Happens.

But that’s not what Mano’s character was referring to. It’s about relevant histories that are newsworthy, not only because they are interesting (entertaining?) but they interrupt happy and wooly-headed narratives.

The vilification of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe was quite effectively subverted in theatre. Mano’s character, History, made the point. There’s a story ABOUT Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe and then there’s Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe’s story. Not the same. It’s about representation and misrepresentation, both open to celebration and dismissal depending on the structure of communicative power. Those who craft ‘news’ (and even theses that are said to be ‘academic’ and therefore dispassionate) don’t necessarily represent truthfully.

Then something happens, an old text, an inscription or some other artefact that cannot be pooh-poohed away pops up. I can be newsworthy and too hard to ignore. The name that the marauder Raja Raja Chola I used to identify this island that is now called Sri Lanka, for example: ‘The Land of the Warlike Sinhalas.’

Raja Raja Chola I had nothing to gain by, say, laying the foundation for some Sinhala chauvinistic historical narrative. He was merely listing the lands he plundered while mentioning the sources of the wealth used to build various temples in his Kingdom. This was more than 800 years before the time that certain historians claim that ‘Sinhala’ came to be used as a name for a collective.

That little piece of information and other such little pieces of information constitute news. Indeed, considering the fact that it has come to a point where news and fake news are hard to differentiate and the latter even having the inside track on representing ‘reality’ (ref Bachelet again), this kind of stuff is certainly newsworthy.

History speaks. In different tongues. Different tongues in different talking heads. Different talking heads framed by different ideologies and outcome preferences.

And so the history of the world turns and, in turning, turns heads this way and that. We choke on too much history. We starve because it is non-existent or we are made to believe it is non-existent or simply because it is not palatable.  

And so someone announces, ‘history is dead.’  Some rejoice, some wonder what there is to celebrate if indeed such a death had taken place.

The problem: the dead are buried and what is buried is unearthed or re-surfaces. Narratives get wrecked.

It’s news, then. 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 

Other articles in this series: 

Journalism inadvertently learned

Reflections on the young poetic heart

Wordaholic, trynasty and other portmanteaus

The 'Loku Aiya' of all 'Paththara Mallis'

Subverting the indecency of the mind

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

Sunny Dayananda 

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990) 

What makes Oxygen breathable?  

Sorrowing and delighting the world 

The greatest fallacy  

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi 

Beyond praise and blame 

Letters that cut and heal the heart 

Vanished and vanishing trails 


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya 

The soft rain of neighbourliness  

The Gold Medals of being 

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri 

All those we've loved before 

Reflections on waves and markings 

A chorus of National Anthems 

Saying what and how 

'Say when' 

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra 

The loves of our lives 

The right time, the right person 

The silent equivalent of a thousand words 

Crazy cousins are besties for life 

Unities, free and endearing 

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!" 

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis 

The revolution is the song 

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins 

The day I won a Pulitzer 


Ella Deloria's silences 

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness 

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable  


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan 

Enlightening geometries 

Let's meet at 'The Commons' 

It all begins with a dot 

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation 

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone 

On sweeping close to one's feet 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts... 

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm 

Who really wrote 'Mother'? 

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing 

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed 

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember 

On loving, always 

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal 

When you turn 80... 

It is good to be conscious of nudities  

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday  

There's a one in a million and a one in ten 

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California 

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature 

Pathways missed 

Architectures of the demolished 

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts 

Who the heck do you think I am? 

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha' 

The Mangala Sabhava 

So how are things in Sri Lanka? 

The most beautiful father 

Palmam qui meruit ferat 

The sweetest three-letter poem 

Buddhangala Kamatahan 

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello 

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership 

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked 

Pure-Rathna, a class act 

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna 

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other 

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles 

Matters of honor and dignity 

Yet another Mother's Day 

A cockroach named 'Don't' 

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth 

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara 

Sweeping the clutter away 

Some play music, others listen 

Completing unfinished texts 

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn 

I am at Jaga Food, where are you? 

On separating the missing from the disappeared 

Moments without tenses 

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have) 

The world is made of waves 


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller 

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya' 

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist 

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses 

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced 

Some stories are written on the covers themselves 

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature 

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time  

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie 

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists? 

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords 

The books of disquiet 

A song of terraced paddy fields 

Of ants, bridges and possibilities 

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva  

World's End 

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse 

Street corner stories 

Who did not listen, who's not listening still? 

The book of layering 

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain 

The world is made for re-colouring 

The gift and yoke of bastardy 

The 'English Smile' 

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5 

Visual cartographers and cartography 

Ithaca from a long ago and right now 

Lessons written in invisible ink 

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness' 

A tea-maker story seldom told 

On academic activism 

The interchangeability of light and darkness 

Back to TRADITIONAL rice 

Sisterhood: moments, just moments 

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging 

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha 

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows 

Sirith, like pirith, persist 

Fragrances that will not be bottled  

Colours and textures of living heritage 

Countries of the past, present and future 

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched 

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains 

The ways of the lotus 

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace 

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville 

Live and tell the tale as you will 

Between struggle and cooperation 

Of love and other intangibles 

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions 

The universe of smallness 

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers 

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills 

Serendipitous amber rules the world 

Continents of the heart
The allegory of the slow road