A Different History
Swarna Rajagopalan
SRI LANKA IN THE MODERN AGE: A HISTORY OF CONTESTED IDENTITIES by Nira Wickramasinghe University of Hawai'i Press, 2008, 360 pp., price not stated
August 2008, volume 32, No 8

Let me start this review with a confession: I loved this book. The challenge of writing this review is to write without gushing. Sri Lanka in the Modern Age sets out to be a different kind of Sri Lankan history; one in which a broad brush-strokes, largely top-down, linear narrative is transformed into an amazing account of human experiences of change—from shoes and sarongs to ways of learning to turf-battles in the corridors of power. Nira Wickramasinghe critiques previous political histories of Sri Lanka and differentiates her work from these on three counts. First, she admits into her work a greater degree of uncertainty about knowledge and what constitutes history. Second, those works assume conceptual and identity categories as a given without historicizing them. Third, she says these and other cited works are “a form of history writing in which a sense of life is absent.” (Page xi).

How does her book live up to the standards of this critique? I would say it does so exemplarily.

The contemporary uncertainty about ‘disciplinary borders’ is not unique to history. Wickramasinghe gives us a fine example of how to write history as if it were not intrinsically constrained to admit a finite number of stories and standpoints. It is hard to choose one example without, ironically, destroying this richness. But having said that, in the first chapter, when she starts discussing the British colonial state (page 26), you first read text that you could find in traditional histories (Kandyan Convention, Colebrooke-Cameron). Very quickly, however, she introduces detail unusually written by the standard of traditional histories: the renaming of provinces to efface historical identities (page 29-32) and changing urban landscapes (page 32-33), which in her book are a segue to the changing political economy of the highlands. Each of these would merit a separate chapter or a separate book, seldom integrated into a work that considers itself a political history. And yet, as Wickramasinghe shows, all these are political changes and changes that do not usually find a place in history books. In short, the author manages to walk that subtle line between a narrow, simplified definition of her field and an all-embracing view that tells you little about anything. Somehow she manages to convey a great deal of insight by bringing together information about many quite different things.

The second critique that Wickremasinghe makes is that identities and other categories must be historicized to be understood. This too she does efficiently by weaving into the broader fabric of her work the threads of how being Kandyan came to mean something special in the eyes of Europeans and then, other Sri Lankans (pages 40-72); how Tamils came to identify in certain ways (pages 254-266); the shifting place of migrant communities within Sri Lanka (pages 114-149) and the movement of left forces in Sri Lanka towards identity-driven politics, exemplified best by the transformation of the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna, although other examples abound and are discussed here (pages 200-251). Yes, these are not pioneering accounts and it is likely that one can find these stories elsewhere; what is unique in this book, to my mind, is that Wickramasinghe manages to combine incredibly detailed histories of each of these cases with a metanarrative that still keeps moving while you read this case. That is, you read about Estate Tamils and their changing fate, but you never lose track of the larger historical moment at which that particular act of their drama is unfolding. When you reach the end of the book, you realize that every one of these boxes has been dismantled for you—deconstructed, if you will.

Finally, life is certainly not absent from Wickramasinghe’s Sri Lanka. There is no chapter in this book where the ‘grand narrative’ is not in conversation with the quotidian. The chapter on how authenticity came to be defined is a very good example (pages 88-111). In the span of about twenty-five pages, Wickramasinghe tells us about myths, about dress, about criticism surrounding the promotion of European toiletries, about a fad to study the brains of exceptional persons, about the setting up of the Colombo museum and the Kandyan throne’s origins and journey from and back to Kandy. The narrative transports the reader to other times and places where buying the “ ‘famous Chandra soap produced through much diligent hard work in Lanka by us Sinhalese’” was a mark of patriotism. To those raised on stories of Swadeshi and Non-cooperation in India, this is not such a distant example. This rich chapter illustrates the presence of the political in the personal in a way that theoretical arguments never could.

Wickramasinghe in her critique does not mention the absence of gender from traditional histories; but in her chapter on citizenship, she discusses two groups that are at the centre of most Sri Lanka discussions—migrants and minorities, and then she discusses a third, that remains invisible—women (pages 176-182). I cannot remember reading a South Asian history of any place and time that makes this inclusion so simply. Either you have “History, starring men only” or you have works that are focused on correcting that exlusion. I like the way this book squarely draws attention to women’s rights in Sri Lanka without segregating the section from the main narrative. Incidentally, this is a very well-written, if short, section and would be useful also to people studying women in politics.

Nira Wickremasinghe has written a book that is densely packed with information. More commendable, she has written a book that cannot be skimmed because each of her sentences says something new, and must be read in order to understand the sentence that follows. Such discipline in writing is uncommon, and it cannot be attributed to good editing because the volume is not well-edited. More careful proof-reading would have eliminated typographical errors that show up in patches across the book. It says a great deal about the content of the book that I was too engrossed to get a pencil and mark the places so I could list them here. My second complaint is also addressed to the publisher: a book like this deserves either a larger font or a minimum of 1.5 spacing. The text was wonderfully packed, but so was the page, and the result was that an excellent and interesting book became a strenuous read.

I consider the single volume Sri Lanka histories written by K.M. de Silva and C.R. de Silva to be must-reads for anyone embarking on the study of Sri Lanka; even their differences have a lot to teach a newcomer to the field. Wickramasinghe’s work now joins this list in my view. Much as I admire her work however, I have to wonder how accessible it is to a person who knows nothing about Sri Lankan history. Is it possible to appreciate the thick description and detailed story-telling without having a barebones feel of the longer term narrative? I am not sure. I would have loved to have this book to read when I started to study the country’s politics fifteen years ago, but whether I would have found it easy to follow I cannot be certain. This is not so much a criticism of this book as a question that is relevant to cutting edge work in many fields.

Theoretical critiques often take the line that paradigm or methodology of the day ignores a range of perspectives and actors. The challenge, I find, is in including them and retaining the clarity of the narrative thread or the argument. Wickramasinghe’s book does this excellently, even exemplarily, but still I suspect it is at the cost of being an easy, accessible read. Simplification has some pedagogical utility, one supposes, but combining complexity with accessibility may be the next writing frontier for the brave and brilliant scholar who undertakes the kind of challenge that this author has.

To conclude this review, who should read this book? Sri Lanka scholars should read it immediately, especially those whose reading has been hitherto limited to reading about conflict in Sri Lanka. Anthropologists, political scientists and economists of a renaissance disposition will gain a great deal from this for their own studies. Historians should read it, for sure, because Wickramasinghe is one of the best South Asian historians of her generation. Students in research-based academic programmes should read it to see the amazing range of sources she deploys, to study the way she structures the book and to learn to write un-flabby text like this. Journalists covering Sri Lanka should read this book both to understand things about which they regularly file copy as well as to see how much substance you can actually pack into each paragraph. Indeed, this book’s combination of grand narrative and thick description makes it rather like a South Asian style necklace: precious gems set in solid gold!

Swarna Rajagopalan is a Chennai-based political scientist and consultant. 

Review Details

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