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.


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