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A Different History

Swarna Rajagopalan

By Nira Wickramasinghe
University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2006, pp.360, price not stated.


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 ...

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