The use and abuse of history

Agitation and mourning in Sri Lanka

Illustration by Akila Weerasinghe
Elections 2024
28 February, 2023

HOWEVER WE JUDGE the Aragalaya that ended in Sri Lanka last year—not with a bang but with a whimper—it offered an occasion to watch and think about the possibilities and the limits of a politics reliant on historical consciousness. Whether the more liberal part of the majority demanding the island’s true diversity be recognised or Tamil critics reminding us that the Rajapaksas had been criminals of the worst sort for decades before the Sinhala public took notice, the movement fomented a political discourse that called for a truer recognition of history, truth or record, blaming the denial (or ignorance) of history for the country’s, and the movement’s, ills. 

Since the birth of the modern nation state in Western Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, history has been made to assume the role of translating us from more essential forms of identification to a selfhood grounded in the abstractions of citizenship or class. This involved a shift from the circular or eschatological timelines offered by religions and the social systems they sanctioned, in which fate and divine right rule, to the linear, progressive time in which we make our own fates and orders. This transformation is enacted most famously in the work of Marx and Hegel, but also drives the work of BR Ambedkar and Periyar. 

The historical novel, born coeval with the secular nation, has been an important tool whereby the instincts requisite to the latter have been instilled in a public whose formation—and status as citizenry—remains nascent and partial. In the words of the Hungarian Marxist literary critic György Lukács, “what in Morgan, Marx and Engels was worked out and proved with theoretical and historical clarity, lives, moves and has its being poetically in the best historical novels.” That is, to demonstrate in abstract terms, important as it may be, will never transform human beings. But the novel can. 

In his monumental work of criticism The Historical Novel, Lukács lays out the essential tendencies of such a novel. Unlike in the epic, the historical novel’s antecedent as nation-story, the protagonist will not be a king or a general but an ordinary citizen, not someone who effects historical events but one who gets caught up in them. This citizen-hero will possess a certain ambiguity, not identifying too wholly with any of the factions involved in the narrative’s conflict. Real historical figures appear but are peripheral to the plot. The novel must seek to represent the whole of a society rather than a fragment. The most paradigmatic historical novels—Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example—are so considered because they take up the subject of the epic, the crystallisation of national identity through battle between good and evil, but replace its allegory and drama of essence with the uncertainties of psychological realism. 

The historical novel, in its long evolution, has grown distant from Lukács’s criteria. The last century saw few narratives of progress, many of decline. Still, novels that look to quicken a sense of history in readers keep appearing, believing that the violence of our times comes from amnesia, from a vacuum that history and truth should rightfully occupy. 

In Sri Lanka, only one sprawling novel seems to fit Lukács’ sense: Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s When Memory Dies, published in 1997. Sivanandan is a lone and awkward presence in Sri Lankan literature. Though belonging to an upper-caste Tamil family with its roots and property in the agrarian north, he was born in Colombo. (In a late interview with New Left Review, he claimed to have had “no sense of being Tamil growing up.”) His father’s job as a postmaster meant a peripatetic upbringing across the provinces, whose hilly landscape, flora and estates are painted in the novel with tender familiarity. Sivanandan studied in Christian schools, where students and staff were mostly whites and Sinhala converts. At the University of Ceylon, where education became free in 1939, he was exposed to the dynamic ideological currents in which the educated Sinhalese were caught up. Lecturers at the university, many of whom had been to England or the Soviet Union, instilled in him a love of Marxism and English literature. On graduating, he became a teacher in the provinces until the pressure to support his family spurred him to join the Bank of Ceylon and settle in Colombo.

The anti-Tamil pogroms of 1958, a response to the Tamil demand for a measure of federal and linguistic autonomy in the north-east, convinced Sivanandan that Ceylon was unliveable, and he moved with his family to London while it was in the throes of the Notting Hill Race Riots. In London, where he worked as a librarian and edited the journal Race and Class, Sivanandan became, along with figures like Stuart Hall, part of a wide-reaching movement that saw, in anti-blackness, an occasion to rethink Marxism. Although his writings in this vein never attained the status or sophistication of Hall’s, they found a serious readership among teachers, activists and organisers. It is with this background in Marxist internationalism and anti-racist thought built on notions of migration and diaspora that Sivanandan observed his country from afar. 

In When Memory Dies—part autobiography, part family saga, part paradise won and duly lost—Sivanandan symphonically builds the story of Ceylon’s modernity, from the slightest details of daily life to events of the grossest scale, suggesting a unity between all parts of life. The protagonists of the novel’s three parts—Saha, born in colonial Ceylon, who leaves the agrarian north for the capital; his son Rajan, who flees to England after the 1958 riots; and Vijay, the illegitimate child of Rajan’s wife, a culturally ambidextrous Sinhalese driven to Tamil Eelam as the rest of the country explodes with hatred—hold fast to the collective dream of a secular, democratic, socialist Sri Lanka as it turns into a collective nightmare. Each is an outsider, ignorant and therefore eager to learn, possessed of the doubt and humility that underlies rationality and righteousness, naturally untethered to a singular identity. 

In the novel’s first section, “Forgotten Mornings,” Saha, a poor farmer’s son, escapes the dour poverty of his Jaffna village for an education and a job in Colombo. Working as a clerk in a railway office, he is introduced to the more vibrant, epicurean culture of the Sinhalese. Here, Sivanandan introduces what, even as late as 2009, he sees as the main contradiction between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The former’s land is very lush and fertile, the latter’s dry and unyielding, and the temperament of each corresponds to their land. The Tamils are poorer, and Saha has to send home the money that his Sinhalese friends spend on drinking. He does not socialise because it entails spending. The poor quality of the land in the north also partially accounts for the Tamils’ high representation in government jobs: the work required constant travel and the Sinhalese were not willing to leave their land. Saha cultivates a friendship with Tissa, a zealous socialist and son of the veteran union organiser SW, with whom Saha stays as a paying guest. This both loosens him up and makes him graver, and he gives in to both the occasional drink and politics. (His duty to his family, however, separates him from his friend, who can prioritise principles over money.)

Across the growing distance between Tissa, who swiftly climbs the ranks of the ascendant Ceylon Labour Party—a child of the British Labour Party—and SW, who maintains that the labour movement should be led by workers, Saha is stretched like a taut rope. His admiration for Tissa gives out as he watches his head swell with ideology, removing him from the cares of family and daily life. Sivanandan portrays the strikes of the 1920s as the machinations of a CLP careless in its approach towards workers and enamoured by parliamentary power. The novel’s first part ends with Tissa’s dear friend Sultan being shot by the police at the 1929 tram workers’ strike. As Tissa’s cries over his body, the CLP founder, Alexander Ekanayake Gunasinha, announces that the strike has been called off and a settlement reached. 

Through Saha’s eyes, history and the movement of ideas look out of joint with life. This notion of history as dynamism, however, does not chime with Saha’s own. He gives the name history not to the sturm und drang of governments, parties and movements he turns away from but to a lost precolonial way of being: