When Worlds Collide #76: Against the Fall of Memory…

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 28 July 2013


“I’m everything you lost. You won’t forgive me. 

My memory keeps getting in the way of your history.”

So wrote Agha Shahid Ali (1949 – 2001), Kashmiri-American poet, in a famous poem called “Farewell” where he grappled with memories and histories that were both intertwined and warring.

This has been a week of reminiscences, mostly unpleasant or outright horrific, relating to Sri Lanka’s worst communal riots of July 1983. People from across the ethnic spectrum have recalled, in public media, a range of emotions they experienced — from trauma and anguish to shame and helplessness. This mosaic of collective memories is part of the legacy of Black July.

Memories matter, at both private and public levels. But not everyone agrees on the cathartic value of memories. A few argue, not too convincingly, that the ugly past is perhaps best forgotten.

Scholars keep probing how societies remember certain widely shared experiences, and how that shapes group identities. Powerful collective memories are mostly, but not always, associated with disruptive and traumatic experiences.

Defining Moments

The Partition of British India in 1947 was a defining moment for generations of Indians and Pakistanis. For Bangladeshis, it was their liberation war of 1971.

We Lankans have had at least two defining moments in our recent past. One was Black July 1983; the other, Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004.

Cambridge University sociologist Paul Connerton, in his 1989 book How Societies Remember, argued that it is collective memory — i.e. commonly shared images of the past — which legitimate a present social order. In his view, when memories of a shared past diverge, a society will lack common perspectives and visions.

Lebanese sociologist Samir Khalaf has long reflected on the challenges of collective memory in relation to his own post-war society. He has identified two seemingly opposed forms of self-preservation: to remember, and to forget.

“Both are understandable reactions which enable traumatized groups to survive the cruelties of protracted strife. Both, however, could be disabling as the Lebanese are now considering less belligerent strategies for peaceful coexistence,” he wrote in 2005. (Full text: http://tiny.cc/Khalaf)

He could just as well have been talking about post-war Sri Lanka in 2013.

Let’s leave it to scholars and activists to debate the merits of collective memory vs. collective amnesia. The experience of post conflict societies like South Africa has been that healing and reconciliation require candid acknowledgement of past mistakes and atrocities. Forgive where possible, for sure, but never forget…

The trouble with all our memories is that they slowly fade, and eventually disappear. Their storage medium is fragile carbon, and prone to rapid decay. Civilisations have long grappled with how to preserve memories: art and literature stemmed, in part, as a result.

As did many communications technologies. A turning point was the invention of photography and cinematography in the second half of the 19th century. For the first time, they enabled specific moments to be frozen, stored, retrieved and duplicated. (As I noted in an earlier column: “Ultimately, photos are about defying the tyranny of time and elements. When memory fails, chemicals or digits linger a bit longer…”)

Paradise in Tears - A Journey through History and Conflict, by Victor Ivan

Paradise in Tears – A Journey through History and Conflict, by Victor Ivan

Visual Memory

Still and moving image technologies arrived in Ceylon shortly after their respective invention, and were seized by pioneering individuals to capture private and public moments. This visual record is now scattered in various family collections and public archives.

The cinema newsreel, a precursor to TV news, was the first time in history that a mass audience shared a common experience across time and space.

Today, the web provides a global platform on which such archived resources can be shared for their historical, cultural and artistic value. Some are already doing so.

For example, old cinematic newsreels made by the Pathé company are fully digitised at www.britishpathe.com. Among these are a few dozen stories filmed in Ceylon between 1912 and 1969. They are like mini time capsules.

Images are powerful, but clarity comes only when they are placed in the right context. This is where Victor Ivan’s illustrated book, Paradise in Tears: A Journey through History and Conflict (2008), fills a big gap.

In it, the author – a well known political analyst and founder editor of Ravaya newspaper – traces 190 years of recent Lankan history through carefully annotated 442 photographs sourced from public and private collections.

With dispassionate commentary, he shows how parochialism and opportunism by all political leaders escalated the ethnic conflict and turned it into a full scale civil war. Black July was but a flashpoint in that decades long march of folly.

Gathering these photos had entailed a great deal of research for Ivan, who recently said that he is keen to place this collection online. The paucity of authentic and well annotated archival imagery for Black July underscores the value of such sharing.

Memories captured by digital technologies

Citizen Historians

The recent proliferation of digital technologies means many more will now be bearing witness to unfolding events – sometimes very inconveniently so (for those in authority). Proper context and curation will be crucial to make sense of what they gather.

Affordable digital cameras, smartphones and easy broadband Internet access have spurred a new breed of ‘citizen historians’ who are broad-basing the documentation of collective memory. While citizen journalists are mostly concerned with the current news, citizen historians focus on capturing memories, an intangible heritage.

Oral history practices are not new. But the interactive sharing and collaborative chronicling is a web-enabled recent phenomenon. Some Lankans are tapping this potential at a completely unofficial level.

Groundviews remembersGroundviews.org has become a rallying point for many keen to commemorate pivotal events of our troubled past. Among other topics, it has curated special collections on the end of civil war, as well as remembering the riots of both 1958 and 1983.

Memories and identity are also key elements in Moving Images, an offering of multimedia content (photography, audio and video) on facets of life in post-war Sri Lanka commissioned by Groundviews.

Meanwhile, photographer and filmmaker Kannan Arunasalam has been traversing the island to capture memories of Lankan elders on cultural identity.

Photo courtesy: I Am Project

Photo courtesy: I Am Project

Kannan was curious to know if there was a time when Lankans didn’t describe themselves solely as Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher. He interviewed elders from all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, and shares their oral histories on the ‘I Am’ website (http://iam.lk).

The project has gathered 30,000 Facebook followers and has had over 330,000 page views. But more than these numbers, Kannan says, personal messages of support from followers along the journey have made the initiative worthwhile.

“I hope that my own transformation through engaging with these narratives will help others do the same, and ultimately bring communities together.”

Another digital initiative, called Her Stories project, focuses on mothers from the South and North. Sri Lanka’s first archive of women’s stories, it highlights their strength in the face of adversity, and their hopes for their children’s and country’s future.

Like them or not, there is no stopping such citizen historians and citizen journalists. I’d much rather have them occupy a contested space than settle for any forced consensus advocated by revisionist historians.

If memories get in the way of official histories, so be it. Every word, image, audio and video recalling Black July and other defining moments help us to fight…Against the Fall of Memory.

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
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