By Rajan Philips –
Sri Lanka turns 73 this week, 73 years since becoming independent. Over the last 10 to 15 years, I have been writing a piece almost every February to mark Sri Lanka’s independence anniversary. I wrote one for the 70th anniversary, in 2018, but unbeknownst to me and many others, there was a different and far more precious souvenir that was being prepared to mark that special occasion. The precious product came out the following year, in 2019, entitled “Archive of Memory – Reflections on 70 years of Independence.” It was the brainchild and consummate achievement of Malathi de Alwis, who passed away recently causing great shock and much sadness in Sri Lanka’s social, activist, and academic circles.
I did not know Dr. de Alwis at all and never had the privilege of meeting her. But members of my family did, and the copy of the “Archive of Memory” that I am using for inspiration now was given by Ms. Alwis to my wife, Amali, when they met in Colombo in January 2020. Many of us knew of her work and her collaboration with Kumari Jayawardena, and we saw in her a gifted torch bearer for the next generation. As with Serena Tennakoon earlier, untimely death has snatched away another accomplished prodigy all too soon when Sri Lanka needs many more of them – among both women and men and among all its Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim co-existences.
On the positive side, and despite its seemingly unbridgeable political divisions, Sri Lankan society never runs short of people never giving up in keeping the social ties of unity, decency, tolerance, and humanity, alive and strong. Malathi de Alwis was one such person. The Archive of Memory which she conceptualized and produced, in collaboration with Hasini Haputhanthri, Shani Jayawardena and others, is testament to her life’s work and purpose. Even more, the Archive is a testament to Sri Lanka’s possibilities, notwithstanding all the recessionary and reactionary forces that are in command today.
The life of things
Malathi de Alwis was an Anthropologist. So was Serena Tennakoon. Anthropologists do not work with large populations, or look for statistical validations of social practices or processes. They look for experiential validations and try to discern sense and meanings from social norms, processes, customs, and practices. Practices involve symbols and objects and artefacts and things. Anthropologists talk about “The social life of things.” The Archive of Memory enshrines both the social and political life of Sri Lankan things. It is a photographic collection of objects and artefacts, and narratives about them educed from their owners and possessors.
The Archive includes seventy photographs depicting seventy objects and artefacts – one for each year of independence. Each photograph is supplemented by a narrative, authentically provided by the owners, and dialectically refined by the owners and the editors. Linguistic mediation was inevitable because the Archive of Memory is published in all three languages of Sri Lanka, the narratives involved translation from one language to another. Even in the same language – there was back and forth between the narrators and the editors as they ‘distilled’ the original tale to suit the physical limits of size and structure while retaining the authenticity of the narrative voices.
The archival project clearly seems to have resonated across a representative cross-section of Sri Lankan society. A network of collectors and interviewers literally contact-traced potential possessors of things that had tales to tell. They were drawn from all ethnicities and all social strata, from all occupations and walks of life, and from all religions as well as from atheists. The project received more than 150 interests, and settled on 70 objects and stories. The Archive includes at least one object-story pair from each Province, as well as from the diaspora, and the provincial tallies are – Western Province over 20 of them, Northern Province 14, Central Province 9, and five each in the Southern and Eastern Provinces.
Chronologically, the objects and stories span all seven decades of independence, some of them going back to pre-independence years, many of them converging around the 1980s and 2000s. It will not be justice to the Archive to try to describe in words any, let alone all, of the objects that are captured by the splendid photography of Sharni Jayawardena. The objects range from family jewelry, personal belongings, household items, musical instruments, food sampling, mechanical appliances, garden trees and many more. Not every object is a personal possession, but something that relates to someone’s experience, or a common event. The stories about them are personal, but they are also political – if not directly, but at least contextually.
The collection begins with a Silver Bangle and the story about the Pageant of Lanka that Deva Suriya Sena organized in London, in 1948, to celebrate Ceylon’s independence. The pageant was held over four days featuring episodes from the past through music, dance, and drama – Ravana and Sita; Introduction to Buddhism; Elara the Just; Arrival of the Portuguese; and the British Administration. Dakshini Fernando who narrates the story was a twenty-year old, living in London in 1948, and wore the Silver Bangle for a dance performance at the pageant.
The book ending story is about a Suitcase that has been the life companion for Bandara Menike, born in 1948, in Soranthota, Badulla, in far less than fortunate circumstances. She missed learning to read and write, which all her siblings did, and joined as a domestic help to a well-to-do family in Badulla. When that family moved to Colombo, they took Menike with them and bought her a new suitcase to pack her belongings. The Suitcase has stayed with Menike through much of the Independence years. She wouldn’t let go of it, and says “it keeps vigil under my sick bed.” She has seen Colombo at its best and at its worst – from the limitless ocean and the amusing zoo, to the fires of 1983, the sirens of the civil war, and the water walls of the tsunami.
In between, we are introduced by Sunethra Bandaranaike to the Wedding Necklace that her mother wore en route to becoming Sri Lanka’s and the world’s first woman Prime Minister. A.T. Ariyaratne recounts his initiative as a young schoolboy in Galle in setting up a co-operative for poor women who make Coir Rope, to get fair prices for their product. The initiative grew into a fully fledged Coir Rope Makers Co-operative encompassing 15,000 villages across the island after starting “80 destitute women” in Unawatuna. And we hear of the exploits of Ray Wijewardena making Micro-Light aircrafts.
None of the stories is dull or dreary. Many of them are laced with humour, ever as they are poignant. Depressing stories surface on all sides as years roll by and the country is caught in the throes of a civil war. Udhayani Navaratnam (Tellipalai/New Delhi) and her family saved their Keys but lost their house in Tellipalai. She was 14 in 1990, when the family had to evacuate their house as it came under the government security zone. They were reduced to living a nomadic existence, the father died of a heart attack in 2003, and in 2011 they were given permission to return to their house. After 21 years they went back, their mother clutching the bunch of keys. There was nothing left on their land to open with the Keys they had saved.
The things and the stories, assembled by Malathi de Alwis and her creative team of serious and dedicated friends, bring into rare relief the social facets of Independence – separate from political pretensions and the parades that go with them. The Archive’s introduction eschews pretension and speaks candidly about independence and its aftermaths:
“While there is much to celebrate in our overthrowing a 500-year yoke of colonial rule and embracing democratic politics, it is undeniable that Sri Lanka’s post-independence trajectory has also been rather turbulent and bloody. Communal riots, youth insurrections, natural disasters and a protracted civil war have cast a long, brooding shadow across recent decades. Any reflection on our past must acknowledge the positive advances we have made as a nation as well as question and learn from our negative experiences.”
The Archive captures samples of positive advances as well as negative experiences, and acknowledges that many “events of great political and historical significance” are not in the collection. However, what are included are worthy of repetitive reading and reflection, not for making political arguments but for experiencing political catharsis. Indeed, they are objects and narrative fragments that have never been together, nor will they ever be. Yet, together, they interlace a Sri Lankan story that is not politically pretentious but is socially authentic. For that, we say Thank You to Malathi de Alwis and salute her memory.