Memory as Guide: and personal narratives of Sri Lanka

     " When there was no petrol we ran the cars on kerosene.” The Taxi Driver.     

      Launched three years ago, features Sri Lankan elders—in their 80s, 90s and 100s—who tell, of their lives preceding, during, and after the twenty-six year civil war. 3-minute long video portraits give snippets of survival of war, the innovation demanded by the county’s shifting political scene and policies, domestic sanctions, forced removal, and the undulating hostilities and violence. With the war claiming the lives of several generations and forcing thousands to flee their home, this turn to the elders offers a look, one that is not always framed as idyllic, of Sri Lanka’s past and present.

      Although the eras of war and post-war place ethnicity at the forefront of concerns of justice and humanity, the personal stories of these elders traverse boundaries of identity (whether based on language, faith or nation). They contradict the type of difference imposed by the war and the post-war state. If anything, the video-portraits reflect a cosmopolitan Sri Lanka. I met Kannan Arunasalam, the creator of the project, 7 years ago in Colombo in a makeshift conversational-Tamil classroom. As a recent (British) Tamil returned to the island “What are you?” and “Who are you?” were two persistent questions he repeatedly encountered in Sri Lanka. He learned through this journey that the answers to these questions of identity, no matter to whom they are posed, deserved complication. Trained in media and human rights law, and already a regular contributor to a series Radio Netherlands, Arunasalam developed to address the complexity of Sri Lankan identity through image and voice.

      The website features over 60 video-portraits—twelve elders from each of Sri Lanka’s major towns and cities—Jaffna, Kandy, Galle, Colombo, Batticaloa and Negombo.  “The nun,” a story told by Sister Pushpam Gnanapragasam from Jaffna, begins with her affectionately recalling the word “our” as a means of distinction between communities, regions, and peoples within the country.  She remembers how, in the years following independence, an “awakening” of “distinct” difference was transmitted to children through books that tied ethnicity to work and labor. A children’s reader, for instance, showed an image of a toddy tapper with the word “Tamil” underneath. But the trauma of war was experienced across ethnicity and Gnanapragasam emphasizes a practice of empathy regardless of the affections that remain for identity, ethnicity, and notions of “our.” As one of the first elders to contribute her story, shelater sent Deepavali wishes to Arunasalam, and blessed his project for its desire to bring about a renewed sense of community.

      Personal stories are’s political project: these stories may have been forgotten, unavailable, or revised had they not been archived electronically. However, any research to further place and contextualize these histories is left up to the viewer/listener.  By avoiding such research, Arunasalam hoped to circumvent previous efforts to rationalize the conflict. He states, “This conflict has been going on and the research hasn’t gotten us anywhere.” If anything, nationalism (not only in Sri Lanka) shapes research and facts to explain its cause. The arbitrary imprisonment of local activists and everyday citizens who seek answers to injustice and the recent rise in Islamaphobic violence in Sri Lanka demonstrate that there is no end to the struggles between the state and its people. 

      Virtual media platforms that discuss issues of ethnicity, belonging, nationality, and perspectives of history often draw anonymously posted vitriol, but has instead drawn a kind and welcoming response. The elder’s stories are being heard. And the vast Sri Lankan diaspora--who had a significant role (both economically and politically) during the war—are visiting and virtually reconnecting with people who they remember from their former lives in the homeland.

      But, in the time between the state being at war to a moment when Sri Lanka is attempting to leave the conflict behind, lives have certainly shifted. Essan, the taxi driver who engineered a way to drive his car on kerosene when fuel was banned because of domestic sanctions, commented in his interview that, “[now] people complain about the car being too hot.” The statement demonstrates the remarkable change with the post-war era. For so long, the only question posed to him was: “Can you get me there?”


Kannan with Sister Gnanapragasam




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