In this exclusive, Lankaweb presents the second part of the introduction to H. L. D. Mahindapala’s book titled:The bloody road from Vadukoddai to Nandkadal-Part II
Posted on February 27th, 2011

Part II

 Before I go any further, it must also be mentioned that this publication is not meant to fall into the usual category of academic theses written for doctoral awards supervised and approved by the professoriat ruling the departments of history, political science, and other social sciences. I am a journalist by profession and I write outside the academic loop which, of course, has its own advantages and disadvantages.

 As a journalist I kept to my schedule of writing the history of the passing day. Historians write analyses of days, months and years put together. Besides, as a journalist I write on the run about history in the making. In fact, some of the chapters reproduced in this book are commentaries written in response to issues that cropped up from day to day.With pressures of meeting daily deadlines I wasn’t focused emphatically in mulling over the cumulative effects of times gone by. It was my job to pick up the day’s scattered fragments and make some sense out of it. Like all political journalist I watched and recorded events determined by the past unfolding daily, in bits and pieces, as they moved in from all directions and converged eventually to take their place in history. In short, I was in the thick of moving history, with a ringside view of what was happening daily. My reporting was an attempt to tease out some meaning daily to the ever-changing colours and patterns appearing on the national kaleidoscope.

 I was also conscious of being the eyes and ears of the world as I trudged the highway and byways of Sri Lanka to bring together, before the day was out, what I thought was significant in my field. Every day I was expected to put the disarranged pieces together, as in a jig saw puzzle, for the world to view the big picture coming out of broken shards of exploding events.

 This makes the task of a journalist more difficult than that of a historian whose main focus is to research and collate methodically the shapes, forms, substance and meanings coming out of the words, actions and the consequences as revealed in documents, archaeological sites, literature, arts, the cross-currents of prevailing ideologies, the technologies that changed the course of history, the environmental factors that determine events, the biological and the psychological make up of the kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers etc., at a more leisurely and reflective pace. Journalists, on the other hand, have to pick up the meanings instantly, as it comes out bursting from the latest events and restore some order to the unfolding chaos. Sometimes they are also expected not only to give meaning but also to forecast.

 The journalist deals primarily with the present. The historian, on the contrary, has to focus mainly on the past to get to the present. Their discipline demands that they should weave grand theoretical patterns from the material they have gathered to impose or convey their meanings. Sometimes they come down heavily on the living and the dead. This is something they share with the journalists, however flawed they may be.

 However, the history written by professional historians produces a different kind of reporting on what happened in history. There is, of course, no consensus as to what happened in history. One version differs from the other. Invariably history runs into a dead end each time attempts are made to lock it inside theoretical boxes. One inexorable feature of history is that it refuses doggedly to be locked inside little ideological boxes of theoreticians. Each time an attempt is made to box history inside mono-causal theoretical frameworks it jumps out and runs in the opposite direction.

 History is idiosyncratic that way. No one has yet found a way of keeping it locked inside theoretical boxes. History is open-ended and the movements of the past have the tendency to intertwine with the unexpected turn of events dominating the present and open up new and surprising possibilities for better or for worse.

 In pursuing our different vocations we share some traits in common though. We both are after the five big “W’s”: what happened, where, when, to whom and why. We are also concerned about “how” it happened. But we approach the same “W’s” from different perspectives and objectives. Journalists focus invariably on its immediate impact. Historians take a long term view of the same facts and figures.

The anointed gurus of history have their respective and respected places in the hierarchy of their discipline. Their ideologies come and go according to intellectual fashions of the day. It can be argued, up to point, that history is best understood and appreciated as a straightforward narrative with the least amount of theoretical baggage. That’s how the father of history, Herodotus, wrote history.[1]  Herodotus dealt with history like the way a modern reporter would chronicle the passing scene.

Consider, for instance, this passage on Egypt: “About Egypt itself I shall have a great deal more to relate because of the number of remarkable things which the country contains, and because of the fact that more monuments which beggar description are to be found there than anywhere else in the world. That is reason enough for my dwelling on it at greater length. Not only is the Egyptian climate peculiar to that country and the Nile different in behaviour from other rivers elsewhere, but the Egyptians themselves in their manners and customs seem to have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind. For instance, women attend market and are employed in trade, while men stay at home and do the weaving. In weaving the normal way is to work the threads of the weft upwards, but the Egyptians work them downwards. Men in Egypt carry loads on their heads, women on their shoulders; women pass water standing up and men sitting down”¦..”[2]

 Of course, Herodotus must have written this with an eye to titillate his Greek audience. Nevertheless, like a hawk-eyed journalist, he picks up the quaint details to paint the big picture. He is the first historian to draw attention to Egypt as the source of the classical civilization built by the ancient Greeks. In tracing the links he wrote: “The names of nearly all the gods came to Greece from Egypt .” For instance, he says that Amus is the Egyptian for Zeus. Art historians have also drawn the links between the monumental figures of stylized and immobile Egyptian sculpture to the frozen kouros and kuroi of early Greek sculpture which later evolved into supple, lissome art of Greek classical period, breaking loose from the rigidities of Egyptian sculpture which was designed essentially to inspire shock and awe.

 Though his critics have questioned his methodology Herodotus pursued the natural curiosity of an investigative journalist. For instance, he painstakingly questions the Egyptian priests to find out the origins of the story of Helen of Troy which was embellished by Homer. Herodotus gives the version he heard from the priest and adds: “I think Homer was familiar with the story (of the arrival of Helen with Paris at Proteus’ court in Egypt ); for though he rejected it as less suitable for epic poetry than the one he actually used, he left indications that it was not unknown to him.”[3] And then he proceeds to quote the passages from Illiad which refers to Egypt .

 Though Western historians begin their narrative from classical Greece Herodotus dates it back to Egypt . His methodology helped to question the prevailing theories and debunk them. He was setting the pattern for writing history on plain facts more than questionable and inflated theories of the time. He was also conscious of tracing historical developments to the events nearest to the starting points. The starting point in history is critical because it can make all the difference to the understanding of the present flowing from the past into the future.

 The past has many starting points and the erroneous starting point can lead to many misleading perspectives and conclusions. The cut off points selected to trace the flow of events tend to determine the perspectives and the conclusions in history. Invariably those with political agendas start at the most convenient point to begin their narrative. So when Herodotus went all the way to Egypt in search of the origins of Greek history he made a great contribution to the study of history. In exploring Egyptian history to draw the links between the two cultures he virtually set the standards to consider the dynamics of intertwining and interacting forces from diverse sources for a multi-factorial reading of history with an eye for details — all of which are indispensable for the understanding of history in all its dimensions. 

3 Responses to “In this exclusive, Lankaweb presents the second part of the introduction to H. L. D. Mahindapala’s book titled:The bloody road from Vadukoddai to Nandkadal-Part II”

  1. Terry Says:

    “Like all political journalist I watched and recorded events determined by the past unfolding daily, in bits and pieces, as they moved in from all directions and converged eventually to take their place in history. In short, I was in the thick of moving history, with a ringside view of what was happening daily”

    I cannot wait for your recollection of the Premadasa days..

  2. jimmy Says:

    Forgive me If I am wrong
    I hear Hon Mahindapala is one of the most eminent journalists in Lanka we all should be proud of regardless of his political views

    I think you are bothering him

    again please forgive me if you are hurt

  3. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    Mahindapala ! I admire your jounalistic eminence, and I never miss reading your articles to a finish. It provides a never ending source if factual information, with which we develop our minds. Many thanks to the knowledge you bestow on us, without any renumeration.

    There is just another handful of distinguished journalists with eminence who contribute to this Lank Web forum, on very interesting subjects.I never fail to assimilate the subjects that they write on. I have asked my good friend Asoka, whether he has an archives to pull things out from memorabilia.

    Mahindapala ! Doctaral awards are at the descretion of the supervised class, and they may not perhaps be Academics , who understand the language you speak and write. Whoever is authorised to shake the Rattles, in looking out for prospective journalists par excellence, your name would be right on the TOP. Blessings to you.

    Please keep up the good work, which according to my classification, YOU would be PAR EXCELLENCE. You could be equated to Gootilaya.


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