Brunch

Witnesses to History

  • A journey through history as living memories

History and our relationships with our histories are quite complex and multi-layered. Things we do and consider second nature often began in the strangest of ways with the most unexpected cultural influences coming into play.
Freelance feature writer and communications consultant Smriti Daniel decided to explore our relationships with history in a new way, through oral historians, architects, and foodies from diverse backgrounds who take listeners on a journey through history as living memories, providing a distinctive look into Sri Lanka’s past. 

Conceptualised by Smriti, Witnesses to History is a podcast series developed in collaboration with Historical Dialogue.lk, an initiative of the programme Strengthening Reconciliation Processes in Sri Lanka (SRP). SRP is co-financed by the European Union (EU) and the German Federal Foreign Office, and is implemented by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and the British Council, in partnership with the Government of Sri Lanka.

Historical Dialogue Technical Expert Johann Peiris shared that Historical Dialogue supports a wide range of initiatives addressing memorialisation and dealing with the past in Sri Lanka. “Understanding the diversity of the past, the nuances of historical events since Independence, particularly those rarely addressed in schools and media, is one of our aims,” Peiris said. “Smriti Daniel created this series of podcasts addressing topics of oral history, architecture, and food, which received many positive comments and revived memories. Yesterday, a lady called and related how an episode made her reminisce of the times when they frequented a tailor on Java Lane for embroidery on her wedding dress. This was when imported fabrics were not available in the country. We’re all aware of how Slave Island is completely changing due to development projects – this is taken up in the second episode, where one of the speakers living in Slave Island shares personal insights.” 

While podcast listeners are still a growing community in Sri Lanka, Peiris shared that the response to Witnesses to History has been so encouraging that Historical Dialogue is making plans to support further episodes in Sinhala and Tamil that address the issues of our vivid and varied histories. 

To learn more about Witnesses to History itself and how it came together, Brunch chatted to the creative brains behind the series, Smriti Daniel. 

What is Witnesses to History about? What sparked the idea and brought it to life?

In the early months of the pandemic, I was tuning into a lot of podcasts and I realised I’d love to conceptualise one myself. There was something about stepping away from doom scrolling and frenetic news updates and just sinking into a more reflective way of listening that I found soothing. I’ve been a journalist for a long time and I found myself looking for stories that were somehow deeper and broader than a news cycle allowed for. I’ve interviewed some of the people on the podcast before, but I wanted to tell stories that went behind the scenes as it were, and that allowed them to explore questions about why they did what they did, what impact it had on them, and what value they saw it bring to others around them. 

The stories they share in this series are quiet, yet often profoundly moving – you hear of how an oral history project helped a bereaved daughter heal from her father’s murder, or how, before the war scattered them, a family would go outside to eat under the full moon together. There are stories that are anchored to recipes, to dreams, to maps, to walking, to buildings. 

In terms of the production itself, I also wanted to play with something that wasn’t just two people chatting but that had high production values and realised some of the amazing potential of the medium. I was really lucky that the team of Historical Dialogue shared my enthusiasm for the project and that I had an in-house audio producer during lockdown – my husband Suda Shanmugaraja was the one stitching it all together. And finally, Mika Tennekoon’s artwork really brought it to life in the most beautiful way. 

Tell us more about the series itself and what it covers.

There are three episodes in this first season – the first focuses on oral historians and how they collect stories that challenge a single narrative. It features Malathi de Alwis, Hasini A.  Haputhanthri, Radhika Hettiarachchi, and Ruwanthie de Chickera. 

The second is around architecture and the people who can read it to discover truths about our communities and our past, even when there are those who seek to erase that record. This episode features Firi Rahman, Shayari de Silva, and Asoka Mendis de Zoysa. 

And the final episode – which is due to be out next month – is about food, and how our tables capture the ways in which our communities have been transformed by war, migration, and government policy. Selvi S. Sachithanandam, Jamila Zainudeen Adamjee, Sakina Taher, and Anne-Marie Keller spoke to me for this one. Each episode has bonus materials (including pictures, audio clips, and recipes). 

Why do you think it is important for us to be having conversations on our history? 

Simply, because our history has such a profound impact on our present in every way. There are so many sides to every story, and yet the way we encounter history in school and university, and in the media, often flattens, simplifies, and tidies up the narrative in ways that can be deeply problematic and leave us increasingly polarised as a society. 

In their own ways, the people featured in this podcast set out to complicate our understanding of history and our identities. In each podcast, we also see these lovely intersections between people approaching the same subject from different perspectives that I found very enriching. Personally, I believe we need to make room for individual narratives, and embrace all their messiness, contradictions, and subjectivity. It is a step toward understanding our conflicted past and making way for a kinder future.   

The series features insight from the late Malathi de Alwis in its first episode. How did this come about? 

Malathi was one of the first people I wanted to interview for this series because of the Archive of Memory. She was someone I always enjoyed interviewing as a journalist – whether she was talking about how faith in Pattini Devi united both Buddhists and Hindus or how Michael Ondaatje’s writing in Anil’s Ghost raised awareness around disappearances in Sri Lanka, she was articulate, wise, and always patient. 

When I asked to interview her and Hasini for this podcast, she readily agreed even though she was due to have surgery that week. Malathi was feeling quite weak when we spoke and perhaps you can hear that, but I think also her commitment to her work shines through. The release of the podcast itself was delayed due to the pandemic, but I’m so glad we started those interviews when Malathi was still with us.  

Tell us something you learned through Witnesses to History that was a surprise to you. 

It might seem strange but the answer to your question comes to me in snapshots, moments from the series: Malathi and Hasini talking about the nature of memory and how you could evoke it through an object; Radhika on how Sri Lankan women, and mothers in particular, became guardians of memories in their families; Ruwanthie on how she found herself becoming a bridge between her children and her parents. In the second episode, it was Asoka talking about what the changing facades of Galle Fort homes revealed about their inhabitants; Shayari drawing parallels between architectural conservation and environmental conservation; Firi talking about the disappearing landscape of Slave Island and how his favourite spot was a public bathroom which had an aviary and a grapefruit vine growing through it. 

The third episode is packed full of these moments: Selvi talking about ritual foods and how her aunt could tell whether the food she was cooking was adequately salted by smell alone; Jamila and Sakina talking about the incredible operation they run through FMB, the Dawoodi-Bohra community kitchen; and Anne-Marie Keller reflecting on how their kitchen weathered the trials of the 1970s restrictions on imports in Sri Lanka. These are all glimpses of our island at different times and places, and we’re lucky to have people who remember them so well. 

To listen to the Witnesses to History podcast series, please visit Historical Dialogue’s website https://historicaldialogue.lk/podcasts/
To discuss ideas and proposals for future episodes, please contact Historial Dialogue on info@historicaldialogue.lk.