A different kind of history

by Malinda Seneviratne

Divaine Visi Vasak
(Twenty years at the Divaina),
by Merrill Perera
Published by Dayawansa Jayakody and Co.

Nations and communities have histories. Inextricably entwined in these are the stories of women, men and children. In fact one could argue that the history of a collective is but an tapestry of the inter-related stories of individuals. Without people, history cannot exist. And yet, we have been told to accept that history is about event and personality. This naturally lends to such narratives being nothing more than the version of the winners. Biographies, in any form, therefore constitute the necessary fillers that complete and even contest the grand story of a people. I love biographies, for the diurnal concerns of the smallest person throw light on the dark, empty spaces of the macro canvass.

Merrill Perera’s book is certainly not a biography. It is not a "history". It is but a recollection of "moments" he was close to or was a part of over the past 20 years at the Divaina. And yet, I can’t help feeling that if someone were to write the history of Upali Newspapers Ltd., someday, he/she would miss the wood for the trees, so to speak. For historiography has a way of editing out ordinary people.

"History" records the dates of "significant" events. To whom such events are significant and why will surely be written. At the same time, convention demands that the historian’s pen come to an abrupt stop at two things, a tear and a smile. It is in this sense that Merrill’s account stands out as a useful contribution to the art of documentation.

Gamini Sumanasekera, editor of the Sunday Divaina, who joined Upali Newspapers along with Merrill, and who has witnessed with Merrill the entire "history" of this newspaper, describes his colleague as someone who has indefatigable energy and blessed with that rare capacity to generate laughter in everyone and carry their sorrows and tears without complaint. Such men necessarily have poignant stories to relate. This book must be a collection of what Merrill considers to be those stories that capture who he is, what the Divaina is and is becoming and those which speak of the eternal varieties of the human condition.

"Twenty Years at the Divaina" can be read as a version of the Divaina story. To read it just as that would be a disservice to the author. It is elegantly written, and in the manner of a veteran newspaperman, with extraordinary economy that hardly taxes the reader.

Merrill has certainly walked some distance since he brought out his first book, Ayubowan Armour Veediya (which Merrill translates as "Armour Street, here I come"). In that journey, he has met memorable people and lived through momentous times. Some of these people and events are captured in his new book. We can only hope that Merrill continues to employ his pen to similar endeavours, for this is where he is at his best, talking about the small things, the small people and their inevitably momentous lives.