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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

History and Other Works of Fiction

Indians have an odd relationship with History. Growing up, the subject along with the rest of the Arts is consigned to the bottom of the educational caste system. To have graduated in History either means you are academically challenged or you’re a woman who’s about to be married off the day you graduate. Of course, it doesn’t help that the way it’s taught in school, it’ll take quite an effort to like it—I remember boob-drawing competitions on the grainy illustrations of historical figures on our text-books as a teacher whiled away the period by getting some chap to stand up and read the chapter.

Which is why it’s ironic to see incidents such as the Jaswant Singh-Jinnah controversy shaking up the country every now and then—History’s revenge on India, if you will.

This time though, an American film studio suffered for our confusion of History. The Indian Government alarmed that evil, foreign people were out to show that Nehru loved a women (a foreign, evil women, no less) other than his dead wife put so many curbs on the filming of Indian Summer (no use of the word, “love” and no smooches either) that those poor chaps had to give up the idea of the film altogether.

What was really fun though, was the self-righteous, almost naive outrage over the Government’s decision. People going on about how our leaders were human too, criticism of the Nehru-Gandhi family and, of course, quite a few Indian men clueless as to why Nehru bagging a white chick was being censored in the first place.

Nehru was of course human. But India’s first Prime Minister wasn’t human—he wouldn’t be allowed to be anything of that sort, really. The thing is, every nation needs its heroes and villains to exist. It needs a narrative. And so does India.

Of course, narratives aren’t easy to come by when you’re dealing with something as grand as a nation, so nation-builders do the next best thing—they make them up. Countries a lot more homogenous than India have had their narratives, er... tweaked to get things together and so has India. And what’s the best way to make a national narrative? Mess with the History, of course--as Mani Shankar Aiyer put it on a TV show: “if you can’t have Politics in History then where are you going to have it--Biology?”.

Pick up a regular high school text book and what you’ll get is a highly standardised version of the events leading up to 1947. Of course, it’s an impossible task to write a historical account that everyone thinks is right—after all, we want see ourselves in History, and therefore, make our own histories so than we can fulfil this wish. But this text-book History would be written keeping in mind what the powers-that-be think would be “correct”; not that an ultra-left version of or an RSS version is any less valid, per se.

To oppose this is to oppose the sun rising in the East. All you can hope the change this would be to, well, make yourself the powers-that-be. Simple.

What, on the other hand, is remarkable is that, considering how important a coherent narrative of nationhood is to India given her mind-numbing diversity, how little reconstruction of the historical narrative has been done. In other words, the official narrative hardly occupies the space that it does in, say, a China or a Russia.

Conflicting narratives are often aired in India, and while they might not always enter the public sphere lacking the political muscle power needed for that, they are still ubiquitous. That, of course, does not mean that conflicting narratives are always tolerated, no. Jaswant’s Singh’s expulsion is proof enough of that, however, what must also be kept in mind is the general frowning upon that the BJP received for this act from the chattering classes.

This attitude might be a outcome of democracy or put more correctly, democracy might be an outcome of this attitude, however, as a rule of thumb, historical narratives in the Subcontinent aren’t as rigid as, say, our equally populous neighbours across the Himalayas. Pakistan itself has a varying rainbow of opinions about its origins, although, the official narrative, mixed up as it is with a combustible blend of religion is a bit more difficult to challenge. Thus, even the more liberal versions of History would prefer to leave, say, Jinnah’s religious convictions out of the picture rather than saying that, “look here, everything aside, Jinnah was just about as much of an observing Muslim as Michael Jackson was Black”.

11 comments:

Amit Sondhi said...

Wow, that was just, really intelligent.

Hades said...

Thanks, Amit.

vicious said...

thats a very true observation ..reading history seems to be a crome ...w hen in class 9 i told my fellas i liked to read about french revolution n palestine n old indian temples ..they were horrified ...
i relieved them wen i became an engineer !!!

vicious said...

n ya m an engineer who apart from writing codes is satisfying her wish to study arts by writing silly blogs!!

Rakesh said...

Seriously Hades, I mean, how could History be taught as simply as Maths. There were no conflicting opinions - there was only 1 clear answer to every question.

Now that I actually think about it that you've brought this up, how dumb was that. No wonder, we never found History any interesting.

It is weird that today's generation gets it's history by reading chain emails forwarded by either a Congress hater or a BJP hater.

Indophile said...

NCERT history books are usually not way off the mark. These arguments, regarding a total hijack of history by left leaning, Nehru loving historians (Romila Thapar et al) , are often repeated in media. But most of the evidence on Internet support their version of history . The only conflict seems to be the way they portray Jinnah's and Hindu Mahasabha's role at the time of independence.

Nobody said...

//after all, we want see ourselves in History, and therefore, make our own Histories so than we can fulfil this wish//

Brilliant...

Sudipta Chatterjee said...

Came here via Blogbharti, and loved the post! Great write-up!

siddharth said...

women ->woman ...nice read

Anonymous said...

Came here by blogbharti
Liked the post.

Proserpina said...

"What is history but a fable agreed upon?"-Napolean

Btw,I liked History. I was considering to do it as an honor subject along with Political Science,but I found journalism more interesting. ;))

Intelligent post,btw.