New mould for history
If people remember the past with either a sense of nostalgia or trauma, they will interpret the present differently. It implies that they have the choices to do so. But for some in the country, especially those who wish to occupy all sites of power, this is inconvenient. The humour in the enactment of this black comedy, is that this brigade is seeking to freeze ideas in an era of globalisation, writes NEERA CHANDHOKE.
In order to know where we are right now, we must know where we have come from.
MILAN KUNDERA tells us that the only reason why people want to be masters of the future is that they want to change the past. The future may be an apathetic void of no interest to anyone, he suggests, but the past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, and tempt us to destroy and repaint it. That is why people fight for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies are rewritten. Kundera's insight into the struggle to appropriate and re-appropriate the past makes sense only when we recollect that the past is indispensable to our sense of the present. For in order to know where we are right now, we must know where we have come from and how we got from there to where we are right now. No one can really know what is happening and why it is happening unless we know what went before it.
It would be like walking into a movie hall to see a film we have been anxious to watch for long, and finding to our great consternation that it has already begun. Most of us in such situations, recollect, have felt lost and bewildered. For we simply do not know why the protagonist happens to be in the predicament he or she is at the moment, or indeed how she or he got there in the first place. Unless the film happens to be a rehash of familiar Bollywood formulas predictable, repetitive, and plain pedestrian we normally turn to our neighbours and implore them to tell us why what is happening on the screen at that moment is indeed happening. If our neighbour is a good story teller, we will be able to make sense of the film, if she is not, we remain perplexed, unable to come to grips with the world of which we happen to be a prisoner for the next couple of hours.
Something of the same kind happens to us in real life, for we are all too conscious that we have entered a story somewhere in the middle. We, therefore, need to know what has gone on before in order to make sense of what is going on right now. And just like our helpful neighbour in the movie hall, someone has to tell us where we have come from. Someone has to recount our history to us. Therefore, while amnesia is viewed as a pathological condition, history is seen as the key to personal and collective identity. We know of no society that does not possess a sense of history, no society that does not ostentatiously flaunt its archives in the form of mythologies, festivals, commemorative occasions, history text books, and the rest of the panoply that goes into the making of socially constructed remembrance. For if societies do not have memories of the past that they can draw upon, they are rendered clueless.
But where we have come from is not an easy question to answer because the past is after all plural with two and possibly more events occurring at the same moment in time. Expectedly, different people will tell us different stories of our past. Consider that for some people August 15 in the year 1947 represents the moment when India became independent. Others will however remember 1947 with grief because it brought with it the partition of the country. Independence day actually serves to remind them of their losses, of the violence that accompanied Partition, of the horrors of the bloodshed that marked communal strife in that period. This was not what they had struggled for "Yeh woh subah to nahi", wrote the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz with sadness, even as other poets celebrated the onset of independence.
But it is equally true that even as some people remember August 15, 1947 as the time when the country became independent, they will also recollect that it was a victory that came to us with torn feet and bloodied hands. They will remember both the horror and bloodshed that irrevocably stamped our society in August 1947 with their cloven hoofs, as well as Pandit Nehru's famous "tryst with destiny" speech. Their memories of the past will necessarily be plural as well as conflicting, bringing with them both joy and sorrow, both rejoicing and mourning, both happiness as well as despondency.
This, however, means that recollections of the same time, day or year cannot be separated, packaged neatly into little boxes, tied with different coloured ribbons, and put away in the compartments of history. For multiple, complex, overlapping, and conflicting memories of the past slide beneath, over, and into each other like the proverbial shades of a kaleidoscope. It consequently becomes impossible to differentiate or disentangle one recollection from another. Composed of multiple and often contradictory recollections that not only merge into each other, but that constitute each other, memories of the past are unstable, fluid, and malleable. That is why historical interpretations are necessarily plural.
But it is precisely plurality that any group, which seeks to monopolise power, cannot allow. For if people remember the past in different ways, they will interpret the present differently. They will in other words possess choices. And this simply does not serve the purposes of those who wish to occupy all sites of power, including the power to give only one interpretation of history and thereby one interpretation of the present. A singular interpretation of history, sponsored by the State, on the other hand cancels out other interpretations that allow people to think of themselves in different ways, that allow people to make their own lives in their own way. To put it differently a single conception of history peddled through say school textbooks, by freezing the past and thereby the present, helps to control the way people think of themselves. That is why text books for children have to be rewritten, they have to be censored, they have to be filtered through the lens of power.
It is however rather laughable that the constituency the Hindutva brigade is seeking to construct in its own image through the rewriting of school textbooks is that of children. For today if anyone has access to multiple interpretations of history through multiple sites the Internet or the Discovery channel for example it is the school child. And when this child accesses different kinds of history, which may make more sense to her than the history taught in schools, the latter simply becomes irrelevant. It even becomes boring, just another subject that has to be mugged in order to pass exams. If there is any humour in this black comedy that the peddlers of Hindutva are enacting for us, it lies in the fact that the brigade is seeking to freeze ideas in an era of globalisation which enables the circulation of ideas at an astonishingly rapid place. Unless of course the next step is to censor the Internet, the e-mail, cyber cafi's, music videos, the television, the "Harry Potter" novel, comics, movies, and the cell phone just as the Taliban did. But then the votaries of Hindutva should remember what happened to the Taliban. It did destroy itself.
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