On Facebook last week a reader, in response to my recent series on the Taj, asked, “Kyun gadhe murde ukhadane main time waste kar rahe ho…?”. That comment set me thinking. The phrase “Gadhe Murde” had hit the nail on the head. It summarised the way most Indians feel about history. “History is boring; It merely digs up the past; It is unnecessary; It serves little purpose”. No wonder, few Indians have a strong sense of history. And the more “educated” you are, the less acquainted you are likely to be, not just with history but also the rich traditions of the past. One of the most common refrain in my discussions with youngsters is, “We are not interested in what happened in the past. We want to focus on the future!”. Unsurprisingly, History is one of the least popular subject in our colleges and universities. Anyone who claims to have a genuine interest in history is seen as pretentious and boring; sometimes both.
Does history really matter? It apparently has little relevance in our daily life. You may struggle in the real-world if you have not studied elementary maths but a lack of awareness about history is unlikely to hold you back in most careers. But matter it does. A lot actually. It matters because of the glimpses it offers of a heritage and a culture. It matters because it helps us understand the evolution of societies, of communities and nations. It matters because it helps us realise the mistakes – and learn from them. It matters because it helps us prepare for the future.
Unfamiliarity with history can lead to not just ignorance but a deeply flawed and embarrassing view of the past, often marked by self-loathing. It can also manifest in a scornful disdain of traditions and heritage. The utter devaluation of an age-old language Sanskrit – a language that was almost chosen to be the national language but lost by a single vote – is symptomatic of this disdain of the past and of history. An immensely valuable link to our past, the language of the Itihas-s and Purana-s, is no longer easily accessible, thanks to a deep distrust of the past. The effects of utter lack of understanding of the historical past & the scornful disdain it induces, can be debilitating – especially when they manifest themselves in our leaders. India’s first Prime Minister is a case in point. As the redoubtable Arun Shourie wrote, “Pandit Nehru is the most vivid example of the type. He was the truest of nationalists. His sacrifices for our independence compare with those of anyone else. But he had little acquaintance with our tradition – his descriptions of it, even when they seek to laud it, do not go deeper than the superficial cliche: one has only to read his account of even a relatively straightforward text such as the Gita alongside that of Sri Aurobindo or Gandhiji or Vinoba to see the chasm”.
History matters. More than you think. And while historical narratives can be distorted to imbibe a sense of false pride among people (remember the false narrative of “Aryans” and the misappropriation of the Swastika by the Nazis in the 20th century?), they can equally be twisted to make a community feel wretched & worthless. As amateur historian Dr Prodosh Aich has written in his book, “Lies with Long Legs”, “We are, what we know. And we only know what we have been told“.
History matters because it is evocative. It can inspire powerful emotions and trigger events that can have profound and lasting impact. Both the “World Wars” had their roots in history. The most dreaded terrorist group in the world today, the Islamic State draws its inspiration from history. Numerous geo-political flashpoints in the world have their seeds in history. History shapes our world-view and how we interpret and react to contemporary events. No wonder the “teaching of history” is often a subject of controversy.
History can be a powerful nourishment to help establish the identity – of a community, a society and a nation. Indeed, a deep understanding and awareness of history, is key to maintaining a sense of identity. Without such a collective memory, a society is “..as rootless and adrift as an individual with amnesia“. This sense of “being adrift” is beautifully captured by VS Naipaul in this haunting passage:
At dinner that evening, high up in one of those towers, a journalist touched the subject of identity. “Indian” was a word that was now without meaning, he said. He himself, he was in his thirties, of the post-Independence generation, no longer knew who he was. He no longer knew the Hindu gods. His grandmother, visiting Khajuraho or some other famous temple, would immediately be in tune with what she saw; she wouldn’t need to be told about the significance of the carvings. He was like a tourist; he saw only an architectural monument. He had lost the key to a whole world of belief and feeling, and was cut off from his past.
The past matters. History matters. “Gadhe Murde” matter. It is important to resurrect these ghosts. Remember Santayana? “A country without a memory is a country of madmen“