Speaking Volumes: Five ideas of India

(First published in Speaking Volumes, Business Standard, July 5, 2005)

The problem with telling history as though it were a story is that some stories always end up being more influential than others. I can think of four in particular that are told about contemporary India in Rashomon style; all four, in varying degrees, are inaccurate, and all four have caused lasting damage.

The first is the sanitized history of India told by textbooks, sanctified by official approval, and given the blessings of the people in power. In this version, historical figures have as much reality as the smudged images on those pictorial charts we used to cut-and-paste into our schoolbooks, and no more freedom of movement. Netaji is caught for posterity with his arm upraised, calling an army of idealists to action; but that is all his story.

In the official version, it cannot be admitted that Netaji Bose is dead, or that he may have died years ago, just as nothing can be admitted of Gandhi’s odder experiments and the cracks in his vision of India lest it tarnish the image of him on the Dandi March. In this version, it is not possible to allow a leader like Advani to express his real views on Jinnah without rebuttal and censorship from the members of his own party, and tremendous discomfort and confusion from members of other political organisations. This is a tin-whistle history, a cartoon history that has no room for nuance or ambiguity, where India’s shining past must be appealed to even as its great future is invoked, without regard to the reality of one or the other.

The second is the history of historians, a nuanced, detailed story told with footnotes and references that suffers from being largely inaccessible to the people whose history it is supposed to be. When it comes to explaining India and delving into the country’s past, or even exploring the question of when an entity like India actually came into being, the historians have the answers. But these are not easily shared with even students and the reading public, the two relatively privileged sections of society for whom these stories might be accessible. It takes eons for “news” from the world of history to leak into official textbooks, and glacial ages for new developments to become part of the general story Indians tell themselves about their country.

The third is the history that the Hindutva rightwing parties so recently tried to superimpose on the official narrative of modern India, which is a shrunken, simplified, often glaringly inaccurate history of a Hindu country ravaged by Muslim invaders, now seeking to rebuild itself from the ashes and return to the shining glories of a nebulous past. This is a tempting history because it is so accessible, so easily told; its lack of reliance on a basis of fact and its ability to press myths and legends into service as though they were fact makes it a racy, colourful narrative. This history relies on simplifications, where the past becomes a battleground between Us and Them, where the future is always glorious, if we only keep faith in the story and the storytellers. It can be very seductive–once you dispense with the facts, all that’s left is a story and a promise—but with stories like this, someone, somewhere down the line, will eventually pay for what has been omitted, fabricated or glossed over.

The fourth is the version that authors like V S Naipaul have been so successful in putting forward before the world and buttressing with apparent scholarship. Naipaul’s writings on India have often been so prescient, compelling and incisive that he is much harder to refute than the average ill-informed roadside demagogue. His vision of India is of a wounded civilization, irrevocably, terribly damaged by succeeding waves of invasion, now seeking refuge in a denial of the past.

Last year, William Dalrymple took apart the Vijayanagara moment, a key emotional passage in Naipaul’s work where he describes standing amid the ruins of Hampi. Naipaul’s views on the fall of Vijayanagar have been widely reported; he saw it as an emblem of the destruction of “Ancient Hindu India”, a scar caused by multiple invasions on the psyche of India. Dalrymple’s argument was scholarly and carefully deliberated, and he drew attention to the manner in which Naipaul’s black-and-white view of the past was itself a distortion of medieval India.

Vijayanagar had a history where Hindu and Muslim culture fused in complex and intertwined ways, but this history, Dalrymple regretted, was not the history Naipaul wanted to see: “This picture of Hindu-Muslim hybridity, of Indo-Islamic intellectual and artistic fecundity, is important, for it comes in such stark contrast to the Naipaulian or BJP view of Indian medieval history as one long tale of defeat and destruction. Today most serious historians tend instead to emphasise the perhaps surprising degree to which Hinduism and Islam creatively intermingled and “chutnified” (to use Salman Rushdie’s nice term)…”

Dalrymple’s argument was hysterically received by some of Naipaul’s supporters; but it was founded on solid fact, unlike Naipaul’s moving, but ultimately inaccurate, epiphany at Hampi. But Dalrymple set out to produce a viable argument, not an alternate history that was neither official and sanitized nor populist and incorrect.

That history has been written by several historians, but few have got to the point as rapidly and as incisively as Professor Amartya Sen in his collection of essays, The Argumentative Indian. Speaking of the initial, devastating wave of invasions, he observes dispassionately: “It would be as silly to deny the barbarities of the invasive history as it would be to see this savagery as the main historical feature of the Muslim presence in India.” Later, in the same essay, he analyses the Hindutva movement’s attempt to invent a plausible past: “This is nothing short of a sustained effort to miniaturize the broad idea of a large India—proud of its heterodox past and its pluralist present—and to replace it by the stamp of a small India, bundled around a drastically downsized version of Hinduism.” The India that Sen offers to us, instead, is an India founded on a series of argumentative encounters, an India with room for a thousand conversations on the idea of India, with a home-grown democracy that was in place long before the British arrived.

This is a fifth story, told brilliantly and with the true intellectual’s genuine blend of an insatiable curiosity—Sen’s explorations of the idea of India take him through an examination of Ray, Tagore, gender and calendars, among other things—and an absolute respect for facts, for what really happened as opposed to what we would like to have happened. This is how history should be written, not as a dry narrative about dead kings or a hysterical diatribe pushing a certain agenda, but as an account of ideas and arguments that have been passed from hand to hand for years and that remain relevant even today. It’s a strange reflection, but India might have found its most accessible, most intellectually stimulating historian in the person of a Nobel-Prize winning economist.

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