Speaking Volumes: The Unruly Past

(Published in the Business Standard, April 14, 2014)
In 2003, a study asked 569 college students what their memories of 9/11 were. Seventy-three per cent “remembered” seeing television footage of the first plane crash into the north tower of the World Trade Centre; so did the neuroscientist Karim Nader, who was in New York at the time.

But they were all wrong. As Mr Nader explained in an article carried by Smithsonian on memory, no one could have remembered seeing the TV footage of the first plane on 9/11 itself: it wasn’t aired until the next day. Their misperception was widely shared, and when Mr Nader researched memory, his studies led him to conclude that memory is fundamentally malleable. How we remember alters what we remember.

Mr Nader’s view of the malleable memory constantly updating itself has uncomfortable implications. In effect, when you retell a memory, it becomes “plastic”; as Mr Nader says, a memory is “re-formed” every time you recall or retell it.

News stories about memory research often focus on the more sensational aspects — the possibility of “false memories” or “implanted memories”. But the truth is less dramatic: recalling and retelling our memories changes them. We strengthen some details, forget others, incorporate what we “remember” from other people’s experiences of the same event. In Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi’s studies of the lives of creative people, he found that it was relatively less important whether they had had difficult or comfortable lives: how they chose to remember their lives – good or bad – shaped their present.

Historians know how much our understanding of the past affects the way we see the present, and given the history wars of the last few decades, how crucial it is to know what we mean when we’re talking about the past. “The past is not static,” Romila Thapar writes in The Past As Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History. “We believe that because we have created it we can also give it shape. The shape we give it is generally in response to our current requirements one of which is the need for legitimacy from the past. And it then becomes contested… The past therefore is inherently layered and has a genealogy… And when we invoke the past, we need to ask: What are we invoking? And why?”

The questions she raises in the essays collected here cover some of the most contentious areas of contemporary Indian thought. Ms Thapar’s decades of scholarly work has placed her at the heart of the textbook wars and the battles over ideas of India, and she infuriates the Hindu rightwing by firmly correcting ahistorical and simplistic views of the past, from the raids on Somnath to the arguments over dating the epics. She has a way of reminding her detractors of the real lessons of the past: “When we assess our cultural heritage we often tend to forget or we downplay the fact that rationality and scepticism were very much a part of early Indian thought,” she writes. “…We have inherited a tradition of questioning.”

But though this volume of essays covers the often bitter back and forth that accompanied the history wars between the right, the left and the historians caught in between, it rests on something far more enduring. This is Ms Thapar’s account of over five decades’ worth of exploring ideas of Indian thought — the factors, complex, rich, multi-layered, that shaped Indian identity over the centuries. The Past As Present starts with Ms Thapar raising the Indian flag at her school on August 15, 1947. She had two simple questions in her mind, “reflecting the thoughts of most Indians at that time”: what form should Indian society take, and what was the identity of Indians as a people? These two questions would shape her life as a historian.

In many of her essays, Ms Thapar makes a long-overdue argument for respecting scholarship, and for a shift away from the knee-jerk anti-intellectualism that has diminished debates in contemporary Indian life. All ways of seeing history are not created equal; she makes a strong case for respecting the discipline of history, the scholarship and the rigour that forms the life of the professional historian. It is almost heresy to suggest in these times that all opinions are not created equal, and nor are all the ways in which we choose to remember the past. And yet, to read this book, or to read Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s collection of literary criticism, or S Gopal’s writings on history, is to be reminded that the word “intellectual” is not a term of abuse.

In Ms Thapar’s hands, the past comes alive, by which I mean that instead of the static glories used to fuel the dreams of Hindu nationalists, she makes us see that the lives and times of those who lived in the subcontinent centuries ago were every bit as complex and contradictory as our own times.

Christopher Clark is a historian who covered pre-1914 Europe in a brilliant work, The Sleepwalkers. Often, the task of historians is presumed to be the same as the task of the domestic cleaner — to tidy up things, to tuck the messy bits out of sight. But Mr Clark refuses to play: “The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol.”

Indeed. Ms Thapar’s refusal to reduce history to a garbled story comes from the same awareness. She understands that we must have the right tools at hand if we want to make sense of the past, and that the end result will not necessarily be neat or pleasing. But it will be true, and that’s what we need in an age when the past is beaten into the service of dangerous ideas of the nation.


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