…nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.
Walter Benjamin, Theses On the Philosophy of History
Recently, Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Sangeet Som called the Taj Mahal a ‘blot on Indian culture’. His discordant notes should prod us to reflect why a tribute to love should suddenly assume such significance in the speeches of self-appointed messiahs and defenders of Indian ‘culture’. Why do the facts of the past make some uncomfortable? What are the influences and affects of the discipline of history that fill some people with so much hatred?
If history has a muse, it is diminutive in size. The muse lives in the nooks and crannies of small, supposedly insignificant objects and details that one can easily overlook: the frayed edges of a map, the yellowing pages of an old manuscript, the blurred figures on a coin, the stumbling speech of a survivor, the prow of a catamaran, the glitter of gold artifacts from a tomb, the tactile hardness of a shard of pottery, the portrait of a princess and the faded photograph of corpses lining the streets. Like the muses of classical lore, history’s muse too has her handmaidens: material evidences of annotations, glossaries, charts, maps, photographs, scripts, written and oral narratives, women’s songs, marginal people’s life stories, travelogues, paintings and photographs, pottery, coins, architecture, tapestry and wall art….. When we linger with the handmaidens, we inhabit a world that is filled with imagination, passion and a love for details that makes dallying with this muse so adventurous. It is a concealed (and not so concealed) world of materiality, carefully nurtured and worked upon, intensely self-sustaining and self-reflexive, yet deeply connected to the world at large.
History is interpretation and reconstruction, but based on the unmitigated uncompromising truth of objects, those bits and pieces that cannot be discarded at will because someone has no use for them or the objects do not fit a larger sinister design of cleansing the past of numerous imprints of bygone times and people.
It is perhaps easy to explain the weight and playfulness of history if we take a random look at books on an undergraduate library shelf that come under the signage of Indian history. Here’s a list, not at all exhaustive, but certainly illuminating:
Indian Art from Afganisthan: The Legend of Sakuntala and the Indian Treasure of Eucratides at Ai Khanum
Athens, Aden and Arikamedu: Essays on the Interrelations between India, Arabia and the Eastern Mediterranean
Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India
Love’s Subtle Magic: An Indian Islamic Literary Tradition
Rethinking Working Class History: Bengal 1890-1940
Forgotten Friends: Monks, Marriages and Memories of Northeast India
Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India
Merchants, Markets and the State in Early Modern India
Caste, Conflict and Ideology: Mahatma Jyotirao Phule and Low Caste Protest in Nineteenth Century Western India
An Intellectual History of India
Secluded Scholars: Women’s Education and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India
The point is obvious: History is a discipline that talks of the relationships between influences and civilisations and the interconnectedness of people and cultures. History gives us an awareness of a documentable past but also a sense of the ephemeral, the intangible, the fleeting. It gives us the lexicon, the grammar and the syntax with which to understand ourselves and how our past shapes us.
It teaches us to be open to the world, to ideas, to cultures – without bigotry and without preconceptions. It is a journey of the self but that which takes others along, an expedition strewn with material objects, archives, imaginations and relocations. A historian is an intrepid traveller along a path filled with many false clues and wrong turns but she travels that path with a child like wonder at the objects and narratives that come her way, yet scrupulous and painstaking in joining the dots and making visible the traces.
That is why autocrats and despots are perpetually at odds with history’s artifacts, its influences, its monuments. To these false messiahs, the study of history is a sham. Their anomalous building block narrative is jeopardised by the many influences and affects that shape history. They are uncomfortable to see that the script is not so simple after all. The false messiahs are incapable of dealing with a variegated past because to receive that past, one must be open to it; they must make an effort of, what Adorno calls, ‘working through’ that past. This working through is to recapture the full complexity of the lives and situations of ordinarily powerless people as well as the rulers and leaders.
History’s indirections and hesitations therefore embody that rigorous pursuit of knowledge, ‘dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, /drawn from the cold hard mouth/of the world, derived from the rocky breasts/forever, flowing and drawn, and since/our knowledge is historical, flowing and/flown.’ (Elizabeth Bishop, At the Fishhouses).
That is why the false messiahs make many vain attempts to rewrite history. They defame books and authors, censor poems, heap calumny on thinkers and bring down the citadels of the past. However, let us pause and remember that the muse of history has gentle handmaidens and her pages are full of instances of the self-righteous afflicted by hubris.
Debjani Sengupta is the author of The Partition of Bengal: Fragile Borders and New Identities (CUP, 2015).