It is assumed that history is a dry subject; a series of unequivocal statements and dates of the past. But understanding the context also reveals history’s vibrancy. Photograph: (Others)
History might yet help us understand ourselves better, and understanding the past is just a step toward a better, more humane future.
Some months ago, my friend’s young son asked me about Hanuman, the secrets behind his prowess, especially his amazing size-reduction abilities.
His father gave me a nod of approval, ‘Aunty does know something about history for children.’
This one short exchange encapsulates the challenges facing history, especially how it is shaped and narrated for younger readers. At first glance, there is everything wrong in the above exchange; the two statements contradict each other. But then understanding may, and indeed does, come from mistaken notions.
First, of course, there is the clear difference between myth and history. Latter is more exact, the rational subject of study, almost like a science with its belief in evidence and argument. And then there’s also the play of imagination. Myths, on the other hand, are ancient tales that have travelled. The strange thing is that history can and indeed does tell us about how myths travel or changed shape through the centuries, why some myths and figures became popular, while others perished by the wayside.
When it comes to history, and the way it might be told to the younger reader, I might then begin by saying: Don’t disbelieve everything, argue your way out.
Doing so especially matters in this age of the Internet, when WhatsApp and other social media has made almost everyone an armchair historian; expert of facts (verifiable or otherwise) available at the mere tap of a button. Images are expertly edited, photoshopped so to be passed off as truth – irrefutable, definite historical truth. Certain kinds of photos, of course, are ineluctably more popular, for example, those used to discredit any opponent/enemy and/or to demonstrate chest-thumping patriotism.
Some months ago, a photo held up on television by a prominent political party spokesperson showed two Indian soldiers holding up the national flag on a mountain peak, that was passed off as Siachen. This was sad and grotesque in every measure. For one, patriotism hasn’t anything ever to do with photoshopping. And then, the original is the well-known 1945 photo taken by Joe Rosenthal of US soldiers on Iwo Jima in the Pacific, during World War II.
One doesn’t really need to be an expert to figure out if something’s been photoshopped. It is as easy to photoshop something as it is to disbelieve the effort. But the example above might make us think, for example, about the photo’s history (even if it a ‘false’ one), when and why was it taken. Such a thought exercise, coupled with the search for evidence and clues, might lead us down to the present, make us ask why such an exercise relating to photoshopping history was even necessary.
It’s as necessary then, almost as a counter to the first rule to: Disbelieve everything, and to trust the evidence you glean for yourself.
But this leads us in turn to evidence itself – which sadly, is indeed easy to concoct. Photoshopping is just a small part of this. A search on the Internet shows up the many pseudo-history sites that spread hatred; stories of the past being nothing but an endless series of conspiracies, conquests and battles; of humiliations heaped and then avenged.
There are always new narratives, there is always new evidence that emerges. It’s vital to remember how this ‘evidence’ is used.
What then is evidence all about? How does one gather evidence – and does anything in the past, that which is gone, offer up credible evidence? This is where context comes in, and imagination too. For example, one might imagine a time in the future, with someone looking back to our own era. Evil does exist and people find reasons of all kinds to commit evil. Then there are nuances to it too. What makes such systems of tyranny develop? These may, in turn, give rise to other systems that turn out to be even more so.
It is important than to see what lies beneath. And the context.
It is assumed that history is a dry subject; a series of unequivocal statements and dates of the past. But understanding the context also reveals history’s vibrancy. There are many sides to a story, and history is never just one story. It is never a story about kings and tyrants, though for a while they did get to write their side of history.
Just as there is a many-sidedness to history, it is an ever-changing subject. There are many perspectives to it, many schools of thought – which makes it a lively subject, never dull, never really about the dead (pun intended). There are always new narratives, there is always new evidence that emerges. It’s vital to remember how this ‘evidence’ is used.
And while there is new evidence, it is especially important to distrust it - the newer it looks, the more one might distrust it till proven. (Especially yes, when it comes to photos).
For example, it is possible to show stones as evidence across the sea to represent Rama’s mythical bridge, but this should only make us ask questions. Not just whether it’s possible for a bridge to last for aeons and centuries, but how does something show up in satellite imagery; as students of history, stories like this must make us go into the past in various ways – whether it’s geological history, climatic change, and about the Ramayana itself. The many versions of it, the ones written in the different Indian languages, and the versions of women and other marginalised groups. It might make us ask if symbols are more important than the stories themselves.
History must make us ask all the right questions; questions that matter to the present, while they draw on the past.
History then isn’t just one story, but many stories that exist concomitantly. This makes the past, a fully lived in time-period, a constantly changing place, full of mysteries, of heroes known and unknown. Faced with the immensity of such discoverable riches (of knowledge), violence and hatred seem forces to be countered, for it is, yes about context and what made for this context. History must make us ask all the right questions; questions that matter to the present, while they draw on the past.
It’s not a hand me down subject, but the one that makes us not just question things like a science but it seeks empathy and imagination – as with the humanities. History might yet help us understand ourselves better, and understanding the past is just a step toward a better, more humane future. It’d be nice to start early, it makes the work of history writers that much more challenging and at times, inspiring.