Why history

I wanted to tell a story in novel form. One evening years ago, as I wrestled with how to turn my favourite archaeological mystery into fiction, I remember, my husband and I were standing at a white porcelain kitchen sink. Swirling around our little apartment was the political debate of the time emanating from a focal television set.

The argument on TV was about the differing versions of history, and which among them were more right than others. In my country, we had been used to a condescending socialist school syllabus, which, by the time I was standing at our kitchen sink, began to be called leftist by those who were right of centre. They had gained in power and were now calling for an amended history to be taught in schools. They believed children needed to be in touch with their traditions and not be apologetic about their customs.

I started to worry then about the state of history itself. In my heart, I knew that it came down to justice and fairness. The history which presented a fair picture of all the happenings in the country warts and all, was the one children going to schools ought to learn—that no political party was innocent of crime, corruption, murders and sponsored riots. And these stories needed to get told no matter who was in power.

Now this is not an issue in my country alone. Which state is not guilty of revising its history in every generation, getting impressionable children to think jingoistically before they are old enough to think for themselves? The process begins even earlier within families as we imbibe our parents’ preferences then prejudices, and become accustomed to, then blind to the discrepancies in their narratives.

Our consciousness in its pursuit of self-aggrandisement resorts to fiction even if we are not aware of it. The path to fiction is not too far from fact, and that’s where delusion steps in. You can delude yourself into believing anything that suits your self-interest, even though you have started to deviate from the truth however slightly. Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has written extensively on this subject in ‘Deceit and Self Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others’.

Every day I realise that some histories will never get told. Some people just do not possess the resources to get their stories recorded. Either they are too poor, therefore powerless, or they live in remote tribes untouched by institutions or inflexible concepts of civilisation. Sometimes the people themselves are dying out, or it turns out their language is no longer spoken by their children who survive by speaking in the tongue of their dominant neighbours.

But even if they do finally tell their stories, they do not get heard. The things they say are inconvenient to those who feel secure with the way things are, and they do not want to hear anymore. When history is ignored, you will hear a confident voice drowning out the tentative. This voice is sometimes aggressive, sometimes elitist. And they will either claim to be the voice of the majority, or they represent the educated, powerful few and they will say it is time to move on, or that it is for the greater good. It is always the victor who tells the victim this. They will shirk responsibility for the discriminations of the past.

How popular is history as a subject of study anymore? Here where I am at, it does not pay to study history. For many, the study of history is all tied up in their personal ideologies, in the intersections. History becomes an adaptation, prey to that particular historian’s biases. Retrospect will tell you this path leads not to history, but towards myth in a distant future. As new victors emerge from epoch to epoch, each one will clamour for a revision of history that appeals to their sense of righteousness.

Sometimes you can only blame the ravages of time. You might come across sharpened flint and patterns of brickwork deep in the ground. It turns out that the arrow of time and entropy has wiped out every single written record from that period. And we are left only with a mystery to ponder. Even here the differing versions of history and attendant ideologies will try to push their renderings into children’s text-books, to fill the gaps in knowledge, and claim the mystery as a record of their own ancestry.

So which history should you believe? One way is to turn the study of history into a science. Grapple with facts and evidence, tell it as it emerges even if you or I don’t like it,  and it might even unsettle the foundations of an assertive identity I absorbed at my hearth. Before getting into the study of history I must first get to grips with my own delusions. Leave everything at the portals of study. When you enter here leave behind nationalisms of all hues—towards country, race, class, gender, ideology and religion. Try to be fair, it is easier said than done.

If anyone is interested, my favourite archaeological mystery is the puzzle of the Indus Valley Civilisation.



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