Why is Indian history an area of darkness? – Shohan Saxena

Indian soldiers with tri-colour in Kargil.

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Shoban Saxena“For a country that claims to have a 5000-year-old civilization, Indians have a rather poor sense of history. For some reason, it has always had the culture of the here and now. There was little recording of the past, only a retelling and that too by poets who mixed fact with fiction and myth with reality.” – Shoban Saxena

R. C. MajumdarIn Ancient India, R. C. Majumdar, the doyen of Indian historians, wrote, “One of the gravest defects of Indian culture, which defies rational explanation, is the aversion of Indians to writing history. They applied themselves to all conceivable branches of literature and excelled in many of them, but they never seriously took to the writing of history, with the result that for a great deal of our knowledge of ancient Indian history we are indebted to foreigners.”

For a country that claims to have a 5000-year-old civilisation, Indians have a rather poor sense of history. For some reason, it has always had the culture of the here and now. There was little recording of the past, only a retelling and that too by poets who mixed fact with fiction and myth with reality. Kalhana, the author of Rajatarngini, a 12th-century history of the kings of Kashmir, said it all in the book’s opening lines book: “Who but a poet can bring back the past in sweet composition, and what can make it intelligible if his art cannot?” India has always had more poets than historians.

So, when we want to know about ancient India, we have to turn to the Greeks—Herodotus’s Histories, Megasthenes’s Indica, Ptolemy’s Geographia. Our knowledge of the “Golden Age” of Indian history is dependent on the travelogues of Chinese monks—Fa Hien, Hiuen Tsang and I-Tsing. We are indebted to Arab travellers such as Al Beruni and Ibn Battuta for richly recording life in medieval India.

Does this mean Indians don’t have a sense of history? Or are they incapable of writing it? Author Pavan K. Varma believes Indians don’t have an immediate connect with their history. “We take pride in the golden age of the Guptas or the era of the great Mughals, but care little about the history that is part of our lives. People living in Hauz Khas in Delhi don’t know what it stands for; those in Masjid Moth have never bothered to find out what it connotes,” says the diplomat who has written a series of books on contemporary India.

Prof Vamsee JuluriAmerican Howard Zinn’s best-selling A People’s History of the United States opened his compatriots’ eyes to little-acknowledged truths about their history. There has been substantial work on subaltern history in India, but it’s yet to have an impact on ordinary people. Vamsee K. Juluri, professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco and author of The Mythologist, believes Indians have just started to write popular history. “We have too many extremes in the telling of the national story. The popular one, the one of movies, is frequently shallow and elitist. The academic one tends to be too narrow and insensitive to sentiments and realities. We need histories that move people, that begin with things the average reader knows, and then expands their understanding from within about why things are the way they are,” he says.

Varma says, “As a people we tend to fall in love with the dominant mythologies about ourselves. My books ruthlessly interrogate these myths. The answers they provide are not always negative, but the requirement to put a mirror before ourselves is particularly important for post-colonial societies who have faced cultural rupture and discontinuity.

Largely, contemporary India awaits its historians. “Indians have not even been keen to tell the story of the India that has emerged since 1947,” says Mihir Bose, journalist and author who has written on the history of Bollywood and cricket. “The wall between academic historians and popular historians seems as strong as the old Hindu divide between the higher castes and untouchables. Often the best material on India is to be found in western libraries.”

Is that the reason the best-known book on Indian independence, Freedom at Midnight, was a collaboration between a Frenchman and an American  — Times of India, Chennai. Oct. 18, 2010

» Shobhan Saxena is a Sao Paulo-based journalist for The Times of India. He is the first Indian journalist to live and report from South America.

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