Saturday, February 23, 2008

History, without the rhetoric

I wasn't a big History fan in school. I thought the concept was interesting, but the presentation left much to be desired. We were told what happened, and at what date, and this was expected to be enough. It might have just been me, but not very many people I know took a liking to this bland plate of facts. Years later, I remember very little of what I had miraculously committed to memory.

Years later, I had the fortune of rooming with a person who had a very keen insight into Indian history. His knowledge of recent events: Blue Star, Indira Gandhi, as well as older events: Partition and the Mughals, was a welcome breeze. Conversation was always an opportunity to learn something new, and it helped me understand the world much better. Since then I have actively sought out books on History, for they give me a much better insight into why this world is in its current state.


I've been reading a few books recently that make the puzzle of India open up. On the recommendation of my father, I picked up "Punjabi Century" and "Beyond Punjab", both by Prakash Tandon. My father is surprisingly well-read, and these days our conversations often hover around books. I thought I was being quite the fox when I mentioned Nabakov to him, only to find that not only had he read Lolita, he had read it many years before I was born. "Punjabi Century" traces a hundred years of Prakash's family, and is a riveting read. A lot of Indian customs: that of forced feeding, of treating the guest like a God, of being unduly deferential towards the elders, suddenly start making sense. "Beyond Punjab" is more about his life, of how he started work at Unilever, which later became Hindustan Lever. It has a very insightful look into the British Raj, and how our current administration is bogged down by problems of the Raj.

Both books are surprisingly well written: the language might be plain, but the content is exactly what I have been looking for all these years. Most history tends to be written by those with an axe to grind. RK Narayan's books are well written, but too wishful: yearning for an India that never existed. Pandit Nehru writes well, but he is also too keen to prove his point. His books have a very strong sense of what the optimism around the freedom movement must have been like. The bias is clear, and it is difficult to escape it. Both RKN and Nehru are very good writers, and I have deep respect for their clarity of thought and expression, but they aren't a very clear view of history itself. The only book that came close to an unbiased view of India is Salim Ali's autobiography, which talks of India around the time of Independence. It was made sweeter for me, because Salim Ali and I went to the same college in Bombay: St. Xavier's College, set up and run by a group of Jesuit priests.

Prakash Tandon's books are a step ahead. He talks of India before the British Raj. His grandfather was born seven years before the Raj began, and his father died seven years after the Raj ended, so this is a wonderful time of Indian history to read about. Prakash brilliantly explains the setup of a Punjabi community, its caste structure, the jajmani system, and the way the community worked. Sometimes I get the feeling that he wrote it with me in mind.


I have been trying to convince my parents to write down such a record of their own lives. It is very important to the generations that come after them. The statement of history without rhetoric gives us a very stable bearing of our heritage. A lot of customs had very good reasons when they began, and we need to know those reasons. Being educated in our history, we don't yearn for it. We can see the beauty of the past, but also its deficiencies. Moreover, no one group can remodel history for their benefit, when unbiased reports flourish.

Prakash Tandon started writing after strong encouragement from Maurice Zinkin and his wife (as mentioned in Beyond Punjab). In the foreword to Punjabi Century, Maurice Zinkin says, "Nothing is more important to the illumination of history than a good autobiography. It becomes particularly valuable in times of transition. Documents and statistics can give us the facts of change; only Cicero's letters tell us what the fall of the Roman Republic meant to those to whom the Republic mattered".


Every generation owes it to the next to have such unbiased facts written down. My grandmother-in-law has written one, and I hope many more such autobiographies will emerge -- free from the bias of current-day thinking.