Historians are a bit like philosophers: you assume they know everything until they state their views, which are a repetition of some of the most common prejudices you encounter in any normal situation.
As a social group that loves talking more than anything else, I am not sure if Indians could ever write a history of who we are as a people. The reason is simple: as a nation we are not honest about ourselves as ourselves. This is why we politely abandoned “history” to print and media journalists, Bollywood filmmakers and just about anybody who occupies space on a public platform, who is virulent enough to spew venom on the other side and is without any scruples. We cringe at the thought of contradicting populist rhetoric lest we be implicated in a narrative not of our own making.
It doesn’t worry me too much that as a culture we do not have a notion of a monolithic “truth” in the Judeo-Christian sense of the term. Even less does it bother me that facts could be as relative as life itself. What I find worrisome is the lack of compassion or basic humanity with which we address issues. We’re convinced that the only way we could make a point is by extinguishing the views of those who disagree with us. The space of self-confrontation we have happily given away to wheeler-dealers of every sort because we don’t have to know what we really are as nation or as a people.
Our sinister personal agendas and crass opportunism, not to mention the dread we are filled with in pursuing anything that looks like an isolated, minority position makes it impossible for us to get a honest view of our real selves. That is the reason why we leave ourselves no choice but to resort to extreme positions because it is convenient to do so. Complex positions are in recognizing the ambivalence of social reality. Ideologically one could be anything: that does not hinder one from seeing reality as multi-dimensional and never just one or the other. Ethical absolutism is a degenerate form of conformism and a haven for the hypocrites of the world. The mediocre rejoice in extremities because that’s the only way they could be what they are.
The writing of history permeates everything we do. It is the way we live our lives. It reflects in the literature we produce and the movies we make. What makes America an imperial nation is the fact that the sense of history of the common American on the street, sometimes with the best of intentions, is a completely skewed one. The good thing about democracies is that people speak their mind. The bad thing is that the people who do the most speaking are the ones who know the least or are simply not interested in knowing anything at all.
If Indians make poor historians it is simply because we are usually saying what we do not believe. To believe in nothing is the worst form of cynicism. This is equally true of the middle and wealthy classes as well as the ones who consider themselves educated. The lack of belief manifests in how we conduct ourselves without pity or recognition of the humanity of another person in day to day life. It shows in the insensitivity with which we regard our fellow beings and the insecurity that keeps us preoccupied with the silliest possible things.
The writing of history is not about finding an unchanging truth. History is about finding out what is at stake in the present and not in using the past as a means to keep people divided forever. Are we in the process of creating a just, inclusive and humane society that will treat the old, the sick and the poor with love and affection or are we doing exactly the opposite of it? No amount of clothing one’s motives with sincerity can hide what is one’s real agenda. If a writing of history will contribute to the making of a society free of anger or hate, that is the truth the historian ought to willfully pursue in my view.
Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is currently working as an Associate Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.