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The insipidity of independent India’s historiography

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Samved Iyer
Samved Iyer
Eternal as evolution is, I cannot purport to have grown in thorough measure, and I am hopeful of augmenting my perspicacity in the company of beings far more erudite than me.

Should the reader bear with my great eccentricity, it is possible, however unlikely, that he shall be met with a fresh perspective, though it be but an opinion prone to error.

Tribe, village, city, kingdom, empire — the journey of man, passing through these stages in that order, has spanned millennia. As the organization of people evolves into ever greater scales, the preservation of order grows ever the more precarious. That purpose is best served, it is understood as a matter of rudiment, with the victual of a unifying myth.

A congeries of nations forms our world, and until such time as this congeries is welded into an improbable homogeneity — à la Coruscant — every nation shall require the recurrent feeding of this victual to its ever rustic commons.

But to what avail the mere existence of such a myth, if it cannot fascinate the common mind? The chambers of academia may revel in dry language, deeming it so very formal, and so very erudite, but the significance of such a myth is best impressed upon the rank and file in eloquent and vivid prose. In order to secure as large a sum total of attention as possible, it must stir a range of sentiment — pride as our past attains to glory, woe as it falls like the setting sun, and solemnity as the age surveyed reflects a resigned monotony.

Spiritless prose cannot but erode away at the efficacy of such a myth; to say nothing of such countries as have the most unadventurous of myths. A few pages into reading “India’s Struggle for Independence” by Bipan Chandra et al, and I found no dearth of occasions on which I thought I was reading yet another insipid newspaper editorial.

This may be contrasted with the magisterial volumes of R.C. Majumdar, Sir Jadunath Sarkar, and, the historian who I think had the greatest facility with language, Edward Gibbon. But the contemporary example of Dr. Vikram Sampath also serves admirably; his prose may not be as elevated as that of these individuals, and this is meant in no elitist or disdainful sense but is mere fact, but to his narration there is a logical storytelling elegance that makes his biography of Savarkar eminently readable.

It must not be forgotten, however, that the historian must balance his art of eloquence, such as he possesses, with unswerving fidelity to truth, lest the joy of elegant writing swell into fond exaggeration.

The textbooks on Indian history, certainly at school, and certainly those adopted by CBSE into its curriculum, do not admit of eloquence, and on occasion admit of little accuracy. Too often they are a bland chronicle of the invasions of India by sundry forces, and they speak cursorily of the state of affairs of each era. It is as if bullet points from a power-point presentation were expanded into sentences, with all the accompaniments of grammar, and none of those of creativity. None of this could possibly seize the interest of young minds. This challenge lends itself to no easy resolution, for it is three-fold.

The first obstacle is that the books are written in English. That language is in India a status symbol, if only in a more diluted form than earlier, and given a chance Indians will readily advertise their knowledge of it, but not half of such enthusiasm is to be seen in attaining to proficiency in it. In part owing to the insistence of inept teachers, and in part owing to their own ineptitude, they cannot but write answers in examinations that scarce deviate from the text in their books.

Their oral responses to questions posed by parents during study sessions at home sound robotic, and devoid of human thought, which trait is not necessarily discarded as the student ages into an adult specimen; the trait is also true of many a professor.

Whether in writing or in the speech of the students, an assessor can never be certain that the bland words of the textbook mean aught to them, for theirs is not a passionate answer but a soulless regurgitation, and as they are not native speakers of English, their vocabularies are pitifully scant. In such circumstances, vivid and elegant prose may prove all the more difficult to read.

The second obstacle is that refined prose is most effective if it treats of the subject in ample detail. I recall the chapters consisting of paragraphs under a sub-heading, usually dedicated to a dynasty, that treated of the era with dazzling haste. So hastily surveyed an era cannot but be lacklustre, but a detailed treatment may result in longer chapters, and perhaps a weightier syllabus. This possibility must be viewed in context of the fact that a student also has obligations to other subjects.

The third obstacle does not form the cynosure of my article, and so I will write of it limitedly. But it is, doubtless, the gravest of them, and that is the absence altogether of a meaningful myth. The myth to which standard historiography subscribes is of a prosaically secularist bent. Such an interpretation of secularism, frail as its philosophy is, would deem even a mere mention of India as an ancient civilization a matter of scandal, to say nothing of expatiation.

Tales of indigenous victories are few and far between. Comfortable and vapid myths of communal fraternity are invented, and the wrong parties are deemed its principal violators. Constitutional agitation, as opposed to the ardour of revolutionaries, is insinuated to have won this country its freedom (it would seem to me that nothing won this country its freedom, but it is a topic that deserves a separate article). In summary, history does not narrate a rich tale; it is a timeline written in full and dull sentences.

In the way of resolution, it may be proposed that seniors, such as have the inclination, energy, and intellect to read beyond the artless books at school, actively help their juniors with much better historical perspective, should the juniors themselves repose interest in the subject.

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Samved Iyer
Samved Iyer
Eternal as evolution is, I cannot purport to have grown in thorough measure, and I am hopeful of augmenting my perspicacity in the company of beings far more erudite than me.
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