Our History and Our Historians

Jabalpur. About fifty people gather for a trek in the Satpura hills. The first day is for travelling around the city. They are briefed by an elderly little man about what places to visit in the city. Among other touristy places like the marble rocks of Bhedaghat, is the ‘Chaunsath Yogini’ Temple. The temple is beautiful, as he says, but is worth visiting for other reasons. The sixty-four sculptures representing yoginis that adorn the temple, we are told, have been dishonoured. Thus, the story begins. Aurangzeb’s men are accused. However, given how we relate to Aurangzeb through our historical consciousness, there wasn’t very interesting on offer as yet. Apparently, a huge army was sent by the emperor to reinforce operations somewhere in south. Jabalpur being on the way, they planned to rob the temple for more amusement than need. By this time, the storyteller who happened to have a strong bengali accent enveloping his english, was referring to the emperor’s men as ‘Muslims’. The socio-political identity had made way for the religious one. The passion in the storyteller’s voice could have made you imagine bearded mullahs, had you not been a shade sincere with your lessons in history. I don’t remember when I lost the connection with the story on offer. By the time I came back to the same wavelength, the bosoms of most of the yoginis were already cut. The priest had been killed and the temple had been robbed, violated etc. It felt like such an old story that you couldn’t have been entertained, regardless of the skill of the teller. Others were not showing much enthusiasm either. Tired legs and yawning faces had their own story to tell. We had just about an hour to leave.

It was about four in the evening when we reached the temple. The Sun had covered the whole temple with its golden rays. The temple was situated on a small hillock. The insides of the circular boundary-wall of its campus were adorned with the sculpted yoginis. There was a certain distinctiveness about each one of them. As I went around the full circle patiently, I found much to appreicate in whatever remained there, till I passed by a small group of people. It took me a while to notice that one of them was a guide to the rest of them – tourists. Staring into the golden sun-rays I kept my ears glued to the story on offer. The flavour was the same, the accused were the Britishers though, surprisingly. Once again, history was making space for another bitter chapter. Almost in a plain matter-of-factly tone, the agenda of cultural subjgation was being explained. Unlike the Muslims, now it was the Whites dishonouring the yoginis. I am not sure if they were just as ruthless, or whether they wanted to loot, or whether it was a part of a bigger plan. I didn’t need to listen to the rest.

On my way back to the hotel, I could not help smiling at it all. I fail to understand what makes History so important that the beauty of the present is to be abandoned for it. And more importantly, is it actually History we wish to interact with? Or we merely want History to reflect what we already know? After all, what is History if not an interactive understanding of the past seen from the present? The present must play an equally important role in our historical understanding as the past does, if not more. And it jolly well does.

We already know who our enemies are. All we want is listeners to inform, enlighten and save from ignorance. And of course, people who would agree with us so we could keep telling ourselves that we know. The great historian E H Carr argued in his masterpiece ‘What is History?’ that before History, we must know the Historians. Of no less importance is to know what draws these Historians forward in close interaction with History, for that shall determine the History they write, or tell. Also, we must be wary of what brings us to the banks of the river called History. Do we want to wash the dirt off our hands, take a plunge in it or merely sit silent on its banks? Unless we clarify our position on these accounts, History and Historians we catch on the fly may serve us well for explanations, but may be very dangerous if we seek solutions through them.

Postscript –

I may go on to refer to the recent Chennai Test between India and England to take a cue about how we could treat History, but for those who have little regard for Cricket as sincere business — or as could be argued, who haven’t followed it with much seriousness – may not be able to appreciate it.

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