Nearly some two centuries ago, the heavy-duty Hegel pronounced that “India has no history. It is a repeat of the same old majestic ruin.”
Marx in his early days concurred with that summation — until of course, thanks to his need for money and the willingness of the New York Daily Tribune to make him an offer, his intimacy with India deepened profoundly, yielding some of the most far-reaching commentaries on the nature of the historical process in India.
As we write, if anything, history seems only too rampantly underway in this sanaatan land where all change is thought to be mere mirage and hallucination, and its avid harbingers men and women of wicked propensities, out to dislodge the time-honoured hierarchies of virtue and value. Conversely, until the recent collapse of Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs in America inaugurated a fresh bout of history in those settled lands, it was in America largely that history seemed to have ended.
I recall some two decades ago, during my last visit there as a Fulbright Fellow, responding to importunate advice that I stay and work there by bemoaning that outside of reading and writing I would not be a part of anything alive and kicking, since few people seemed to want to make any collective effort to change anything. I remember pointing my friends to an insistent trend in Hollywood productions in which, much of the time, only critters, or creatures, or aliens, or robots, or viral beings and other suchlike seemed to hold sway; as though interest in anything human had long been exhausted and been swallowed in shopping, jogging, and hogging. Activities that, incidentally, seem so quickly to have caught up with an aspirational India.
I remember pleading that back home in India there were myriad histories in the making, often brutal, frustrating, relentlessly prone to chicanery and intellectual and moral abuse, but that I wished to be a part of all those.
Thankfully, the ravages wrought by a blind and blinding capitalism have over the last two years brought the human collectives out on to the streets, as they seek to “occupy” that one per cent of the globe that bleeds the other 99 per cent. Something is afoot where only a dead and deadening complacence ruled.
Here at home, of course, the renewed history of class antagonism now afloat in the western world is deepened and layered over by struggles that stretch across a plethora of other social indices. And however oppressive states globally bring to bear the full regalia of domination and suppression, these struggles seem for now not to be deterred as conclusively as home-grown and foreign imperialists might wish. Didn’t that doyen of democratic poets, Walt Whitman, once say that the grass will grow everywhere, no matter how heavy the cement and mortar? And the grass he thought to be both the “handkerchief of the lord” and a metaphor for the masses of common people who will not let what is unjust and ossified last?
Unfortunate it is that many of us who live comfortable lives, wherever we be, tend often to conflate history with our own individual lifetimes. Nothing could be more hopelessly and unforgivably solipsistic. We forget that the man who found out why the apple falls rather than flies, unbeknown to him, made it possible for us to go about in airplanes without the fear of falling. He did his work in his apportioned time and space; we ought to do the same.
(Prof. Badri Raina is a Delhi-based writer.)