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Some historic years

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1989 was a tumultuous year: Nelson Mandela's release was one of the events. Photo: AP
1989 was a tumultuous year: Nelson Mandela's release was one of the events. Photo: AP

Every country has its own historic year. Are there years that seem to transcend national significance, to carry with them such momentous echoes that they resound across the globe, or a good portion of it?

MY mother always told me to spend New Year's Day doing the kinds of things I wanted to repeat in the remaining 364. Her assumption was, I suppose, that the first day of the year set the tone for what was to follow, so spending it in the sybaritic indulgence that befits a holiday - or even worse, sleeping off the sybaritic indulgences of the previous night - would guarantee an unproductive year ahead.

Well-intentioned

As a result, I would endeavour, from my childhood on, to spend the first of January reading a little, writing a little more, studying a little less, and spending some time in contact with those I cared about. I have had absolutely no evidence to suggest that these earnestly well-intentioned efforts had any impact at all on the rest of the year, but I suppose they at least allowed me to begin the New Year feeling mildly virtuous.The appearance of this column - though it was, of course, written somewhat earlier than the date on today's masthead - sends a similar signal. To appear in print on the first day of the new year will, I hope, strike my mother, at least, as somewhat auspicious. But does it oblige me to set a tone for the remaining 51 columns to follow in 2006? Should I spend my allotted 800 words in suitably worthy high-mindedness, or even worse, divide the space amongst my passions - a little politics, a dash of cricket, a literary opinion or two, leavened by a strong undercurrent of internationalist pluralism?Perish the thought. Since this is the first day of the year, I plan to muse on the very notion of a numbered year itself, and what makes one special.

Special years

Let's face it: a few thousand years have gone by in recorded history, and only a handful of them continue to resonate in the popular imagination. For any Englishman, it's 1066 - the year of the Battle of Hastings and the conquest of Blighty by the Normans. No English child older than six or seven is unaware of that date; it is so deeply embedded in the public consciousness that a jokey history book was titled 1066 and All That (and the great spinner Arthur Mailey, who once took 10 wickets for 66 runs, titled his autobiography 10 for 66 and All That).Each culture has a year like that, a date that defines something extraordinarily special in its history. For Americans, it's 1776 - not the year of American independence, but the year of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which preceded actual freedom from British rule by a good half-decade. Nonetheless that's the year Americans celebrate, which meant that the Bicentennial celebrations of American independence took place in 1976, whereas the bicentenary of the adoption of the American constitution, for example (the document that really created the United States and gave it its first President in 1789) went largely unnoticed 13 years later.The French, unlike the Americans, do hail 1789. It was the year of their historic Revolution - which gave the world the slogan "liberty, fraternity, equality" - and its rousing idealism marks for the French their defining year. The Serbs seek inspiration from 1489, the year not a great victory but of an epochal defeat by the Turks. For India and Pakistan it must be 1947, though some Indians, particularly in the north, might well hark back to 1526, when the Mughals under Babar defeated Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat and ushered in an era that transformed the country's history, art, architecture, music and cuisine.

Crossing boundaries

But every country has its own historic year. Are there years that seem to transcend national significance, to carry with them such momentous echoes that they resound across the globe, or a good portion of it?I would think so. Take 1848, for instance, when revolutions erupted simultaneously across Europe, unseating governments and monarchs from Paris to Pest. And 1492 - the discovery by Columbus of a route to America from Europe, the defeat of the Muslims in Spain, the expulsion of Jews from that country, all events whose echoes we can trace to our own days. Or 1914, when war broke out in Europe that so engulfed the world that a generation spoke of it as the Great War, or even (more rashly) the "war to end all wars" (until an even greater war erupted in 1939, though even that has not ended warfare as we know it). Or, more recently, 1989, when the Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall fell, and the history of Eastern Europe was transformed - but so too, for unrelated reasons, was that of South Africa, with Nelson Mandela's release that year, and of India, with the defeat of the seemingly invincible Congress Party, all of which made 1989 a tumultuous year almost everywhere.Will 2006 be another such year, full of turbulent events made to blight the future history lessons of generations yet unborn? Or will it pass, serene and unremarked, into the footnotes of history, an uneventful ellipsis between two greater dates in the annals of humankind? For most ordinary human beings, an unremarkable year is usually more pleasant to live through; what is boring for the journalist is usually good news for the rest of us. But for the historical chronicler, as for the television newsman, "if it bleeds, it leads". The New Year, as the poet Rilke once suggested, is full of important events that have not yet occurred. Today is the day for each of us to imagine the possibilities.

Visit the author at www.shashitharoor.com


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