Prisoners of the past

True progress cannot happen until we accept our past for what it is, and are ready to break with it if necessary, says Vikram Kapur

Published - August 13, 2011 03:43 pm IST

A nation poised: Where do we go from here? Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

A nation poised: Where do we go from here? Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

It is perhaps our greatest anomaly that our past, while being a source of strength, is also the source of our weakness. On the one hand, it bequeaths a bedrock of history and tradition that keeps our feet firmly grounded. On the other, it manacles our mind in ways that make us perpetuate the obsolete long past its sell-by date. As we turn 64 as an independent nation, our essential conundrum remains what it has always been: How to reconcile our past with our present reality and future aspirations?

More important than all the Taj Mahals of the world, our ancestors constructed, to borrow a phrase from W.B. Yeats, several ‘monuments of unageing intellect'. The spiritualism and philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, just to mention two ancient texts, continue to imbue millions of lives with meaning round the globe.

The other side

Sadly, they were not happy to restrict themselves to such worthwhile pursuits. While they were building these monuments, they were also busy turning internecine warfare into an art form, so much so they rendered themselves impotent in the face of foreign invaders, and dividing society in every way conceivable which kept it perpetually at war with itself. Furthermore, they pioneered a mindset, passed on through the ages, that saw the past as sacrosanct and any transgression from it tantamount to bringing society crashing down. It is, therefore, no surprise that even in the present age, where modernity is our catch phrase, we remain adept in perpetuating the obsolete. There is no better example of this than the resilience of dowry in India. It has outlasted a female Prime Minister, female Chief Ministers and Governors, and countless other instances of female advancement. Really, no other country approaches our capacity for revealing the human race at its most progressive and regressive in the same breath.


Respecting elders is an age-old Indian virtue and possibly explains why we expend so much energy preserving what our ancestors have handed down, irrespective of whether it remains useful or not. My foreign friends are often aghast at how a tradition-bound society like India can allow so many of its old buildings to fall into disrepair. My answer to them is that so much effort is expended in keeping the past continuous that there is little left over for its true relics.

In recent years, though, there have been signs that even the most ordinary Indian is ready to put the past in its proper place. In the 1980s, a Sikh Prime Minister, empowered or not, would have been inconceivable. In 2004 that became a reality. And then the nation surprised everyone, including a good part of itself, by accepting the Ayodhya verdict peacefully and not using the moment to lapse into the retro mode of the last century where such occasions were utilised, as Shashi Tharoor points out in his novel Riot, to ‘wield history like a battleaxe'.

Only an idiot seeks to purge his or her past completely. To live without any kind of roots is to exist without your feet. Yet it is also idiotic to allow those feet to sink into an obdurate quicksand. For too much of its existence India has resembled a prisoner in chains dragging itself forward on its hands and knees rather than someone forging ahead with a confident stride.

In Saeed Akhtar Mirza's 1990s documentary serial “A Tryst With the People of India”, a Goanese gentleman remarks, ‘The tragedy of India is not what it is but what it could have been.' A good part of the blame in keeping India down to the status of a could-have-been can be levelled at our aversion to change which is rooted in our fear of breaking with the past. Whether that could-have-been can be converted into a living, breathing reality in the future will depend on how well we manage to put the past in its proper place, both in our lives and that of our nation.

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