Looking back in time

A historian’s journey, more often than not, is one without maps. No more a litany of events, writing history in our times is akin to piecing together a jigsaw when most of the evidence has sunk or vanished under the burden of time and neglect. To record events as they unfolded centuries, or even decades ago, necessitates reading and reconstruction in a manner that the historian knows best — especially when he has to join the dots and the clues are missing.

“Can we actually present the past?” asked Rudrangshu Mukherjee, in conversation with Ferdinand Mount and Shiv Kunal Verma, at ‘Presenting the Past: New Approaches to History’. “Can we ever access it in full or is it an approximation of the past?” reiterated Mukherjee, vice-chancellor and professor of history at Ashoka University, bringing to the stage his vast experience as teacher, and editor, editorial pages, The Telegraph. Best known for his five books on the Revolt of 1857, written from the native perspective, his latest is Nehru and Bose: Parallel Lives.

“As a historian, you can only touch upon a certain aspect; you can’t capture the entire field,” says Verma, who was the first to film the Kargil War (1999). Verma has written breathlessly on the Indian armed forces. Son of an Army officer, Verma has chronicled the Assam Rifles, Gen. V.K. Singh (retd.) and Siachen, with his latest, 1962: The War That Wasn’t, recently hitting the stands. He has also shot and produced for Project Tiger, followed by a series of Air Force, Navy and Army films, including The Standard Bearers and Making of a Warrior. “Commissioned by the Government to film the War, I had a fantastic opportunity to view it, up close. But as time passed, I heard different versions of it.”

“If a 17-year-old war has different versions now, what is the plight of a historian like Ferdinand Mount, who writes on matters of the British Empire and the Revolt of 1857 — events at least a century old?” asked Mukherjee. Mount, author of The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805-1905, has been editor of the Times Literary Supplement and head of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit during the Thatcher years. “Opinion on the Empire has changed both in Britain and India,” says Mount. “For example, Dalhousie was seen as a rapacious annexer, but by the turn of the 19th Century, his reputation had recovered enough to consider him a key figure in British India. The British considered the rebellion of 1857 a mere military problem. A closer look at records shows that in Britain, the Empire had lost its attraction long before it disappeared — its scarlet stain on the world map no longer at the heart of British identity.”

“Can a historian be objective when haunted by the ghost of dearth? How does he bridge the gap between dearth and plentitude? With his perspective and prejudices,” said Mukherjee. “Historians can be ‘lumpers’ or ‘splitters’ — lumping together similar evidences or treating each occurrence as separate.”

Said Mount, “The State is a ‘lumper’, always keen to impose its version of history, leading to a constant argument between the Government and the historian, as in the versions of the English Civil War.” “The present Indian State tends to hold a monochromatic view, to steamroll our cultural differences,” added Mukherjee.

“My latest book was 20 years in the making. Had I written it earlier, I would’ve been caught up with it emotionally. I could never get away from being who I am, and some of the documents, such as Exercise Lal Qila, simply fell into my lap. India, as a nation, suffers from a lack of historical mindset — we are mythmakers. For 53 years, we have failed to hold a mirror to the Sino-Indian War. We need to dig deep into the evidence and block out the personal while writing,” said Verma.

Which, increasingly, only makes the work of a historian a tightrope walk.

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Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 7:47:41 AM |

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