Being a history student is not an easy task. You are questioned for choosing humanities after 10th (not all history students come from humanities background but many do) by your friends, relatives and even your own parents. By the time of your graduation you have a brilliant response for your defense-“I am preparing for UPSC!” but this article is not meant to elucidate the struggles of studying history but rather the struggles of a history student when he or she faces the world whose ideology and vision of historic seems to be Ahistorical. The struggle to deal with the historical myopia of the society and the struggle to convince yourself that you are doing nothing wrong in challenging those rigid traditions- religious, patriarchal, societal, cultural which are so imbibed in our day to day living that they seems to be eternal and inevitable unless we realize that these notions are in itself Ahistorical.
For most people history is nothing more than “bunch of facts”. It is easier to demarcate, categorize and classify than to critically analyze, introspect and be subjective. So people will expect from you to churn out facts, dates, events and it will be an arduous task to explain the developments in the study of history and how history is no longer a narrative of kings and battles. People get disappointed when they expect facts from us and we deliver theories. But this is not a simple individual problem, but rather I am pointing out to a grave social problem- conflicting ideologies, which see history just as a tool to justify and further their ideological claims. A history student even though steers away from generalizations, judgmental, objective facts and clear demarcation of categories, every word you speak is seen as a representation of some or other ideology (and mostly people believe in two extremes- right wing and left wing). So if you questioned the notion of “Akhand Bharat” or Gupta age as a “golden period”, you will be deemed a communist and vice-versa. Every day when I have discussions on history with people, I am met with sentences like- “are you a communist?”, “do you support the JNU row?”, and I have to remind myself and the person that it has hardly anything to do with our discussion. When people insist to categorize me in any of their pre-decided categories I have to offer them new categories like “post-structuralist” or “post-modernist” (I don’t claim to be a exponent of any of these categories) and a very amusing response I got was- “I can’t even pronounce it, how am I supposed to believe in it!?” We live in a world where people believe history to be Ahistorical. So the whole ancient period (many people think it being equivalent to Hindu period) is a glorious period which turned into rubble with the onslaught of invaders (predominantly Muslim). In short, people envisage history as long periods of changelessness and vice-versa, sudden and phenomenal changes. People who have just heard the names of big historians like Romila Thapar, R.S. Sharma criticize them rather uncritically for writing incorrect history (what they actually mean is that views of these historians doesn’t fit with our understanding of history).
They want to demarcate good history from bad history, and heroes from villains. They just don’t want history; they need sociological categories with a peppering of facts and figures. And this ahistoricity is maintained consistently in defining culture, institutions, and people. So Nation is Ahistorical, origin of Indian culture is untraceable, mythology holds truth here, and any attempt to explain otherwise is met with contempt. Deep inside, there is a lack of appreciation of historical knowledge. Every person thinks he knows history, and history is no special knowledge, but ironically, most people and even the ruling regime try to alter history according to their own vision and reuirements. History becomes a tool of commemoration, something people can take pride in, driven by political exegesis, expressed in a language that is in most parts rhetorical and pragmatic to the extent of being adamant.
A history student is grieved when we see such disregard for history. When we give new names to places to suit our historical understanding, and in the process manipulate history. When we decide to commemorate a particular version of history which glorifies one strata of society over other, it shows our attitude towards history. History student scorns at the absurdity of historical shows which are not only factually inaccurate (this is the least thing we expect from them), but also manipulative, communal and provocative. And we hate when we have to clear the web for people who don’t see any difference between history and mythology. So people will ask you questions on historicity of Ramayana and Mahabharata and here lies the biggest misery of a history student, because most people are very sensitive to religious issues and any explanation, no matter how historically well placed may offend their feelings. Secondly, when people ask you question related to religion, they are actually testing you (and later blame your response to your English medium education and neglect of Indian culture) or they have pre-conceived notions about the issue and what they want is an affirmation of their viewpoints, and unfortunately this is one thing that our historical mind is unable to churn out. Forget strangers, distant friends, or relatives you can’t convince your own parents that you are talking out of historical curiosity and not vengeance against religion and nation (we are not anti-nationals, we are not iconoclasts of religion, and we are just students of history). People will give us snippets on the evidence of Ramayana and Mahabharata, or the greatness of their religion or civilization; you are left with only two options- either keep on debating, posing arguments and counter arguments with no avail, or to face palm and nod in affirmation. People hate historical insights in religion, so they would question the authenticity of history (what is history capable of? History is speculative or history is imperfect, you will never be able to solve the mystery of our culture no matter how much you try, you are product of orientalist education, these are all some jibes thrown to us).
Forget deconstruction of language, culture, traditions, people are not yet comfortable to go beyond the elitist paradigm of history, beyond the political contours which could be memorized in fingers, and because you can’t explain them in your language, you have to explain them in their language, but even this process seem futile, for people perceive history as chronology and account of kings and queens. How ironical is the condition where people are unwilling to know about their own existence because their mind is laden with accounts of a class unrelated to their past or present. They are better off either lamenting the loss of an elitist cultural glory or creating modern discourse out of an objective demarcation of categories of oppressor and oppressed. The world is not ahistoric, but the way we identify history, we have made our own existence Ahistorical. And by perceiving history as dead and buried past, we are making our present seem Ahistorical. Walking down the lanes, a history student see the changing histories- every moment of our existence that is part of history, he see the new history books of the new regime, the new nomenclatures for place, new commemoration, he is seeing history being changed every minute everywhere, but deep somewhere in the lanes of history, there is a tunnel where all changes are sucked by the darkness of mind, and all that is left is a stagnant world with a history that is so Ahistorical.