Retelling history

Print edition : January 23, 2015

Chennai: 31/08/2014: The Hindu: Front Line: Book Review Column: Title: Literature as History,from early to Contemporary Times. Author: Chhanda Chatterjee. Publisher: Primus Book Publications release.

The shrine of the 13th century Sufi saint Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer. Islam imbibed the best of the Bhakti tradition and incorporated these qualities into Sufism. Photo: AFP

EDITED by the well-known academic Chhanda Chatterjee, Literature as History contains an interesting collection of eight essays by serious scholars. The essays reflect the various aspects of an ongoing academic/historical debate that has acquired an unfortunate political hue, especially since the formation of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government at the Centre. Proponents of the BJP, including academics inclined towards the more problematic aspects of the Hindu religion, believe that literary masterpieces such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are historical texts and not poetic mythology because they are set in a particular time and place.

The title of the book can be misinterpreted by those who wish to be deliberately obtuse and may thus dismiss modern views of history, the tools for its interpretation being provided by the “avaricious”, “non-spiritual” West. It is true that arriving at a believable conclusion on a given event in the past, relying exclusively on archival sources, may be problematic, not in the least because of the choice of material included, more so if the “victor” has been the source of information. Such an approach, though, may be more accurate than the panegyrics of ancient, and later medieval court poets and chroniclers.

This view has been questioned by certain scholars of literature, history and cross-cultural studies. Chhanda Chatterjee, in her introduction titled “Literature as History: From Early to Contemporary Times”, observes: “Literature is said to fulfil its true purpose only when it is able to mirror life. It is able to offer rare insights into the lives of people which are beyond the reach of ‘dry as dust historians’. Ashin Dasgupta had pointed out in the course of a lecture that journalists and historians can merely narrate an event, whereas literature reserves the right to enter into the heart of an event. The emotions and mentalities of a people are, therefore, increasingly becoming the concern of historians.

“The German historian Ranke, who had been a very strong proponent of the objectivity of History, had confessed to drawing inspiration from the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott in his writings. Historical writing in pre-colonial India was often associated with the narrative or Purana and Kavya tradition —very far from the objective, rational and scientific historiography that came into vogue in the nineteenth and early twentieth century under the influence of colonial projects of deriving power from knowledge about the colonised” (page 1).

Chhanda Chatterjee’s views, though provocative, are also problematic and may render her vulnerable to attacks from historians with rigorous minds. History cannot be written or practised without knowledge of the colonised or otherwise. There is, of course, the need to translate information about a particular period in the civilisation of any country into knowledge before history can at all be written. This, in itself, is a monumental task fraught with controversy and sometimes misadventure.

Take this quote from Ganapathy Subbiah’s essay “Historicality in Literature”, taken from the seventh decade of the rule of Celva-k-Katunko-v-ali-y-atan dynasty of kings: “He was the lord of the (Parampu hill) region where the northern winds carry the fragrance of honey that oozes out of the fresh, ripe and cracked jackfruit; he was the husband of the fine-looking lady endowed with all virtues; he lived in a house decorated like a beautiful painting” (II. 1-4).

“He was our king, the great Pari, who stood with his wide shoulders, smeared with sandal paste, and who was famous for his undiminished generosity; He has left and gone to the world from where no one ever returns. The outer layer of the drums in his palace is dried up, unattended and uncared for. And, the suppliants are all sad. But, do not think that I have come to you for begging (because my patron is no more). I shall sing your glories without exaggeration or understatement. I have come to you because I heard that you never ponder over what you gave to the suppliants and you are never carried away by the fame that accrues to you on account of your generosity” (II. 7-14) (page 23).

These poems of Kapilar reveal his adoration of his unstinting patron. Kapilar is a stalwart of Sangam literature, and 235 poems are attributed to him. The work of I. Mahadevan is considered to be of crucial importance and regarded as “one of the most important synchronisms found so far to determine the dates of the contemporary princes and poets of the Cankam (Sangam) age from about the middle of the first century to the middle of the third century A.D.” (page 21).

Subbiah bolsters his arguments with the following quote from History at the Limit of World-History by Ranajit Guha, the champion of subaltern history: “Sponsored and propagated by the Raj, it has had the effect of replacing the indigenous narratologies of pre-colonial times by ones that are typically modern and Western.... We work within the paradigm it has constructed for us and are therefore far too close and committed to it to realise the need for challenge and change. No wonder that our critique has to look elsewhere, over the fence so to say, to neighbouring fields of knowledge for inspiration, and find it in literature, which differs significantly from historiography in dealing with historicality” (page 18).

Subbiah begins his essay with a quote from Vishwambar Sharan Pathak’s Ancient Historians of India: A Study of Historical Biographies published in 1966.

“These (medieval) interpretations may appear grotesque to [the] modern historian as history viewed from the modern angle would have been to the medieval man. ...It will be readily agreed that both these viewpoints represent the historical mentality of the respective ages and neither of them is final. They are different stages in the evolution of historical ideas. Is it, therefore, historical to call these medieval explanations unhistorical in absolute sense?” (pages 148-149).

Subbiah thus leaves the lay reader dangling between Vishwambar Sharan Pathak and Ranajit Guha, though not quite tantalisingly.

Pathak and Guha would have liked more “cultural” inputs in the process of the writing of history. They may not have been content with the sifting of economic and/or political data in a given time in the history of a nation; this approach would for them be inadequate in rendering the destiny of a nation and its inhabitants. This quote from Amit Dey’s essay, “Mystical and Eclectic Traditions”, in the book under review may perhaps bolster the need for a more “open” approach to the art and craft of history writing.

“One day, the Shaikh visited the tomb of Bibi Sam which was near a pond ( hauz). A man appeared with a basket filled with khiyar (a vegetable resembling a cucumber) and dropped them near the tank where he performed wazu (ablution) and then calmly said his prayers ( du rak’ at-namaz). After that, he washed the khiyars one by one ( yagan yagan khiyar’e shust) and then recited three blessings for the Prophet Muhammad. Being deeply impressed with the man’s piety, the Shaikh offered him a silver tanka but this was refused. The Shaikh asked the man, who was a low-paid labourer, how he could afford to refuse the offer. The man replied that his father was also a vegetable seller who died leaving him very young. After that his mother was able to teach him the most elementary rules for formal prayers. When she was dying, she advised him: Tu niz khiyar’e wa sabze ba-faroshi (you should also continue as a vegetable seller). In short, his dying mother instructed him not to depend on anything or anyone else for his living” (page 32).

This essay is about the rise of the Sufi tradition, practised by various orders within the Islamic faith in India, and the contribution of many evolved spiritual women of the time. The essay also discusses Prince Dara Shikoh’s contribution to the creation of a syncretic culture that partook of other spiritual/religious traditions of India, particularly the Hindu. Dara Shikoh was the great grandson of the Mughal emperor Jalaluddin Akbar, and the unfortunate brother of Aurangzeb, the last Mughal emperor of India.

“Dara Shikoh’s Persian version of the Upanishads entitled Sirr-i-Akbar was translated into Latin in A.D. 1800. At a later period, Aurthur Schopenhauer (17760-1860), the famous German philosopher, was influenced by this work. Dara Shikoh should rightly be called a propounder of the concept of modernism based on universalism, which was more visible in the ideas and activities of Rammohan Roy since the beginning of the nineteenth century” (page 43).

Dey brings out the contribution of the liberal (Sufi) traditions in Islam in the formation of a composite cultural identity that withstood the everyday bickerings between the two dominant faiths—Islam and (upper-caste) Hinduism. It is essays such as Dey’s that allow the possibility of reconsidering history writing in India as being more than a record and analyses of political events and their repercussions over a considerable period of time.

The mental climate of a time, the thinking of the people of various faiths, may perhaps be an indicator of how the history of a region or country has been shaped. The Islamic invasion 1,000-odd years ago followed by the rule of the East India Company from 1757 and direct British rule from 1858 to 1947 affected the psychological make up of India in a different way. The influence of Islam was a far-reaching one because the invaders became a part and parcel of India, and over time, became as Indian as members of other faiths, namely Hindu, Jain, Sikh and Christian. It must be remembered that Christianity came to India, Kerala to be precise, with St Thomas some years after the demise of Jesus Christ 2,014 years ago. Islam imbibed the best of the Bhakti tradition and incorporated these qualities into Sufism. The contribution of Islam to the composite culture of India is enormous regardless of what the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and other members of the Hindu Right might say.

Anuradha Roy’s essay, “Naturalisation of the Nation and Nationalisation of Nature”, is intriguing. She quotes from a disenchanted Rabindranath Tagore’s Kaeno Che-e-aacho go Maa (immortalised by the singer Debabrata Biswas). The English translation reads thus: “You are giving unto us all you have, mother –Your golden crop and the water of your river Jahnavi. But what will these people give you in return? Nothing, simply nothing. They will only tell you a lot of abominable lies” (page 57).

Anuradha Roy takes us through the various stages of engagement with nature to depict the state of the nation. She observes: “We generally acknowledge today that all nations are imagined communities [courtesy Benedict Anderson’s seminal book], but the degree of imagination varies from case to case. A comparison between the Indian nation and the Bengali nation, as the 19th century Bengali nationalists saw it, will bear this out clearly. It is true that the nature of Bengal was imaginary to some extent, but it was much less imaginary than in the case of India” (page 54).

In her essay “Radical Rabindranath”, Chhanda Chatterjee quotes the poet’s statement made after his visit to Russia in 1930: “...Inordinate power cannot thrive against utter helplessness: had not the mighty been intoxicated with their own power what they would fear the most is the exaggeration of inequality, because all disharmony is opposed to the law of the universe.” Tagore’s pronouncement seems prophetic in the context of the prevalence of inequity and injustice in India and the world at large.

Igor Grbic, in “A Case Study of the West’s Intercultural (Mis)readings”, discusses how Rabindranath Tagore was first lionised and then discarded by the West most unjustly. “A good part of the blame for Tagore falling out of favour with the West certainly goes to those of its intellectual community who belittled the Indian dimension of his work and magnified the Western, in the desire to show that by praising Tagore the West actually praised itself” (page 143).

Literature as History, in all its essays, makes a strong case for cultural history as an essential part of the writing of history proper.

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