29 Apr 2018 19:50 IST

Your history, my history

Learning to understand history means a search for truth along several paths

Many prefer the word herstory to history. While there are perfectly legitimate reasons for this, in general, most people take the word history for what it means: the study of past events, and that would include persons, places and things. Its etymology can be traced to the French estoire or histoire which means chronicle, the Latin historia which means a narrative of past events or the Greek historia which means knowledge through inquiry or, in some cases, from histore which refers to wise man. It’s not difficult to see why the word can be genderised. But that begs the question: What happens to ‘mistake’?!

Setting that aside, over the centuries, there have been hundreds and thousands of chroniclers of events, and as researchers dig deeper, more names and records come to light. Experts tell us that the early Sumerians and Egyptians were the first to record history, but these were more in the nature of hagiographies of rulers — you know, all the good things exaggerated and all the bad stuff omitted or attributed to other people. The Sumerians lived in what we know today as southern Iraq, during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze ages — basically years and years ago! They, along with the Egyptians and the Indus Valley, comprised the first civilisations we know about.

Officially, though, and when it comes to naming names, it’s the Greek Herodotus, who lived in 5th century BCE, who is given the honour of being the first person to attempt to write history, along with another Greek called Thucydides. And no, religious writing didn’t and still doesn’t count for history.

Never the whole truth

The reason for all this thinking about history and past events is one, it is fascinating; and two, an engrossing Turkish serial about the father of the founder of the Ottoman Empire (approximately 1299-1922) that has had me completely hooked. The dramatic energy of Resurrection: Ertugrul apart, it also provides a panoramic and believable view of life in and around what is now Turkey during the 12th and 13th centuries. Of course it is a mostly fictionalised account of the time, yet, if you are willing to suspend disbelief as you watch and then do some objective investigation on your own, there is every likelihood of arriving at some kind of balanced perspective. But that balance can never be equal, nor ever the whole truth. Yes, some of it could be true, some of it is plausible, but there is no way of knowing with certitude that every single thing is a fact not just because of the absence of written records, but because facts are loaded with the possibility of being biased and distorted.

We know this only too well, especially in our times. We see right before our eyes our history books being written, rewritten, portions being redacted, other portions being inserted. How do we know what’s true and what’s not? All we know is that the record is one person’s, or one ruler’s, or one government’s point of view. It’s all point of view: your history, my history, someone’s idea of history. For instance, an article in FirstPost quoting a report in Mumbai Mirror (2017) says, Class 7 students will learn more about the Maratha empire than about the Mughals. The latter have been chopped out, all 300-odd years of their stay and sway over the region. According to the FP article, “The Class 7 textbook completely expunges portions about the Mughals and the Muslim rulers before them including Razia Sultana and Muhammad bin Tuqhlaq. Monuments built by these rulers also don't find any mention in the textbooks. So, we may soon have students in Maharashtra who wouldn’t know who built the Taj Mahal — one of the seven wonders of the world. They would also not know the history of the Qutub Minar or the Red Fort.”

An article by Harish Menon in Quartz India points out that a Sanskrit textbook for Class 8 claims India won the 1962 conflict against China. This is recent history and there are many around who saw that war being fought, and who know that India suffered tremendously in that bloody conflagration along the Himalayas when Indian soldiers fought not only the might of the Chinese army, but also icy winds and bitter cold.

The Rajput king Maharana Pratap was a contemporary of Akbar who refused to become a vassal of the Mughal emperor. They clashed at the battle of Haldighati (in Rajasthan) in 1576, and although the Mughal forces defeated the Rajputs, Rana Pratap’s bravery is still remembered in stories and poems. According to an India Today report, the Class 10 textbook has been revised to show that Rana Pratap defeated the Mughals at Haldighati. And in another textbook, Jawaharlal Nehru does not find mention even as a footnote!

Essence of history

Clearly, objectivity is no resort of historians. Feeling all grumbly and itchy about the ramifications of this, I browsed the net and discovered a 2015 blog post by Robert Krulwich which talks about the first person in history whose name we know. For centuries, he writes, people left handprints and drawings in caves and walls, marks that archaeologists discovered and historians tried to interpret. “Then, in Mesopotamia, writing appears, and after that people could record their words, sometimes in phonetic symbols so we could listen in, hear them talking and, for the first time, hear someone’s name — our first individual. So who was it?” asks Krulwich.

It was, it appears, an accountant by name Kushim. The writing on a 5,000-year-old clay tablet records a business deal says Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. “It’s a receipt for multiple shipments of barley. The tablet says, very simply: 29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim.” Harari interprets this to mean a “total of 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months. Signed, Kushim.” There’s more on the subject of clay tablets of Mesopotamia. As the blog observes, “The Kushim tablet is just one of tens of thousands of business records found on the deserts of Iraq.”

The blog is worth reading. It certainly offers another perspective on history, and further reiterates the fact that history is not only about A-listers. As Krulwich observes, “Kings come, kings go, but keeping track of your barley — your sheep, your money, your property — that’s the real story of the world.” Reading about Kushim blew away some of the despair over deliberate distortions of history. It also reiterated the fact that the search for truth must be along several paths: every avenue explored, every stone examined.

In the end, then, isn’t what we call history basically a bunch of assumptions presented in several versions by different people with changeable natures depending upon a whole lot of variables and experiences?