Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič



Updated: Nov 23, 2020

I have come to realize that we are all the same, all of us here—our interests, our political stances, our take on the nation—so we are pretty much talking to one another, which is a bit of a problem. But it is not as much of a problem as what I witnessed at the Kumaon Literary Festival where there was an attempt to bring together various viewpoints through a debate on nationalism. So there was Hindol Sengupta who represented a certain version of nationalism; there was Tarun Vijay who is a spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party and therefore must assume certain attitudes; and there was my ex-student Rana Ayyub who has written and self-published Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover-Up.


The problem is simple: Do we preach to the converted or shout at the unhearing?


In about 10 minutes, the debate had degenerated into a shouting match and it was quite obvious that nobody had anything to say to anybody else. And that no one was listening. This is the real source of terror, the real source of our problem: we have not been able to maintain a space for dialogue, for listening and receiving. We have relied too long on the academy as the space for the formation of history. History is being made right now, today, in newsrooms across the country. History is being made on television which can be scary, since truth is often the first casualty of TRPs.


But that’s not what’s terrifying. What’s terrifying is that history is being made by the twitterati, in editing studios where soundtracks are overlaid on recorded events. That distorted reality is then widely circulated. And since we are now in a space where we only hear and believe what we want to hear and believe, the correctives are ignored.


The old formula for instant history, over the last 50 years of our society used to be: ‘I read it in the newspapers.’ As journalists, we were aware that we were responsible for the making of history. Then it became ‘I saw it on television’. Large corporations know they could be sued and so they try and be as seemly as possible. But what about the independent troll who puts out a video that goes viral? ‘I saw it on Twitter,’ say his followers and the result is that history is made by those who have a desire to represent not what happened but what they think happened. They know they are biased. In fact, they are proud of these biases. And they are prouder still of introducing these biases into their work.


And then there is the other narrative. We also learn about our history from extramural sources, from what we hear outside the world of academia for the history textbooks are easily forgotten. The world is very clearly divided into people who remember what they studied in school—that’s 1 per cent of the universe—and the rest who forget.


I know you believe that you remember what you studied. But should I ask you what the cosine of an angle is or what (a+b) raised to the power of three is equal to—you would look at me blankly. It is no less shocking that you should not remember a binomial expansion than it is that you should not remember who Tipu Sultan was. As History teachers, you may have a greater investment in Tipu Sultan—but Mathematics is a modality of engagement with logic—if that slips you by, then logic slips you by. Because up to that time, the only thing allowing you to think about logic is the mathematics that is taught without logic. If you do not remember that Lithium has a valency of 1 or 2 and so you do not know whether Lithium Carbonate is LiCO3 or Li2CO3 how have you excused yourself? How have you said that they should all remember their History—but it is okay for me to forget my Chemistry? Or to forget my Mathematics? Are we guilty of prioritizing certain forms of knowledge? Perhaps we do it unknowingly but here it is: They should know their History but I can forget my Botany.


Why is it that after so many years of education in school, most Indian school children are unable to write a simple letter? I have two young neighbours. One went to medical college and became a pathologist—which means she not only did a medical degree but also went on to do her MD. And the other is an engineer and teaches in an engineering college. Recently he had to write a letter to his principal, requesting for a day’s leave to get a visa. But he could not write that letter, so he came to me. If an engineering professor cannot write a leave application, we should acknowledge that our system is a failure.


And if our system is a failure, then let us assume that everything we know comes from sources outside the classroom. That everything we know about our history does not come from our textbooks. Those textbooks have left no impact. But we are humans and we want to know who we are, we want to know the story of our tribe. The most trivial form of this desire for tribal knowledge is gossip; its most noble form is literature and history.


So something else fills the gaps. And this something else is the visual and the aperceptive and the non-academic. Anil pointed out that nationalism is shallow. We love shallow. Shallow is easy, shallow makes no great demands on us. And Hindi cinema, Bollywood, being perennially, perpetually, unashamedly shallow, presents us with the ideal formulation for understanding of the nation-state.

‘Mere desh ki dharti sona ugle, ugle heere moti,

mere desh ki dharti’

Lyrics by Indeevar from Upkar (1967, Manoj Kumar)


In a bus humming through the British countryside, a group of Chevening scholars were angrily discussing the issue of overheated nationalism. (This was in the late 1990s and, from the standpoint of today, the heat of then seems tepid.) Then a Bengali journalist from Ananda Bazar Patrika began singing ‘Mere Desh ki Dharti’ and, within a line or two, the whole bus was singing too. Sixteen Indians singing ‘Meri Desh ki Dharti’ and not talking nationalism any more.


The song then dissolved into antakshari without us even thinking about it.


These are the seductions of Bollywood that will take us away from our everyday analysis of who we are. Is this the problem? The problem is not with our circumstances. Our circumstances have always been bad, and every editorial tells you that we are on the verge of the apocalypse. If you read nineteenth-century journalism or eighteenth-century social critique, you see the same narratives again and again: the rich have got richer, the poor have got poorer. The young have never been so shallow, the old have never been so tired.


It’s been nearly a hundred years since that beast was slouching towards Bethlehem in Yeats’ poem. And we have seen some pretty good beasts come down the pike.


Now imagine what role Bollywood has to play in all this. None! There is no room for something so shallow, so lightheaded, so ignorant in a discussion of the making of history. How could there be? History begins with jigyaasa, the desire to know. Bollywood has rarely, if ever, wanted to know—it is deliberately ignorant, it is often dangerously naive.


But the moral universe of Hindi cinema is the moral universe of our students. When they come to ask if Tipu Sultan is a good guy or a bad guy—they are really asking: ‘Yeh Gabbar hai ya Jai-Veeru hai?’ If all that they are told, over and over again, is that there are bad guys and there are good guys, and the good guys beat the bad guys in the end, then they will apply that to the narrative of history too. They will want to know why Tipu Sultan died the way he did, because it doesn’t fit the narrative they have been given.


So what you are contending with is not just the simplicity of a young person coming to you and asking you for the facts. Because history strives for consensus, history tries to establish the facts. And yet research continues—new archives are discovered and new inscriptions are uncovered, and the facts begin to rearrange themselves. This is the magic of research, and the greatest of historians—like the greatest of scientists—must be willing to acknowledge that facts mutate as our knowledge grows and our technology improves.


We all know that there is no single narrative. Just think about the last time a couple you know got a divorce. Let us assume you are close to each of them, and each tells you the story of their marriage. You might think you have two different stories here. You might be tempted, if you are closer to one, to accept that as the true story. That is bias. That is a crude ahistorical response that we produce out of our loves and our hates. We know we cannot trust this, but how we want to.


So we go back again to those two differing stories. Is one wrong and is one right? Or is neither wrong? Is there room for contending versions? How can there be? We were taught to believe in unitary truths. But what room does that leave for the versions written by the victors versus the versions written by the vanquished? What room does that leave for Adivasi, Dalit, Tribal histories? What room does that leave for women’s versions of history? How do we accommodate the subaltern? And if we can accommodate all these, should we find a way to accommodate the right-wing versions of history that are now finding their way into our textbooks? Can subjectivity find a place in history?


I do not have an answer for you. But I can offer you an analogy. We can consider Heisenberg’s Indeterminacy Principle here. If you have forgotten your physics, let me remind you. We cannot know both the speed and the position of an electron, because as soon as you ‘look’ at an electron, you flood it with so much light that you change its velocity and its position. So you can only know either its velocity or its position.


We know also that the macroworld and the nanoworld operate by different laws but simply to know that by looking you change things is a useful principle. Your position is going to be important. Who you are and what you are, whether you are a Brahmin, a Bengali, a Dalit, an Anglophile, a Communist, a left-leaning liberal—we can be all of them at once, or slip and slide from one to the other—all these identities are going to shape what we want to believe.


So if you don’t start by implicating yourself, the history you understand, the history you teach, will be a history inflected by the old-fashioned and dangerously naive pretense that there can be a grand narrative, the one that Bollywood has aspired to. A narrative with good guys and bad guys. And at whose end, Satyameva Jayate, the truth shall prevail. Let us take Sholay. In the end, Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar), whose family has been destroyed by the bandit Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan), pulls his foot back from Gabbar’s head and does not crush him.


The original, by the way, is available on YouTube where he does kill him.


And here is the truth of the narrative of fiction. The original had Thakur killing Gabbar. The film was released around the Emergency, when violent films were supposed to be banned. But it didn’t get banned, even though it was about vigilante justice and the failure of the State machinery. There are many reasons posited for this, including the friendship between Rajiv Gandhi and Amitabh Bachchan. One story is that the filmmakers were told to do the Gandhian thing, to have Thakur forgive at the end, for it to get passed.


These are also subaltern narratives.


I had a poignant encounter with an art film-maker who shall go unnamed. We were travelling together. He asked me where I was going. I said there was a conference in London on Bollywood. He sighed and said that, in his time, there were filmmakers who were Saraswati-bhakts or Lakshmi-bhakts. He, and his kind, made his films for Saraswati, for art, and commercial filmmakers made their films for Lakshmi, for money. Saraswati rewarded his kind with critical attention; Lakshmi rewarded the other kind with pots of money. And he was very puzzled at how much critical attention classical Bollywood was getting.


He was not wrong.


Something had changed.


At the first screening of Amar Akbar Anthony at an Italian film festival, it was being presented by Rosie Thomas and Behroze Gandhi, and the audience gave a slow clap. A slow clap is the Italian way of saying, ‘Go home, this is not what we want to listen to.’


Cut to 2012: we are having conferences on ‘the soft power of Bollywood’. Academic conferences on the soft power of Bollywood! In Abu Dhabi! Business class tickets for everyone! No need for a visa—the embassy men will escort you from the airport to your hotel!


I’ll tell you what changed—globalization and liberalization made India a player. Up to that time, the international narrative about India was one of heart-stopping despair. It was about disease, open defecation, corruption and the failure of the state to provide basic amenities to its people.


In 1992, 1993, suddenly the world discovered that we were a market. I interviewed the President of Lee Jeans when they launched in India and he said: ‘I want babies to be in Lee Jeans diapers.’ And he said it with a straight face. I wondered whether he was serious. He looked serious. He also gave me the headline that I wanted: ‘Lee VP sees Indian babies in denim diapers’. I knew he was feeding it to me. That was part of the deal.


Once India was recognized as a market, we were allowed to take pride in ourselves—because they were proud of us.


Once, ICSE schools were ‘the best’. Now, it’s the International Baccalaureate. So here’s another conundrum: you can do the entire international curriculum, and never study Indian history. Tell me why that is worth one lakh? Tell me why that is not on your agenda today? Tell me why it is not a problem that our best minds are being taken out of state schools and put into schools where they have air-conditioned classrooms, where they have SUVs taking them to and fro, where they have laptops to mandatorily do their homework on, where they submit their homework via email and are now resisting email because they want to Whatsapp their teachers? How is this not being discussed? That an entire generation of the people who will determine the future of this country—they are not just the chatterati, they are the uber chatterati, the international chatterati. They will be running things and they will not have a clue who Gandhi was.


But I was talking about the failure of our schools, our ordinary everyday state-sponsored schools. Here is the terrible thing we teachers have to face up to—every child is curious and full of questions, before school. Before we kick the curiosity out of them. You take a three-year-old out for a walk in the park and they ask you a question at every corner. Why that? What is that colour? Why this? Who? Here? When? What? You can’t keep up with them. You send them to school and two years later you take them for a walk in the park and there are no questions. They have all been answered.


Let us return to the subject of my talk. In 1943, Kismet, directed by Gyan Mukherjee and starring Ashok Kumar and Bina Rai, was released. The big song in it was ‘Door hato yeh duniya walon, Hindustan humara hai.’