Saturday, January 10, 2009

The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there

This proverbial L.P. Hartley's famous opening line, if heeded, could also augur a central shift in our perceptions of the past, believes Nayanjot Lahiri.
She further says,”the sword these days is frequently summoned to silence the pen. Authors, university departments, and institutes that write and research about matters that don't fit hagiographic versions of history, have been physically attacked.
It is realistic to expect that such unseemly spectacles will continue to unfold for the simple reason that our past is imprisoned in our present day ideas of what it supposedly was. This proclivity, in fact, reminds me of the dismay displayed by the Afghan, Ahmad Shah Abdali, in the battle of Panipat in 1761.
Apparently, Abdali had never been confronted with unclothed troopers. When he realised that as the main ally of Shuja ud-Daulah, he had such Hindu gosains or warrior ascetics indirectly fighting for him, he prudishly lectured Shuja on the "impropriety of unrestrained kafirs, naked in front and behind…parading and lounging in front of Muslims, and ordered them removed to a distance from his camp."
The gosains did comply with Abdali's request, moved away from his line of vision, and, notwithstanding the Afghan affront, acquitted themselves well in the battlefield.
If we accept that people and cultures in ancient and medieval India were different from us, we would feel no sense of retrospective shock about what they ate or drank or wore, or for that matter, what they didn't wear.
I am thinking here of ancient India's most powerful emperor whose first portrait shows his queen without clothes. The royal in question is the Mauryan emperor, Ashoka, and this earliest labelled portraiture of Ashoka comes from a sculpted stupa at Kanganhalli in Karnataka. Surely, the frontal nudity of Ashoka's consort suggests a world that is very different from our own present-day 'civilised' notions of royalty?
Or take the case of cattle which, by a long shot, was a very popular animal food for many millennia in ancient India. This is evident, among other things, from the fact that practically every Harappan civilisation site where animal bones are found, has inevitably yielded cattle bones. And yet, this fondness for beef is something that some Indians find difficult to digest. The major reason must be because they tend to think of themselves as the direct descendants of Harappans.
Shouldn't we admire and appreciate such people, even if they enjoyed food and carnal lives that were different from ours? Until we stop searching for 'our' ways of doing things in antiquity, we cannot freely and meaningfully engage with the enchantment of history.
Apart from unleashing intolerance, present sensibilities of this kind can also promote dishonest research. It is, for instance, unfortunate that despite thousands of metres of soil being excavated from Buddhist religious complexes, faunal records from very few sites are actually mentioned in publications. In Sri Lanka, faunal remains from two sites, the Sigiriya Vihara and Anuradhapura, have been recorded, but these bones have apparently never been identified.
Good historians are supposed to use historical evidence to tell true stories, stories in which 'what' and 'how' explanations are provided. But if the integrity of the evidence itself is compromised, the history written out of it will be a distorted one.
History cannot flourish in an atmosphere which privileges what is congenial and proscribes what is inconvenient.”