July 29, 2016
A few years ago, when for my sins, I was a member of the Bombay Gym`s Managing Committee, I tried to liven up the club`s library with ‘Meet the Author’ events. The first such evening was ‘House Full’ (not really surprising when the library could seat only about 50). The second was also House Full (well, almost). So for the third when I persuaded Harsha Bhogle to attend ( the expert commentator with the grin on his face and a smile in his voice), I said we need a bigger space, especially since the Gym is a sporting institution. A hundred chairs were placed in the dining hall and a sound system was hired for the evening. Ten people turned up.
To hell with trying to liven up the library, I thought, and abandoned the idea. Years later, someone more energetic revived these evenings, and now the Gym`s Book Club is six years old, and thriving. For the anniversary, they asked me to cut the cake and chair the evening`s discussion. The subject was on the recent trend of romanticising history. On the panel were Ashwin Sanghi (Rozabel Line andChanakya`s Chant), Royina Grewal (Babur) and Namrata Ganneri, an Assistant Professor of History at Mumbai`s SNDT University. In other words, Ganneri is a realhistorian, and real historians are not prone to romanticising anything. This became clear when she began by saying that in the interest of selling their books, writers were compelled to “package their products”. Sanghi and Grewal winced. They came in to the discussion as writers, and were going to leave as executives of Hindustan Unilever?! However, Ashwin and Royina are made to sterner stuff, so the discussion became lively while retaining its essential seriousness. What more could you ask?
The important points in any discussion on history go as follows: History is always written by the victor, so you have skewed it by definition. Secondly, since the writing of history is a comparatively recent discipline, historians draw up their accounts from old records and fragments of information. Their interpretation is obviously going to be coloured by their own perspective and their political leanings. We have had a huge number of Maxist historians,for example, and now we are likely to be weighed down by lotus-worshipping ones. In short, there is no such thing as objective history. That being the case, what`s the harm in romanticising it?
In any case, novelists who use historical incidents or periods in which to place their narrative, would generally use a superstructure of verifiable facts, and construct their edifice by using their imagination around that framework. By doing so, they take well known incidents of history outside the cloistered world of academia to a much wider readership. What is wrong with that, assuming they have not distorted facts to suit a particular ideology? Of course, you get the distorters : Anyone remember the gentleman who devoted his life to ‘proving’ that monuments like the Taj Mahal in Agra were actually Hindu temples once upon a time? Amusing for a while, then tiresome, then finally pitiable in the waste of a life on a quixotic quest. More dangerous than these false prophets are the ones who rewrite history for cinema and TV. Since the visual media are likely to leave a permanent impression on the audience, a higher degree of accuracy is called for. This, of course, is as likely as snow in Mumbai. So millions of our countrymen now have strong ideas of how Ram, Krishna, Arjun and company looked and behaved which may have only a tenuous relationship with the truth.
A related point of discussion arose out of the recent trend of mining our mythology by first time writers. Look into any bookshop, and the majority of books by young Indians seem to be off-shoots of some part of the Mahabharat. That`s the famous Indian Bandwagon Effect. The question here would be this: how much is mythology history? Is it true that every myth is based on a historical fact? Conversely, since no one is sure where fact ends and fiction begins, isn`t this a wonderful take-off point for a novelist? No prizes for the correct answer.