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History Is Altered By Our Perspective. Here’s How

Posted by Rahul Hasija in Specials
October 26, 2017

What I am going to share now is limited to my own limited experiences and knowledge and is to be taken as just one of the perspectives and not the ultimate truth.

We all remember that Columbus discovered America. We studied that in school. But if that is the truth we have read, what about this truth in the pic below?

How can someone discover a continent already inhabited by many others? Yet we have read that Columbus did. The below map displays tribes that inhabited America much before Mr Columbus set foot on her.

We have all seen the World Map, haven’t we?

Why is it not the other way round? Like this…

A movement from Australia to reclaim their own maps

The Earth, as it is said, is round, so why is the map always shown the same way? A closer look would show how the map generates a perception of the world towards the Northern nations (which in the current map are upwards) that they are more developed, superior and prosperous than the Southern nations (which in the current map are downwards). That’s what we have read in our geography books, divided into the categories of developing, under-developed and developed nations.

So, the important question to be asked here is, “who were the writers, creators, designers of history?”

Chinua Achebe, the famous author once wrote“The books of antelopes will sing ballads in the glory of predators until antelopes begin writing their own story.” History is said to be written by winners or maybe those who had the power to write.

We have heard and seen the Ramayana from Ram’s perspective. But not from Raavana’s perspective (predominantly). We are shown much wicked, nasty characters portraying Kauravas. But why not Mahabharata from their perspective? What about the much-celebrated film “Baahubali”? That’s a fictional plot though, still, what made us favour this young, lighter complexion Baahubali whose language we could decipher, but not the dusky villain with a undecipherable language?

Villainous character from Baahubali

The dominant narrative in our mythology, in our media, in our family and society is dominant, but not the only narrative. We are pushed towards looking one-dimensionally at history. And not just history, let’s take science or mathematics. Whatever is in the books, the theorems, the laws, etc are just proposals. They are not the ultimate truth, which we unfortunately tend to believe. It is evolving, and so are our culture, traditions and world-views. The world has never been one-dimensional showing just the good and the bad.

Even narratives which are not dominant risk to fall into the same category when they try to appropriate their own history. History, I believe, loves no vacuum. And thus we have stories floating around which we start making and believing in. The buck doesn’t stop here. The problem or the conflict gives rise when the belief is turned so strong, that there’s no space for a parallel, opposing or an alternative narrative.

Chimamanda Ngozi, a young Nigerian author, in her Ted talk, mentions ‘the danger of a single story’. She mentions that she and her family held a one-dimensional image of poor people, that they are nothing but poor. When she visited one of the poor people’s home, she realised that they were everything but poor. They had their own gifts, skills, culture, art and much more and just being black and living simply makes them look low, worth a pity. And that is what the dominant narrative has been of Africa – a poor nation inhabited by black poor people unable to fend for themselves waiting for white guys to help and money.

I feel that the times we are living in, the openness and tolerance for counter-views and perspectives is quite less, maybe it has always been this way. It is quite evident when we read comments sections on any of the websites, youtube or articles, or when we listen to stories in a running train or chai tapris. I feel I and the world I live in suffers from a dreadful disease, much dreadful and fatal than any other. It is called ‘My perspective is the ultimate truth syndrome.’ In this disease, the person doesn’t even acknowledge the presence of ‘perspective.’ And that is why I feel understanding our own history is much important.

About eight years ago, I was fortunate to meet Dr Quratulain Bakhteari, an eminent educationist from Balochistan. After working with various international agencies, she realised how bringing education in the name of welfare is destroying the local culture, practices and learning ecology. She thus founded an organisation for the youth called the Institute for Development Studies and Practices (IDSP).

What remained with me of her conversation was a module they conduct with their students. The students, in their first-semester break, are asked to go home and document at least 100 years of their paternal or maternal history. And indeed you can’t find a speck of it on Google. One of the students, after documenting the history, discovered an old and abandoned irrigation system and revived it. Another discovered a lost art of embroidery and revived it.

This motivated me to find my own roots. I would sit with my father and dig deeper into what his life was. What made him, community and the family the way it is – food, practices, rituals, language, gender roles, occupations, attire, and so much more. I searched out for my late grandfather’s notes. Asked my mother to translate a few in Hindi. I was in awe of history and felt that there is lots to be learnt from history – especially the sustainable practices, rituals that are also scientific. It dawned on me when I met Dr Gopal Guru, an eminent professor from JNU who said “We must be open to criticize our own history, it is not just a glory of the past that matters.”

When I dig deeper into ways of looking into my own history, I realised many of my beliefs, judgement and actions have their root in it. The more tightly I will hold them, the less open I’m for the world that exists and lesser is the learn-ability about myself and the world. It is just ‘my world’ that I’d always be concerned with.

Now, the interesting part is, when I mention the facts above from history, or from books I’ve read (for example the Columbus example), barring a few, I have not checked all of them for reality, some of them are way far, some I really can’t as they are way past in history. So, for any matter, if I am holding these perspectives and making them my ultimate truth or my way of life; if I am on any side of the perspective, it would always result in separation. It would divide us between us and them. Color, caste, religion, culture, region, and many more separations we have already formed and the end result is that it always separates. I wonder who I am without these perspectives. And I wonder who am I with all these perspectives yet not attached to any of them?

It would and is very easy to shift from one perspective to another, but to stand at a neutral ground seems much more difficult – a place where I don’t have to be on either side, there are no sides at all; it is complete in itself,  – and maybe that’s the field Rumi talks about, far from the wrong and right, I would like to meet us there every single time there’s belief within trying to turn itself into an action, direct or indirect.