Friday, 11 September 2015

History Is Essentially Just A Story

"History (noun): the ​study of or a ​record of past ​events ​considered together, ​especially ​events of a ​particular ​period, ​country, or ​subject" - Cambridge Online Dictionary.

Inadvertently, I have developed an interest in a particular part of Indian history - that of Indian struggle for independence. I must confess that my interest is centered around Mahatma Gandhi & his contributions. In the process, I have read (in greater detail than other people involved) about Mr. Jinnah, Mr. Hitler, Mr. Churchill & Maulana Azad - via either autobiographies or accounts written by historians (but not biographies). I am now on my fifth book that deals with the period of India's struggle for independence.

In my opinion, contrary to what most people say: "the more you read about a subject, the more you know; the more you know, the more you understand; the more you understand, the more command you have on that subject", history isn't the subject that can ever be understood in entirety - irrespective of how much one reads & knows.

It is my belief that no written word about history is the absolute truth. Different versions are available that either add to or disagree with the written word.

As far as different books add to the story and take it forward, reading the story continues to be interesting because the reader always assumes the written word to be true. In the reader's mind - story going forward falls under the general rule of "read more, know more, understand more...leads to more command". However, the first instance this reader comes across a book that starts questioning parts of historical records read earlier - it becomes difficult to see which parts to believe in.

There is another aspect that leads to inaccuracies in history books - the need to create heroes for following generations to look up to. If more books say person X was a hero, the more likely it is for following generations to have blindly believe in heroism of person X. Unfortunately - heroes have to be all positive, all conquering and all pure. Even the slightest mention of their negatives or failures is deemed blasphemous. This leads to incomplete & incorrect history to be written!

Allow me to share an excerpt from Arthur Herman's book, Gandhi & Churchill, to show how flawed recording of history can be:

This illustrates both my points: 1) written history is often misleading / incorrect, and 2) it is, at times, done to simply to create larger than life characters for following generations to idolize!

I can't agree that historians / biographers managed enough research to know the exact account of events and circumstances. In case of autobiographies, it is impossible to simply assume that the person writing about his past remembers everything as it actually happened. Since there is no real time record maintained, a lot of it finally comes down to memory. And this 'memory' can range from true to perceived truth to complete imagination.

In any scenario, one thing stands out clearly - history is essentially just a story. Like most stories, history is inspired by facts with varying dosage of fiction sprinkled to bring out the desired flavours. Stories, based on individual reader's interpretation, are source of information, entertainment and lessons - that's exactly what history should be treated as...and not as the absolute true account of past.

Doubts regarding recorded history are important, especially because it is for these doubts that one would learn to accept written words with a pinch of salt.

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