Friday, June 13, 2008

Untold Personal Tales of History

What are the most important facts about anybody’s life? To understand a person what all you need to know about him/her? Is it biodata facts like formal education, name of parents , place of birth etc etc or is it the religion and beliefs, philosophy and dreams, aspirations and fears ? Some time back me and husband had a heated discussion on the issue. It started when I found that while telling me about his favorite college professors , he was invariably enlightening me about their personal information too - affairs, unsuccessful marriages, rivalries, scandals etc. To my middle class mind this was quite revolting. Teachers and parents belong to a class of people about whom it is indecent to talk about private lives- unless of course, it is very morally upright and socially correct . Husband argued that these details are the most important lines in a person’s sketch, for they portray the ‘real’ person inside the body. The discussion ended after a while – but his argument remained with me. Even I grudgingly agreed in my mind later on that there is an element of truth in what he says.
Well, last night I again started thinking on these lines (this time alone) when I watched a beautiful movie called ‘Possession’ based on A.S. Byatt’s Booker winning novel of the same name. The novel/movie concerns the relationship between two fictional Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, as revealed to present day academics Roland Michell and Maud Bailey. Following a trail of clues from various letters and journals, poems and records, they attempt to uncover the truth about Ash and LaMotte's past. It was interesting portrayal of how love and relationships found expression in different times and places, based on the contemporary standards of morality.
Then I started thinking about many historical figures like Harsha, Poet Kalidas, writer Banabhatta , Emperor Akbar , Babur or even for that matter mathematician Ramanujam . What do we know about their lives? While posing this question ,I am not limiting myself to affairs and relationships –for they may not necessarily be the most important factors in a person’s life. But what about his/her dreams, thoughts and emotions?How he/she felt about his/her family, friends, neighbours and how they reacted towards her. What do we know about that ? There have been some attempts in fiction to revive their lives through imagination but as far as I know there is not much of scholarly research. I wonder, if we even have documents to research with- I mean letters, writings etc. May be not in India at least .There must ahve been some books, manuscripts etc but whetehr we have preserved them ...well, i have my doubts . India had a rich oral tradition of tales but as for as serious history writing is concerned we were never good in preserving the letters /documents of even the great men and women of those ages. We actually know very little about the 'real' them. There are some characters whom I suspect of having lived a very interesting life- Razia Sultan for example. She was one of the few notable ladies who ruled parts of India in Sultanate period. If folklore is to be believed her life had a lot of shades including romance , betrayal, power , family feud and may be murder too. But has anyone bothered to reconstruct her life. Then Lilawati -a mathematician in ancient period- we know very little about her too . Same is perhaps the case with most writers and poets, philosopher and saints, kings and queens, generals and gurus of bygone ages. We have seen buildings made by them but we have not much of idea what went in their minds when they built these . And what about not so great common people around these celebrities. How about chronicling their lives? I can recall only one piece of fiction which belonged to this kind of research. It was Amitabh Ghosh’s ‘In an Antique Land’ The book is a brilliant hybrid, a subversive history in the guise of a traveller's tale. It tells the story of two Indians in Egypt. The first was a twelfth-century slave; the second is Amitav Ghosh, who stumbled upon the slave in the margins of letters that were written by the slave's master. His curiosity piqued - even ill-defined, the slave's presence in the records of medieval history was completely out of the ordinary - Ghosh journeyed to Egypt in 1980 to try to fill in the details of the slave's life. His search - which would last for ten years - began in a tiny village two hours from Alexandria where Ghosh found himself among people for whom 'the world outside was still replete with wonders of the unknown.' . These were zealous Muslims who found him, a Hindu, fascinating but utterly incomprehensible. Yet they willingly became his guides as he sifted through fact and conjecture, piecing together the slave's journey from India to Egypt. Ghosh discovered an 'elusive and mysterious acquaintance' in the slave, with whom he seemed to share, across eight hundred years, the experience of dislocation, And, moving between the present and the ancient past, between his own life and the slave's, Ghosh creates an exuberant multi-layered narrative, rich in detail and anecdote, that affords us not only an inkling of the slave's life, but also a unique understanding of the private life of the world that both he and the author came to inhabit.
I have read several pieces of fictions inspired by history or which had a bit of historical research in them but none as fascinating as these two-Possession and In an Antique Land. In Hindi there are books written by Rahul Sankrityayan, Mohan Rakesh or Hazari Prasad Dwivedi which try to mingle history with personal lives of real historical characters . More recently there was White Mughals by William Dalrymple. Then there are pure fictions trying of grasp the essence of an era(like period dramas)…but the kind of writings I am looking for are based on real literary research. Its good that at least for contemporary famous men and women the trend of biographies is catching up. But more often then not , these biographies specially the official ones and even autobiographies ,are not very close to the truth. I mean each one of us live life full of contradictions- things we are ashamed of, things which go against our present thinking and things we hate to admit we did. rarely do we find an account of these instances in carefully edited biographies. More often then not, they remain an exercise in glorification of a person's life-mostly through exaggeration and clever use of language.
Talking about these untold stories of history, I wonder what do we know about our family histories? Who bothers about that anyways…except perhaps some well known families may be . Except his name , profession and few other trivial facts about him, may be a picture or a painting - I hardly know about my own great grandfather . In India we do not give importance to letters, diaries or any other written work after the person is no more. Who cares for preserving it for coming generations and then more often then not, who in future generations bothers to look for these anyways. But then, don’t you at times want to live in a particular age and setup for a while…to know it better, to see how it smells and feels to be alive then. To feel their fears and to share their morality. . I for one, was very fascinated with Chanakya’s age, Buddha’s times, days when Banabhatta was alive .Its so bad that we hardly have many primary source/documents to know about the daily life of women of any ages of history -even in as near as 19th century India. As a student I searched many libraries to look for the personal details about them , not much was there – except the bare basics which history books inform us …..worse, there is perhaps no proper documentation to search it out also. Though the incorrigible romantic in me would like to believe that still somewhere in some manuscripts, in some books there will be these hidden stories waiting to reveal themselves. I sometimes envy the Europeans and Brits for their meticulous archives and Libraries . But then I can sense the similar desperation there also about the lives of e.g. Jesus Christ or Mary Magdalene or rewriting the history of Witchcraft in Scandinavia .
Now after so much of pondering about the personal histories and research for that –I must tell readers about my own contribution for that . Since I am the main character in my story and also my own favorite person for decades now, I did make some attempts to leave behind my memoirs. After years of regular diary writing, I had almost given up on the habit, but since yesterday the matter is under serious reconsideration. The habit started in age 12 when I read about Anne Frank’s Journal and decided that I should also keep one , for who know what comes next in my life . But after years of juvenile scribbling about a school friend or a favorite teacher, an account of fight with sisters or narration of disappointment with parents I found it is totally useless to fill the pages so dutifully. I mean what do I do with those volumes . Now when I read my adolescent diaries, I feel like putting a note that I revised my opinion later on this point or that wisdom prevailed on me after few days of writing this nonsense or may be that I never meant to sound so nasty about this person etc etc ….but I refrain from tampering with my own personal history . I must admit though, even if it is of no historical use later on- it does provide enough explosive material for some defamation suits from inside the family and friends. It is also hilarious at times to read how I used to think in those days. So even if no one bothers to reconstruct my personal life in future …I feel so blessed reading these recordings about my life that by God's grace things did not happen the way I wanted them to be at various points in my life.

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