Author: Shreya Volety
Julian Barnes says something very interesting in his book, ‘The Sense of an Ending” when he comments upon the idea of how history is taught and to an extent, on how it is written. During the course of a debate in a classroom over the cause of World War 1, where one side was blaming Gavrilo Princep, the gallivanting radical who decided to shoot Sir Archduke Francis Ferdinand in the head after which all hell broke loose, while the others blamed the political unrest in Europe, the story’s central character comments – “my desire to ascribe responsibility might be a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it sir? The question of objective interpretation versus subjective, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us”. Of course this wasn’t the first time I heard something of this nature – we have all been told that at one time or the other that history could be the lies of those who won or the ego-protective words of those who lost. But just the way this author had phrased it – felt like a slap to the face.
Everything is relative – even stories of tyranny, war, revolution and freedom. None of us bat at least an eyelid when we speak of the death tolls in the American Civil War but our eyes are filled to the brim when we speak of our own struggle for independence. We read English Literature on War with an air of indifference, but when it comes to our own autobiographies, our hearts and minds are cauldrons of brewing emotions. This is not wrong – not entirely, but something we must ponder upon. Our histories are the foundation of our opinions, behaviour, actions and not to forget, our biases and prejudices. We offer precedents of the past to prevent errors of the future. Isn’t it dangerous that our telling of these very histories is so seriously tainted by the emotions and passions? How is it right to dissect the truth behind World War 1 with the sharp knife of truth logical, but to do the same with our own histories unpatriotic?
Our ideas and perceptions of whole cultures are based upon what history we know. We build and act upon stereotypes that history warrants are true. We carry resentment, sometimes even unknowingly because these histories seep into our minds and hearts.
Now to arrive at the reason why I have bored you with these 430 odd words – what we document today will become someone’s history tomorrow. In an age where fake news is circulating faster than the blades of a broken fan, who decides what deserves to be documented and what does not? Who knows if something from a false WhatsApp forward might actually make it to our children’s history books? And this is a particularly frightening thought. We are being fed information every minute that almost incapacitates our agency of thought and leaves a deep impression in path of our unconscious; information that appeals to our beliefs- that we would be willing to accept even if it were horrendously untrue.
I believe the saying “History repeats itself” is very true but incomplete. Rather, it should be “History repeats itself, when it is changed, when it is falsified, when it is forgotten”. If wrong histories have led to years of conflict and wars that continue to this day, what is to say it won’t happen in the future? It’s time we realize that we are somebody else’s history and what we print and read and write every day of our lives – be it news, literature, poetry or propaganda – could, if we are not careful very well become a war anthem of our children’s future. And what’s to say it’ll stop there?
Because as they all say – history does repeat itself.