There is a core to the human mind that sets us apart from other primates. We can forget incidents and episodes in our lives, but never the abiding truths that haunt us to death. But our lives are of little interest to others unless our truths also become their truths, making them see the connections between their own lives and ours. It is in these interlinking experiences that we can bond. Memories are of little use unless they carry a wider meaning whereby we all can mirror ourselves in them and say, “Oh yes, that’s me!” Memories must have stories that all of us lived in our lives in some way.
T. S. Eliot wrote of mixing memory with desire. The late American historian Arthur S. Schlesinger Jr. wrote that memory is to the individual what history is to the nation. Without memory an individual gets disoriented, and without an understanding of history a nation loses its way. The very act of telling history is about the past, but it is not the past, because the past is over, we can never live it again, for it would then cease to be the past.
Therefore, any writing of history is a fraught project. While recreating history we merely mirror ourselves, not historical characters. But we should not worry too much about the past as it was. We should live on and enjoy each past that we leave behind, and turn it into a remembered experience. The ideas we carry and the stories we tell our children are the building blocks of their future. In this sense, the past is the future also.
The West honours its history by employing its resources in research and writing, codification and preservation. Americans also do it by wearing period costumes in heritage homes, to recreate moments or episodes that define their culture. In 1996, during a tour of duty in Houston, I visited San Antonio, Texas, to see that an entire tourism industry including laser shows had been devoted to the history of the Alamo, where a group of Texans had defeated a Mexican force. At the other end of the planet, great temples lie in ruins in India for lack of preservation efforts. The way we look at our history has a lot to do with how rich we are.
Those that were born in independent India must thank their luck. Today many Indians treat British rule as episodic in India’s history cycle. It needs constant reminding to know of the racial superiority that the British imposed. One of the uncontested facts of British rule is that all of India’s previous invaders became Indian, but the British chose to leave rather than getting assimilated into Indian culture. Both Indians and Britons have of course moved on. Several years ago India was the second largest investor in London, after the U.S.
The British may have left India but every day of British rule is remembered in India’s art, morals, and in everyday urban life. The British imprint upon India peeks at Indians from alleys and street corners, as if to say, “I never left. I am right here, in your breath.” India’s truths, that something Indians can call their very own, will come out only when they begin to dismantle their colonial history. But Indians lack the confidence to do that. It is much easier to build another layer of post- independence consciousness over the last, like the layer over layer of the city of Delhi that was built, telling its own story.
Why do I say this? The British built their rule around a psychological weapon that made Indians believe they were inferior. The old Plaza cinema in New Delhi’s Rajiv Chowk that is now a multiplex has “Piccadilly Circus” written over its coffee room, with the logo of the London Underground. Just a hundred yards away is New Delhi’s gleaming Rajiv Chowk metro station, of the new India of technology and engineering skill. Here is the perfect example of a past that contests with the present between street corners.
This duel between the past and the present continues in other arenas also. India’s Buddhist trail to Central Asia was lost in the middle ages, when fierce incursions by new Muslim converts destroyed the Buddhist heritage of Afghanistan, cutting India’s links to Central Asia. But the Bamiyan Buddhas stood up for the past. They awed modern-day visitors the same way that they had awed the Chinese pilgrim Hieun Tsang in the sixth century. The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001 was part of a continuing process of Buddhism’s decline, since the 10th century. When we are in the present, we tend to forget how much the past fits into it.
But what should bother us is that Indians are still not confident enough to face the failures of the past squarely. India invented the decimal system, but failed to reap its technological benefits. Indian steel gained fame in the early Common Era but Indians failed to convert that into military prowess. Could the same happen to IT? For all India’s lead in software, Indians lag behind in applying software solutions to their daily lives or even in the workplace. Hotmail inventor Sabeer Bhatia sold his innovation to Microsoft. Will the West again leave India behind in putting Indian innovations to better use?
Perhaps Indians should do an encore of the century before British rule to understand that dishonest age of fragmenting kingdoms and technological stagnation. The Vijay Tendulkar play Ghasiram Kotwal was one such encore that captured the incapacity of the Marathas to construct, even while they showed the capacity to destroy. Satyajit Ray’s film Shatranj Ke Khiladi was a sorrowful depiction of decay and surrender. India’s many losses of the past continue to haunt and trouble Indians.
Of course political or cultural loss can be overcome with time, just as we are able to tide over the loss of a loved one, the loss of innocence, the loss of desire, the loss of opportunity or the traumatic loss of defeat. But the worst kind of loss is the loss of memory and self-confidence. Yet loss need not lead to surrender, because we have the tools to correct the ills that lead to loss, while defeat and surrender can deplete our very spirit. Faced with centuries of defeat, Indians still find it difficult to deal with it, and they have not, until recently, been able to put the fragments of the past together. Out of these fragments a more wholesome and coherent India is slowly emerging.
Jitendra Nath Misra is an Indian Foreign Service officer and, most recently, was India's ambassador to the Lao People's Democratic Republic. The opinions expressed in this essay are the author's personal views, and do not in any way represent the opinions or policies of the government of India