Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hail World History

As a child, I was always surrounded by books at home. Lots of books. Its one of many things we were taught to respect - no underlining, no earmarking, no folding, no keeping them on the dinner table, no spilling milk over them. No manhandling them period. I see now the value of that treatment, the books look as beautiful as they did when I was young, despite repeated readings. Of these, one of the books that I've always seen around and whose cover is almost ingrained in my head, is my grandfather's copy of the Glimpses of World History by Nehru. I've been meaning to read it for a while, and I finally did this summer. I couldnt finish it unfortunately, but what little I read I was fascinated. As an undergrad (and even as a grad student), I've been far too quick to criticize the nationalist account of textbook history, and embrace instead the subaltern accounts, without really giving the former a chance or without really trying to understand where it came from.

This book, written by Nehru between 1930 and 1933 is a collection of about 200 letters written from jail to his daughter, then a teenager. It is an extensive account of world history and world politics, dating from 6000 BC to his present, and perhaps constitutes the formative years of his perspective on the nation-state, and the premise of his foreign policies eventually. In a gigantic chart laid out at the very beginning he summarizes world history and puts it in a beautifully organized table with dates, numbers and important events. The main underlying idea in the letters is that there is no such thing as a nation's history - we must adopt a more integrated approach and think about the history and politics of the world. That given the vast spread of ideas, people and capital since times immemorial, it makes no sense to continue evoking the nation-state as the only legitimate container of history. It in fact resonates beautifully with post-colonial literature written almost a century later, that calls into question that very same notion of national borders, sovereignty and citizenship. Aside from being a fantastic narrative of history, it is also a narrative / diary of his struggle in jail (as an individual, family man and freedom fighter) and an account of the Independence struggle as witnessed from the confines of imprisonment in those three years.

Beautiful. Imagine reading these letters as a 13 year old. Imagine the kind of ideas you could be exposed to in your formative years. Imagine their power. It made me wonder why we never read this book in high school? Rather than having to search for history on my own as an adult, I would've learned to love history a lot more as a child. Rather than loving to hate my history lectures, I might have learnt to love and grasp world history at a time when learning was easier, and the ability to remember (not memorize) was sharper. Its still undoubtedly an elite account of history but not in the fashion taught to us by f***-all NCERT. As a well known post-colonial historical-anthropologist, Partha Chatterjee, writes:

"Those who had the misfortune to study the diplomatic history of Europe will remember the sleepless nights spent trying to memorize the unpronounceable names of remote provinces that were transferred on who knows which dates from one European power to another. This is how we were taught to relish the sublime beauties of sovereignty." (Politics of the Governed)

But why were we taught to relish it when we had access to something as beautiful as this book that questions the exact same? It makes no sense to me, but what does make sense is going back to the book again and again, and professing it to all that come my way, especially those of my generation.

P.S.: Speaking of my generation, whoever made this man GenX's mouthpiece?? (Thank you S, for pointing this one out):

"Really, whether Mr Jinnah did wonderful things or he did horrible things and whatever point of view your party likes to take — who gives a damn? How is this relevant to the India we have to build today? Are we electing leaders for the future or selecting a history teacher? ...let’s let Mr Jinnah rest in peace... And let’s not worry too much about this subject called History; let’s create a new subject called The Future."
- Chetan Bhagat, Dont Fix History, Look at the Future, TOI, 30 August 2009

Wait, what????


  1. lol@ last bit. Chetan Bhagat is an idiot (that is my opinion and I reserve the right to it, and am not open to debate).

    I've also been meaning to read more than 10 pages of that book forever..maybe now I will !- good post

  2. Thank you love! :)

    He is QUITE the idiot. There, I said it too.