Past perfect?

In the 2002 film adaptation of H G Wells’ Time Machine, the opening sequence shows why the protagonist builds it. The scientist protagonist loses his girlfriend to some muggers. In grief he decides to build a time machine to bring her back. After 4 years when he makes one, he goes to the day of her death and saves her from the muggers only to see that she is killed by a vehicle in the next few minutes. Symbolically, it is a sci fi movie making a spiritual point that life and death and a lot of what happens between them are not in man’s control, no matter how he tries to control them. But the larger point really is that you can’t change your past. No matter what you try to do to it in the present, no matter how you try to manipulate the situation, the past remains the past. A point that should be considered by those, who in recent days, have been trying very hard to rewrite the past or atleast try and give it a bit of a shine here and there.

The entire national focus has been on the past these days; that is if you believe all the statements made by several leaders. Attempts are being made on all sides to appropriate the past for themselves. The internet is a great tool to take credit for a lot of things. By its very nature of being a mass communication medium that is also real time, it lends itself to propaganda. So it shouldn’t be surprising this is happening in India but the reason why it is perhaps alarming is that it exposes how little of what we studied while young do we remember, how little do we actually apply our mind and reason to our heritage and how little do we actually know about it or have cared to know about it.

The right wingers may be right about one point, that we don’t know or don’t care about our own history, yes, that’s true. But the interesting part is if we according to them chose to believe the left liberals unquestioningly at one point, we are now choosing to believe the right wing unquestioningly. What does that say about our cultural disdain for factual history and its preservation? This question was put to a few delegates at the Goa conference of right wing scholars. Their response was that as a society we were so repressed, our self esteem so crushed and our past so belittled that we did not think of upholding our identity and our history. While on the face of it, this argument seems valid, but it doesn’t explain the facts in this article – Gandhi return landmarks in Mumbai becoming history. This article clearly shows how we have failed to preserve the legacy of one of the greatest icons of our history. If we couldn’t preserve the legacy of Gandhi, who lived during the recorded history phase of our country, who died just 60 odd years ago when we were free of all colonial pressure to disown our culture, then what hope is there for the distant past?

So yes, the right wing is correct to say that we don’t preserve or respect our history but perhaps what right wing and left wings scholars will never acknowledge is our apathy towards such preservation. Another reason that no one really touches upon is how even traditionally, Indian culture believed in either passing on history and knowledge orally, that too only within the family or particular caste or simply taking it to the death bed. One has heard several legends of enlightened men who died with the secrets of their knowledge in their hearts. Most knowledge was concentrated with upper class men and once caste systems became more rigid, there was no way anyone from any other caste got access to it. Indian traditions at one point even banned crossing oceans or going anywhere beyond the borders of the country. Someone as distinguished as Swami Vivekananda was denied entry to a temple after his famous Chicago address because he had crossed seas and was now impure. Whatever we learnt we didnt propagate or share with others and because we didn’t go beyond our shores, we never learnt what they were upto. And now we feel shortchanged because people came here and learnt things and then applied and built upon it in their home countries.

To blame all of our failings in preserving history and knowledge on invaders and colonialists is forsaking our own responsibility in the whole thing. And it is a noble intention to try and preserve or enhance what we can right now, but do we know whether what we are fighting for is really the factual history? Or are we fighting to redo the past like the scientist in Time machine? What if we looked at the past and resolved we will preserve our today and our tomorrow better rather than what we no longer have any control over?

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