We, not Christopher Nolan, have failed the ‘desis’ at ‘Dunkirk’
There is something really quite interesting, and somewhat infuriating, about the ongoing “invisible Indians” debate surrounding Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
The story of these Indian soldiers, the misery they endured, and their life after the evacuation, has been widely covered by many writers in this paper and elsewhere as part of this debate. I will not recount it here. Curious readers may wish to glance at Sandip Roy’s article on The Huffington Post India website in which he lists and links most of them.
As with almost every aspect of India’s involvement in the two World Wars and other overseas conflagrations, these stories are invariably fascinating. Some of them are heroic. Some of them are horrific. Some of them are quite hilarious.
One of my favourites, and one prays it is not apocryphal, is the story of some Indian soldiers steaming across France in trains, rushing to join the front-lines of World War I. At some stations, the story goes, curious locals, many of whom had never seen an Indian before, assembled to leer at these strange visitors. As the soldiers ate lunch, locals walked up to the windows and flung in baguettes at the astonished jawans. Please, the locals said, can we swap our local bread for whatever fascinating round little flat breads you guys are eating? We have never seen them before. (One wonders if this is the origin of the Poulet Curry Baguette that is available all over Switzerland, and is to be avoided at all costs.) But I digress.
The interesting thing about this ongoing desis of Dunkirk debate is that it seems to sit right next to another never-ending debate that pops up any time matters of Indian history are touched upon by the West: Who are you to write about us?
So on the one hand we have the “Christopher Nolan problem”. Namely, the great outrage when Westerners craft great big detailed narratives of people or places or things, and then seem to conveniently whitewash the Indian experience. I say experience and not participation, because this whitewashing is more than just one of ignoring Indian participation in a war.
For instance, why do hagiographies of Churchill not refer to the Bengal famine? Why do documentaries on the Industrial Revolution not talk about the leaching of Indian wealth that powered this revolution? Why do books on Western philosophy not pay heed to the great debt the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, etc. owe to Indian philosophy? And so on and so forth.
On the other hand, we have the “Sheldon Pollock problem”. (Also known as the Wendy Doniger Scandal or the Audrey Truschke Imbroglio.) This is the great outrage when anyone publishes anything on Indian culture or history or heritage or whatever it is but seems to do it from overseas. A whole different set of questions are posed here: What is your agenda? Can you even read Sanskrit? Who is funding you? Why are you still a Marxist? Et cetera.
Of course, these problems are rarely raised by the same groups of people. (That would be a strawman too far.) But this dichotomy of views on Indian history is worth thinking about.
Having done some thinking, this writer feels that these two “problems” hint at an uneasy rift that seems to preoccupy, and sit at the heart of, much of popular Indian history. And that is a rift between the histories that “we will write” but “you should not”, and then the histories that “we will not write” but “you better not forget to write”. I don’t think it would be far-fetched to say that this rift coincides with perhaps the Mughal empire, but definitely the British Raj.
For many history enthusiasts, the period that comes before this is a period of Indian greatness and triumphalism that only Indians should write about. While the period that comes after this is one of subjugation and oppression and humiliation that we don’t want to really dwell upon because why should we. But the West must remember over and over again in repentance for the horrors meted out to us.
This rift, one between a certain triumphalism and a certain victimhood, is tragic. It is a rift that forces false remembrance on the one hand, and unjust forgetfulness on the other. It seeks to amplify and appropriate glory, whilst rejecting and ignoring ignominy. This is, in other words, more a kind of historical propaganda than it is history.
Indian history is messy. And much like the history of any other country, it does not always make us look good. But that is in the nature of such things. Expecting only glory and repentance from history, leave alone historical films, is nonsense. Expecting this from Christopher Nolan is doubly so.
Instead, popular Indian history really must set aside this rift, these twin obsessions of grandeur and victimhood, and just get down to getting the basics right. Namely, embracing Indian history, warts and all.
Readers may note that I say “popular” history.
That is because there are lots of Indian academic historians slaving away, oblivious to such rifts, in India and abroad. The problem, I suspect, is in the public culture of history. How can this be improved? Perhaps novelists and film-makers may consider telling the countless interesting stories of the good and bad Indian experience of world events. The Japanese occupation of the Andamans, the Battle of Imphal, K.S. Thimayya’s work in Korea, the German army’s Free India Legion, all make for complex, riveting stories.
There is a tendency to shrug off many such stories with a “history is written by the victor” attitude. This is a useless trope. History is written, ultimately, by those who bother to write it.
Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview
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