Home >opinion >columns >The false inevitability of history

Recently, I came across two images on Twitter that were posted by unrelated people three weeks apart, but led to some prolonged musing. The first, posted late last month, was a poster for a festival of Portuguese films that was held in Goa just a few days ago. The second was tweeted by British journalist Ben Judah on Wednesday evening. This image was of a poster—one of a series of anti-colonial posters commissioned by the erstwhile USSR government. It showed an Indian man, dressed in white dhoti, kurta and turban, astride a map of India, sweeping a tiny Portuguese soldier out of Goa with the butt of a rifle. The caption reads, according to one translation, “Colonialism is doomed everywhere!"

There is an irony here that is easy to spot. That the USSR did not last much more than two decades following the global collapse of colonialism. It too was doomed in its own way.

The more subtle irony here, I think, is that merely five decades after India went to war with Portugal over Goa, relations have normalized to an extent that may have seemed unfathomable in the 1960s. Or, indeed, for much longer. It was only in 1974, 13 years after the annexation, that a detente was arrived at between both nations.

Here we are, a generation later, celebrating a festival of Portuguese films in Goa. This slow transformation of affairs may seem trivial to most Indians and Portuguese. But for a few with vivid memories of those events, things are anything but trivial. In 2007, Portuguese film-maker Luís Galvão Teles visited Goa for the 38th International Film Festival of India. It was a moving experience for Teles. His father, Teles told Tony Tharakan of Reuters, had argued for Portugal, against Indian claims on Goa, at the International Court of Justice in 1960. Teles was then a child.

Shortly afterwards when India liberated Goa, Teles recalled, there was heartbreak at home in Portugal: “I remember people crying at my place. We were praying and still hoping for a miracle."

His sentiments changed, Teles said, when he went to university and realized colonies didn’t make sense. In India for the first time in 2007, he told Tharakan that Goa was so reminiscent of his homeland that he felt “like he’s walked into a film set with Portugal as the backdrop".

It makes you wonder what India will look like a generation from now. Will we have festivals of Pakistani films in Kashmir? Or will we have festivals of Kashmiri films in Pakistan? Is it beyond the realm of all possibility that India can have lasting peace, and abundant trade and movement, across all its borders with neighbouring nations? (Yes, even with the Chinese?)

This might all seem fanciful and, I daresay, a bit liberal. But who really knows?

All of this harks back to two of the smartest things I have ever read about history. There is a certain aspect of trite Zen koan about these two lines. But they are, I think, deeply insightful.

The first is that history is inevitable only in hindsight. When we read grand historical narratives about wars, religions, nations, economies and such like, we are often tempted to see not only a logical order to events, but also rule out the possibility of any other potential sequence of events. So, for instance, obviously Western colonialism would have spread to Asia via the sea, because the seas were uncontested. Neither Indian nor Chinese navies particularly stood in the way of the Portuguese...thus obviously...

But is it that obvious?

What I mean to say is that the world of 2017 will seem utterly obvious in 2018, but may well seem incomprehensible to someone even in 2010—Donald Trump as US president, the UK wallowing in Brexit, Chile out of the football World Cup.

Thus, history only makes sense in hindsight. And even then, often, it only appears to make sense.

The second smart observation about history I’ve recently read, is that history can be seen as a series of replacements. (This perhaps makes more sense in the archaeology paper I read it in. But bear with me.)

This means that the world of today does not sit next to the world of yesterday, but on top of it. Each period of history utterly replaces the ones before it. History is only a sequence or series in the archives of museums, libraries and the mind. Everywhere else it replaces everything that came before it. Almost instantly normalizing things as it goes.

Who can forget the headlines that wondered if an Obama presidency heralded the beginning of a post-racial America? And yet look at the state of race affairs today in the US. The present has replaced the past. This present makes sense. The past then seems like an anomaly.

Does somebody in the US today respond to race as it is today, or as it seemed in 2010?

Again, we often forget this when we read those grand narratives and wonderful books of history. We assume that events and people play historical roles in these books. That they do things with an eye to the past and one to the distant future. We can overlook the somewhat complex idea that their present is historical to us, but was an ongoing reality to them. So they are acting in a way that makes sense to them in 1948 but may prove to be folly to us in 2017.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that nothing is inevitable. Each day is a new normal. A Portuguese film festival in Goa? Just a generation after the war? Madness. Or maybe not. A generation from now young Indians may well read about, say, the border stand-off with China and wonder: What the hell was wrong with these people?

Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview.Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

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