Histories of the in-between
On a recent trip to visit my family in Kerala, I took some time out to drop in at the Crossword bookstore in Thrissur’s Sobha City Mall. I went there in search of books in the Malayalam language. I can read it fairly fluently, if slowly, and have increasingly made it a point to read a book or two in my mother tongue each year.
I don’t do this solely out of a parochial linguistic pride, though there is some of that of course. But there are other more important reasons. First, there are so many great books in the Malayalam language to choose from. Each year, several dozen fiction and non-fiction books are published and lapped up by an eager audience (a bureaucrat working at the Sahitya Akademi recently told me that a single best-seller in Malayalam can often outstrip sales of all Hindi books in entire Hindi-speaking states). Second, translations of several great Malayalam books are hard to come by or are of questionable quality. So why not read them in the original?
And third, there is something about reading in one’s mother tongue that touches one’s heart and soul and mind in places that English can never hope to reach. English is my language of knowledge but Malayalam, perhaps, is my language of wisdom.
I ended up purchasing several books, including a collection of essays by M.G.S. Narayanan, a travelogue by the great S.K. Pottekkatt and, most exciting of all, a history of Kerala by A. Sreedhara Menon. All in Malayalam of course (though I later came to know, to my great chagrin, that Menon wrote his book in English before translating it into Malayalam).
For the next few days, I took Menon’s book with me everywhere I went, reading a page or two whenever I got the time. Which I rarely did. Because I was constantly interrupted by people eager to know about the book. Wait staff in restaurants, relatives at weddings, co-passengers in buses, all wanted to know about the book, where I had got it, how much it cost and whether it was any good. More than one person immediately ordered a copy online.
Which made me realize how little space there is for us, and I refer to all Indians, to read, think and talk about the histories of the in-between. By which I mean the histories that exist between the grand narratives of nation and civilization, and the much more narrow but no less grand narratives of our families and households.
In-between, there are countless histories. Each state in India, for example, can boast of fascinating histories featuring singular characters, crises, challenges and transformations. Even states that sit right next to each other, while continuously influencing each other’s society, economics and politics, can have historical narratives that diverge widely. And knowing these histories will often tell us much more about not just why Maharashtra is the way it is, or Bihar is the way it is, but also why India is the way it is.
These in-betweens can get even more specific. It might be tempting to think of Kerala and Bengal as being “Communist” states, but in fact the histories of the Communist movements in both states are quite different. They panned out differently, in response to entirely different political environments and, consequently, were experienced in very different ways by the people who lived in both states. But to sense that difference, and to not get carried away by lazy definitions of “Communists”, we must look in-between the very big and the very small histories—the two types we are traditionally trained to think and talk in terms of.
In some sense, Indians are burdened with so much history that they have no option but to find the lowest common denominator in order to engage with each other—Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose, Vallabhbhai Patel, M.K. Gandhi, colonialism, freedom, Pakistan, etc. But this, inevitably, makes for a public sense of history that is suffocatingly narrow. If all we commonly know of is Patel and Nehru, then all we are going to talk about is Patel and Nehru. Not Pattom Thanu Pillai, or Potti Sreeramulu, or S.K. Sinha.
The crippling nature of this narrowness becomes most clear when one of the “peripheral” states in Delhi terms—say, Tamil Nadu or Arunachal Pradesh—finds itself unlucky enough to be the subject of primetime English language news television. Surely my Tamil and Arunachali friends have had to sit with their mouths open as “pundits” wax eloquent on local matters with Olympian ignorance of their state’s past or future.
There are, admittedly, many in-betweens in India. And it is impossible for any one person to be cognizant of more than a few of them. But the first step to a fuller understanding of why we are the way we are is to acknowledge that these in-between histories exist. That there are people in our country who are the inheritors of histories and historical experiences that vary widely from our own. And that they are entirely legitimate regardless. And then we must engage with these histories. They are always fascinating. Did you know that teak wood from forests in Kerala was sourced to build some of the ships Nelson used to defeat Napoleon’s navies at Trafalgar? I didn’t.
So sure, we could all use another sparkling biography of Nehru or penetrating criticism of Gandhi or re-estimation of Aurangzeb. But we could also all do with a few histories of our states, a few profiles of local leaders, a dashing new telling of how Goa was annexed by the Indian republic, and a new translation of the Varthamanappusthakam (google it).
Otherwise, all we will end up knowing is lots and lots about Nehru and Patel, and next to nothing about each other.
Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview
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