In order to destroy the past of a people, all you need to do is give them history. What is called ‘history’ today is a secularisation of the Christian religion.
It has been more than a year since I came to the Czech Republic. Before coming here one of the things that I had thought I would do is travel a lot. I had imagined that I would fill my weekends with small trips to the countryside or figure out how hitchhiking is done and such. I guess my estimation of my nature was not very accurate as I soon discovered that I preferred staying put in the city on weekends and maybe go out for a dinner or drinks with friends in the evening. It is not that I do not want to go out of the city but I simply find it convenient to stay in. As a result of this I have a long list of trips I planned to go on and cancelled at the last minute to my credit (or discredit). However there was this trip, a wine festival at Mikulov, that our International Office had been planning for a long time for which, as usual, I put my name in and because the people who had signed up for it belonged to my circle of friends here, I was pretty positive that I would go for it. As the day for the trip came closer the weather worsened forcing some people to opt out of it. At the start of the trip we were left with just a group of ten people ready to brave sleeping in wet tents for two nights.
The wine festival was bigger than I had expected and it attracted quite a lot of tourists as well. How the local sellers interacted with them was very different from how I am used to seeing Indian sellers interact with tourists. India has great salespeople. You might have heard the expression “selling snow to an Eskimo”. Well we are the kinds who are experts at doing that. But unfortunately when it comes to tourists, our selling technique is aggressive and to a large extend greedy. We sell things at double the price to tourists. It’s not just India. Most parts of Asia and the Middle East are known for it. Probably it is because we think that the foreigners can easily afford anything (which they can, something you would know if you check the exchange rates and see that for them these doubled local prices are still a bargain). Here however, the case was totally different. They insisted that we take little things for free. Nothing major, simple things like a lighter or a small beaded bracelet. Oh, and aggressive selling is a strict no-no for them (probably because it comes in the way of letting a person use his/her “freedom to choose” :P)
At the festival they organised lovely programs where first children and then adults sang, played instruments and danced in their medieval attire. Every thing that I saw on stage had something to do with their history. It was at this point that a friend, an Indian, marvelled at the way they maintained their history and appreciated the West for doing that. While the idea of preserving history sounds sweet, there is so much more to understanding why the West does it so well in comparison to us who have, for centuries, been ridiculed for poor maintenance of our history.
When I was in school I loved History as a subject. Somehow I always managed to remember dates and pour out essays and essays on the world wars, revolutions and freedom struggles on paper. But it is also a subject very commonly hated in schools across India. So if you like studying history and manage to know more about it than your peers you tend to start thinking of yourself as a historian of some sort and sometimes even develop careerist ambitions for it. My friend who came to Czech Republic last year from India told me this after being here for just two weeks “I thought I was a historian till I came here”. At that point I wondered what it could possibly mean. Did it mean that Indians could not make good historians? Through her many explanations, readings on it that followed and my own experiences here many things became clear.
One of the first things I noticed when I went to Amsterdam is the sheer number of museums there. They had a museum for everything possible like chocolate, beer and plenty of other things that Amsterdam is associated with. You would think that such is the case because Amsterdam happens to be a big city but no! Go to any small village around and you will find a small museum with artefacts that bear witness to the history of that village. Outside those museums, depending on how big they are, you would find souvenir shops selling merchandise as silly as T-shirts or mugs with prints of the picture of some or the thing displayed in the museum. They are highly priced but people buy them. I asked a German once why he did that and he answered “Because I want to take a part of this history with me”. The reply sounded absolutely absurd to me if not ridiculous. It would have made sense if he were talking about taking back home a part of the actual artefact but coffee mugs and key chains, really? It all made sense now. There is this place called Jew Town in Fort Kochi in my hometown. It probably attracts the most number of tourists per annum in Kerala. I have walked the lanes of Jew Town a million times and I have seen many shops that sell postcards and other souvenirs of this historical place. Not once have I seen an Indian or even an Asian buy from any of them. It is always the westerners who patronise these stores. Long time ago while standing outside one of these shops (where you also get lemonade) I happened to ask the shopkeeper how business is going. He said that it was off-season for tourism and was managing somehow by selling lemonade. He laughed and said that only white people buy these things. Back then I assumed that it was because we Indians would rather not spend money on buying nonsense like this but now I can see that for the westerners it is not about the money they spend on it but about keeping a part of history with them.
We cultured Indians have always wondered why the non-cultured Indians mark our monuments with the proof of their love. Mahesh loves Sundari, Nadia loves Farhaan and other similar messages are things we very often see scribbled across the walls of important monuments of our country. There are two reasons why you would see this only in India. One, we have no respect for our monuments. It is not a bad thing at all. In fact it only shows how little of importance our history is to us. Two, like in the West, going to visit a monument is not something we do. Yes, the idea has been popularised by schools that take students to museums and monuments for their annual picnic but seriously, how many of us can say that our parents proposed going to the museum as an idea for a family weekend or even ever raised the issue of it as something that needed to be done? Well, it is something that they do here. History and historical monuments ‘need’ to be known and visited. So, as far as I have seen, in India, the people who go to visit monuments or other historical places are young lovers who bunk college and know that people can be hardly found there and that this would be the best place for them to spend some quality time alone. Therefore the love signs everywhere.
Sometimes I feel that the West goes quite overboard with the preservation of its history. My short Euro-trip that began in Amsterdam ended with a one-day tour of Auschwitz, in Poland. Seeing the Nazi extermination camp, reading the several literatures available on the Holocaust and seeing YouTube videos of piles and piles of skinny dead bodies being taken for cremation made me lose my sleep over the next couple of months. In many of the accounts of Holocaust survivors it was often mentioned how it is important to repeat these stories and let people know its truth so that we do not forget what happened and learn from it so that such things are not repeated again in history. It is true that what happened was heinous and atrocious but repeating it over and over again, selling the story, even making an industry out of it and still playing the blame game keeps alive and even strengthens a trauma that people need to get over. A few years ago there were several blasts in the local trains of Mumbai. Almost every single person living in Mumbai uses local trains everyday and to see it get attacked on such a large scale was something that sent us citizens into shock and fear. That did not stop the huge population of Mumbai from going to work using the same local trains and getting back to the normal functioning of their lives the very next day. Did it make us more cautious? In some ways yes but did we dwell on it for much long after that? No. The western media even criticised us for moving on too quickly and not doing everything necessary to keep the trains safe. Compare this with the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001. So many things changed in the US after that. The trauma caused by that is still evident and you would know it when you talk to a person from there. I am not saying that Indians are unfettered by anything while westerners nurse trauma. Both have their minus points. While the West is keeping the memory of its sad past alive, we in many ways have just gotten over the issue of personal security thanks to the many terrorist attacks that happened in the past decade and making close to no demands for upping the security systems in our local transport, something we get enthusiastic about after every attack.
So getting back to what I had started off with, what have I understood so far? We Indians do not relate to history like the West does. It does not mean that we are not good chroniclers of events that happened, in let’s say, the last hundred years or so but history runs in the blood of westerners unlike us (Read this
to understand better). Long story short, their affinity to history has a lot to do with their Christian roots and the quest for knowing the ‘real’ events that went into the making of their ‘true’ past. For them unless something really happened it is not true. In comparison, we Indians have a completely different way of dealing with our past. Our past can contain stories from our puranas or even the ones our grandparents told us while we spent time with them. The demand of the western culture for us to ‘prove’ that our past is ‘true’ (read: real) has lead to a lot of problems over the last few centuries which we are not equipped to become aware of easily. In the battle between history and past, the past has obviously, to a large extent, lost ground but sadly how much we have lost culturally as a result of it is something that surely we would be sad to know.
Lets get back to more pleasant things, shall we? As I might have given the impression so far, I am not contemptuous of the idea of people being obsessed with their history. In everyday life here, it often shows forth through very funny and sometimes cute instances. For example, we ended the wine festival weekend by visiting a beautiful Castle with an estate that is one of the largest artificial landscapes of Europe. This place was almost an hour from where the festival was taking place. While we happily hopped into our cars to reach there, some people from the Transport department of the university who were in the group decided to take a vintage train to the Castle, which has been in use since the 50’s. The whole experience of it is literally called ‘Nostalgia’ and its pamphlets are loaded with the historical details of the train. Europe might sell anything in the name of history but seeing how passionate people are about it adds colour and entertainment in the life of an Indian here 🙂