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A 'Samvad' with Ramachandra Guha

This comment on Ramachandra Guha's essay (June 28, 2008) explores the significance of oral narratives in modern Indian history and argues that in more than one way orally transmitted testimonies tend to resist historical eventuality, the one based on time-bound bloated facts and events. They may work across time, offering us a perspective of multiple possibilities.

DISCUSSIONEconomic & Political Weekly EPW October 4, 200881Nonica Datta ( is a fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.A ‘Samvad’ with Ramachandra GuhaNonica DattaThis comment on Ramachandra Guha’s essay (June 28, 2008) explores the significance of oral narrativesinmodern Indian history and argues that in more than one way orally transmittedtestimonies tend to resist historical eventuality, the one based on time-bound bloated facts and events. They may work across time, offering us a perspective of multiple possibilities.Ramachandra Guha’s essay ‘The Challenge of Contemporary History’ (June 28, 2008) makes a strong plea for writing post-1947 histories. His-torians of “modern” India, says Guha, seldom “transgress” beyond 1947, and refuse to cross the “Lakshman rekha”. Guha’s call for moving beyond the Lakshman rekha is enticing, especially in the light of a chron-ological clutch that tends to fetter histori-ans working on modern Indian history. It is time for the historian to jump the fence. Admonishing historians for turning a blind eye to what could have been their foray into a hitherto unexplored territory of post-1947 India, Guha also offers a range of factors to push his favourite agenda of writ-ing contemporary histories. I need not dilate on the reasons and obstacles he cites so carefully. I find many of them appealing. But disagreement or counterpoint can be spontaneous, imaginative and refreshing in any ‘samvad’. My response is not meant to refute Guha’s pointed barbs. It is to intro-duce another story within stories on history and to carry the samvad forward. Lakshman RekhaWhen Guha talks about crossing the Laksh-man rekha, drawn by chronology, for writ-ing contemporary histories, I wonder of its multiple implications. Would crossing the Lakshman rekha and relying on factors spelt out by him emancipate the historian from chronological shackles? Would it not ensconce the historian further in another kind of conventional chronological bind? Would it not also ensconce her further within the ambit of archives – official, na-tionalist, and so on? Would her bond with archives, chronology and linear narratives not become irrevocable as a result? Chained to the plethora of newly dis-covered post-1947 archives and bound to a vast body of “facts”, largely political, many so-called insignificant themes are likely to be lost to history. The historian’s story will primarily be based on the power of the written word and narratives of the powerful – the ones, especially men, who mattered in independent India. In the process, the historian may just become a gatekeeper, a footnote-maker around “sig-nificant” events, “significant” personali-ties, “significant” moments, and officially and historically sanctioned ruptures.Oral TestimoniesBut to my utter delight Guha does offer some useful prescription: oral history – the “fourth source” of history – being one, which he feels may further open up the post-1947 territory for the historian. And yet, almost in the same breath, he warns us in no uncertain terms: “it would be unwise for a historian to rely wholly on oral testimonies; however, when used judiciously, along with and as a comple-ment to contemporary documents – whether private letters or notings or newspaper reports – they can be of much value in reconstructing the somewhat recent past.” Herein lies the rub. Guha’s sense of discomfort with orality, oral nar-ratives, oral histories is clear. I wonder if Guha’s anxiety with regard to oral testimonies stems from a larger anxiety shared by a dominant section of historians that somewhat cramps their critical engagement with history, memory and archives? Is there a visceral dislike to orality, with memory as its essential ele-ment, as part and parcel of history? Is it so difficult to break free from the tyranny of archival facts, which are perceived as indispensable to the creation of a histori-cal narrative? Has the binary distinction between oral and archival sources (in his-torian’s parlance this is often accepted as an opposition between memory and evi-dence) hardened a historian’s suspicion of oral histories and resolve to valorise archival documents. Why must the histo-rian need to authenticate the spoken via the written? Why must the historian defend and preserve the binary opposition between history and memory? Let me make a few points. Contrary to what Guha believes, oral testimonies are not a mere supplement to historians’ ar-chives-based histories. They exist in their own right as bases for other histories. Indeed, there are aspects of the “reality” historians seek to understand which can be made sense of and are available only through oral testimony; especially for our
DISCUSSIONOctober 4, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly82society, where hardly any records exist of and for ordinary people, and where, more often than not, the written word is so stri-dently weighted against the poor, the de-pressed, and the powerless.Their discovery itself is not the only cri-terion for their insertion in historical narra-tives. In some ways, discovery of something new from an oral narrative may be like any other archival exercise. Like in the foot-steps of footnote hunting and digging some “new source”. Do we then just turn the ta-bles? Perhaps. But not always.A historian is not a digger, a footnote-hunter alone. For me she is primarily an aspiring storyteller. The binary opposition between archives and oral testimonies is an artificial academic construction. Parts of archives can represent oral testimony. There is an interplay of history and memory, and archives are not outside of it. An arid archival fact is not sacrosanct, above questioning, but could be only pro-visional. And it interacts with memory in complex ways. A historian’s craft can re-veal such historical possibilities.Guha perhaps may not agree that oral testimonies are embedded, though differ-ently, in both archival and non-archival sources. A historian, obsessed with the idea of unitary archives, may turn a blind eye to the entwining of the oral with the written and may just privilege the written document alone as a source of history. In-deed, there are archival documents which, except for the fact that they are printed, are essentially oral testimonies. A historian crafts oral testimonies as history. The significance of oral testimo-nies does not lie only in imparting infor-mation. Nor in the reconstruction of the “somewhat recent past” (Guha). Memory is more than a reconstruction of what happened. It illumines something surpris-ingly new, something ambiguous, some-thing revelatory. It is more than a dis-covery, more than a disclosure of new facts or a perspective. As Walter Benjamin says, there is no eternal image of the past. Oral testimonies reveal different narratives of the past... nar-ratives of individual and collective remem-brances, and moments of convergence, divergence and dissonance between the two. They articulate what otherwise would remain buried within the always vast field of collective forgetting and silence. Oral testimonies open up multiple possibilities of crafting parallel histories and representing parallel realities. These histories do not always run parallel to big histories. Yes, at times they make visible what is hitherto silent in archives. The hid-den gets revealed in a way that it does not merely complement archival histories or conventional narratives. Revelation can unfold different histo-ries, outside the folds of major historical narratives of historically authorised events and histories. New events – sometimes credible, sometimes incredible or “non-events”, new stories are revealed which do not necessarily derive from influential his-torical events and narratives of historians’ histories. Yes, sometimes oral testimonies may also intersect with influential histori-cal narratives. But their novelty lies in the nature of imbrications, in the momentum and layers of stories within stories that make them different, new and variant from the familiar.There is no one way an oral testimony unrolls, unveils and develops history. In more than one way it shapes as history. Sometimes it works within an idea of chronological progression, sometimes not. The narrator may narrate new dates, dif-ferent years, or may not piece together the major dates, years – the usual milestones of established historical narratives. The narrator of a testimony (which may also be culled from a variety of sources in-cluding diaries, notebooks, newspapers, photographs, court records, and so on – narratives that underline the spoken word) does not just gather information. The narrator, as an eyewitness, offers many perspectives to a historian, bringing many new ways of thinking and looking at the story – old or new. For instance, a narrator may recall a history, with all its minor, “insignificant” details, of a town or a cantonment which may be very different from the way a professional historian bakes history bone dry and writes out a pompous historical narrative entombed with ubiquitous events and facts.In more than one way, orally transmit-ted testimonies tend to resist historical eventuality, the one based on time-bound bloated facts and events. They may work across time, offering us a perspective of multiple possibilities. They may also baffle a reader’s expectation.Many Stories of PartitionTake Partition, for instance, which Guha’s critical gaze tends to see as a moment frozen in 1947. How do we bring it out of cold storage? Surely, not just by hopping the Lakshman rekha and by digging new mate-rials alone. Let us think of two points: Partition need no longer remain ensconced in archives (at least in the singularly arid definition of archives) – nationalist (Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi), colonial, and official post-1947 (again Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi). Second, it need no longer remain ensnared within chronology. It is the nationalist elites, mainstream historians, co-lonial officials and their Indian successors, who tend to perceive Partition as a chrono-logical break; as a rupture, an event framed within 1947, whose Lakshman rekha, if crossed, would perhaps lead to the abduc-tion of nation’s history, memory and identity. Thanks to oral testimonies of ordinary people, we learn of Partition as more than a rupture. Or non-rupture. I remember once listening to an old Me-wati peasant’s story in the village of Chan-danhola in Delhi. I was struck by what he told me:Kya batwara? Kis batware ki baat kar rahi ho beti? Kitne batware hue meri zindgai mein? Ek to zameen ka itna bara batwara hua or phir voh chali gayi (Which Partition are you talking about, my daughter. How many par-titions there have been in my life? My land has been partitioned so many times, and then it just went….) I was shamed by his acute sense of history and the narrowness of my histo-rical perspective.Or, take the stories of survivors – victims, aggressors, witnesses, bystanders of Parti-tion, living in post-1947 India. For them, Partition is not just a chronologically- defined fact or event. Many devalorise it. Many give more credence to other mo-ments of violence in the everyday. Some see Partition as a continuing presence in their lives. Others deny its presence. The rest is silence. The multiplicity of memory helps us craft histories of Partition beyond archives. Life histories cross the Lakshman rekha of 1947 in different ways, shaping the historical narrative beyondnationalist frames and meta-narratives.
DISCUSSIONEconomic & Political Weekly EPW October 4, 200883It is not the range of material and tech-niques alone that craft a historical narra-tive. Consider how a photographer can get so easily bogged down by techniques of photography that she can almost forget the story she is trying to craft or paint with light (a point made so beautifully by the master photographer Vittorio Storaro). Likewise, a historian may just lose the story by getting distracted and burdened by the vastness of “facts” and the stranglehold of techniques. She may end up becoming a technician, all too anxious to question the meta-narrative or to focus on the difficult relationship between archives and oral tes-timonies. The story may lose its independ-ence, its spontaneity, its spiral. Oral testimonies narrate stories, many forms of recall. The tone, texture, sound, silence, fragments and disruptions – all sustain the story. This story is conflictual. It is fluid. It is never complete.It is through oral testimonies, by no means limited to an interview-like situa-tion, that I learnt why Partition experience cannot be essentialised only as those of vic-tims and aggressors. Parallel histories of fear, violence, survival, and of love, secrets, betrayal and martyrdom unfold via such testimonies. And the binary distinction be-tween victim and victimiser breaks down. Women, in such stories, were not victims alone. They were also victimisers. I saw variations in a singular Partition testimony as well as its intersection with collective testimonies shaping local remembrance and history, and revealing the plausibility of ambiguity in history-writing. I discovered the polysemic nature of Partition memory. Partition as a poly-semic construct. Three QuestionsRamachandra Guha’s essay helps me pose three questions. First, how do we make sense of the chronological noose that pri-marily binds the meta-narrative of modern Indian history? Second, how to overcome the narrowness of the time frame beyond the glamorous CV of well-established his-torical facts and events? Third, how to craft anew the relationship between history, his-torian and archives? Towards the end of his essay, Guha almost addresses these questions. He says, “there are so many archives to dig into, so many narratives to construct and share. To turn one’s back on these archives and narratives is to live in the most interesting country in the world, and yet to abuse that privilege.” I am not saying that one should turn one’s back on archives. On the contrary. Can answers to my questions and Guha’s anxiety be provided only by digging into different archives, discovering new materials, and framing narratives shaped primarily by the so-called archival evi-dence? Is it not subservience to the idea of archives that has constituted the largest and most influential body of historical knowledge and (to use D H Lawrence’s ex-pression) “our accursed human education” – the one which is nourished by our state, our bureaucracy, our schools, our muse-ums? Has not history been dehumanised in the process?Historian’s CraftIn order to have a samvad with history and its historians, and to cross any Lakshman rekha, let us begin to rethink the historian’s craft, outgrow the big questions of history and a unitary idea of archives as a reposi-tory of the written. Let us also not turn away from the “small voice of history” by being enslaved to facts and archives. There might be a danger of historians becoming “butter-fly collectors”, as Lucien Febvre, with his as-piration for a history without frontiers and compartments once warned us. One of the ways to reconnect with his-tory is to invoke a multitude of lives and memories of ordinary people, to enter the world of their dreams, their doubts, their hidden selves and contradictions; and to touch, feel and smell their oral traditions passed on from generation to generation. To reconnect is to believe in the craft of storytelling rather than the inviolability of an archival fact (as written) and event. To reconnect is also to extend the imagi-nation to the cusp and recesses of memory and history. A story will then gradually unfold, develop – a story not marred by existing techniques of history-writing – in or out of archives. Told blithely, palpably and candidly, the story will stand on its own – for its momentum, its meaning, its resonance and its “insignificance”. It will speak the unspeakable, without frontiers, compartments and Lakshman rekhas. And, this in more ways than one. Hopping the Lakshman rekha again and again may offer a faint promise. We might just become butterfly collectors. Or perhaps, we might just fall into Ravan’s arms. We might just write the histories of the oppres-sors rather than those of the oppressed.The loud reproaches may go on and on among professional historians – an exclusive drama among many of us who do not even listen to languages and memories of pasto-ralists, women, workers, peasants, labourers, dalits, adivasis, and often turn a blind eye to their histories of resistance and dissent as much as of acquiescence. Not to speak of the histories of the landscapes. The rivers, trees, mountains, land, animals, birds, wild flow-ers have their own stories and memories too. But they are mere shiny catalogues of Indian tourism. History on a brochure. Professional historians (my training entitles me to count myself among them!), like gravediggers may go on digging archival sources, proclaiming who has the right to write, what to write, what not to write. They may arrogate to themselves the right to draw the Lakshman rekha. So What?The temptation to be a gravedigger is enti-cing. I too can become greedy for a new fact, a new archive, a new discovery (not revelation!). But I do sometimes take ref-uge in Hamlet. Hamlet asks the gravedig-ger (clown), “Whose grave’s this, sirrah? He replies, “Mine, sir”, for he is digging it. He further informs Hamlet that the grave belongs neither to a man nor to a woman. Hamlet asks, “Who is to be buried in it?”. The gravedigger replies, “One that was a woman, sir: but, rest her soul, she’s dead”. The gravediggers claim the graves as their own since the occupants of the graves are dead. The dead have no history, and therefore, no claim to history. What if Hamlet were to ask a historian, “Whose history’s this, sirrah?”. The histo-rian will probably answer, “Mine, sir”…He may also add, “For my part, I do not lie in it, yet it is mine”.Historians write their own (historians’) history. Not of the dead. Can memory bring the dead to life? Inthe narratives of historians can the living and the dead be dovetailed together to illumine a new, small con-temporary history?

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