My mental album has close-ups of some students out of the hundreds who filled the classrooms where I lectured over 40 years. They taught me more than I taught them, filling out and enriching the landscape of histories — I was handing out received wisdom, they added the texture of their local histories and lived experiences.
Videos of two backbenchers, one from the 1960s, the other from the 1990s…
Subhadra Sen Gupta was pleasant, quiet. I always had an uneasy feeling that she was happily switched off from the lecture I had laboured over, as she looked dreamily at the sunlit lawns outside. This uneasy feeling was heightened by the thought that it was because she switched off that she found history neither boring nor daunting.
Gifted with a rare imagination, she travelled beyond the dull political history of the classroom — to the people who built and who lived in 16th-century Fatehpur Sikri or were shopkeepers and sculptors in 15th-century Vijayanagar. Thirty years after she left college, she was sharing with young readers what she enjoyed doing — “time-travelling”. And she managed the impossible — to write about moments of history without the scaffolding of dates! She had a fan following that historians would envy. I like to think her storytelling corner in heaven is a great draw (she was swept out of our world by the merciless tide of COVID-19 earlier this year, leaving a legacy of more than 50 books).
In the next generation there was Rajiv Grover — another dreamy backbencher, gazing out of the window… and I was startled when in the middle of my rather prosaic lecture, I heard it clearly. “Kyon?” It was Rajiv. I became alert, framing an answer which would satisfy him. Over time, I got used to having my lectures punctuated with his “Kyon?” I looked forward to them. Classes should not be monologues. “Discussion” is inclusive, a “lecture” is not.
That was the first thing Rajiv taught me. Another was his curiosity. Whatever caught his interest — a geographical region, a community, a skill — he would want to know more about it. He navigated libraries with the spirit of an explorer, following leads even when they took him away from his initial query.
He compiled bibliographies not for a thesis, but as a hobby. He mulled over what he had heard and what he read, cultivating the habit of reflection, so essential for a historian.
In the cacophony about history curricula, we are forgetting the main function of classroom interactions — to develop the integrity and impartiality needed to engage with history. The caricature that history is “dates and facts” has to be corrected. Why, as Rajiv would ask, or How, as Subhadra would wonder, urge you to think in a way that the Who, What and When of textbooks do not.
In every successive generation in independent India (1960s, 1990s, 2020s…), someone announces the need to “rewrite” Indian history. None of these address two problems. First, the quality of writing is crucial. Students have complained for years that history books are deadly dull. In my time, we used to enliven the black-and-white sketches of “leaders” by pencilling in beards and headgear. Surely that should have brought it home to the curriculum-framers how uninspiring the books were. Equally, it explains the joy in turning to Subhadra’s lively stories (which are as rigorously researched as textbooks should be). Second, the demand for “rewriting” textbooks is born out of 20th-century political ideologies, not from new directions in research. India’s history will continue to be presented as conflicts between rulers to gain control over a large region.
We are standing on the conveyor-belt of history, the past is not simply a backdrop to the present. Teachers have to rise above the victim syndrome, where the history of the last 800 years is seen as having been manipulated and distorted by “colonial scholars”. Let students figure things out, introduce them to contemporary writings, encourage penetrating and disconcerting questions, and to compare autobiographies with biographies — VD Savarkar, MK Gandhi, Srinivasa Ramanujan, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay.
In the Indian multiverse, there are many Rajivs who will ask endless questions. And there are many potential Subhadras, who can speak to history and to readers with respect, compassion and clarity. They are more than historophiles. They are the hope of our country.
(Narayani Gupta is a Delhi-based historian)