I am circumambulation around history but have not titled this with the same. Because history as a subject is not my problem, but it to be treated as a tool of alibi is. I understand that nostalgia does not merely touch but almost rules our social and individual time. We love remembering the past and gloating in whatever role we had in past episodes, good or bad. Since it is something which is bendable, we take the opportunity to twist it our way. Past becomes a “safe house” and we are either the winders or ‘victimised’ losers. The more we dig into our pasts, the more we have answers to our follies. That takes us to our make-believe world, establishes our correctness by hook or by crook and hence ends up making us more self-loving. We like to swim in what is bygone because it’s safe to do so. Nothing can change it. So mostly we like to remember the positive stories. There is a strong psychological hang-up which makes us cling on to the past or the cycles of the past.
"I am circumambulation around history but have not titled this with the same. Because history as a subject is not my problem, but it to be treated as a tool…"
Our college, our friends, the vegetables, the cycles, the roads, everything was the best during our times. Before then and after that we are clueless or whatever existed or exist are not worth mentioning. Only our times were sacrosanct and inviolable. There is no connect with the present. This severance of ties with times makes us lonely. When our friends are absent or gradually disappear, we are left recluse. Our children cannot relate to us because our language and thinking is caught in a time warp. Hence the seniors are declared misfit by their own progeny. What can be sadder? But what is still more pathetic is the fastidiousness of the seniors – with all their self-claimed maturity, don’t they get this simple fact? That times are changing and that they are tiny specks in front of time. Did their firm faith in history teach them to be rigid? Isn’t past a milestone, long crossed? Or is it a milestone that comes at every interval? Déjà vu and bygone are two different things. Déjà vu is a reflection, a remembrance or a feeling linked to a past occurrence. It is not the occurrence.
All alumni meets (batchmate) are full of past stories. Less of present or future life, the discussion offline and online extol their days, as if the planet has sieged after their pass out from the campus. Only their teachers were good, and their romance was ‘pure’. Today’s campus romance is crass and temporary. The alumni are stuck. Don’t you think these mindsets make us more prejudiced? If past is gone and we latch on to it, then quite naturally we cannot think contemporary. Reminiscing is beautiful but limited as an episode whose time is gone. This cannot cloud my present and if it does so then my present is actually not my present. It is the past. I am floating in some bygone era and amidst stale clouds. Or I am sleepwalking now. In both the situations I am wasting time and I am a burden to others.
It helps to change the focus of our being. Learn how to live each moment and learn how to die each moment. They are always together. If you know how to die each moment, you will be able to live each moment invigorated. This dying is burying the past. Do not allow it to interfere with your present. The moment which you have passed, should no longer be there. It has expired. It only beeps in your memory, it is just a remembrance. Let this remembrance also be released. If you transcend past by going through it then it would always remain at a distance. If you fight with the past, you would be tormented, and the past would get stronger. Never wrestle with a pig. You just get dirty, and the pig enjoys it. The past must be enjoying your unmoored status. You are nowhere – nor here now, nor in the past. Past can shroud you and paralyse you – both in positive and negative reminiscing.
On a larger context, if history was so important to us honestly, what are our efforts or interests to protect the monuments, the traces of our history? Is history reduced to only a refuse, where the seniors will bully the juniors flaunting their knowledge and memory in history, which they had studied in their curriculum decades ago? Today young ones study history in more ‘application mode’. It is more of a critical reference to drive their present and future. This was hardly done before. Today the questions of the young students are sharper, more practical, and contextual to the present times. Seniors (who had studied history in the 50s,60s,70s & 80s) are very comfortable when it comes to history and every discussion veer towards a show of strength between the speakers ( in public debates/webinars) in a battle of dates or chronological instances of history. The spar is all about who knows more? Everyone in a discussion comes up with an “unknown story” which only he or she has been privy to – be it film history, music history or for that matter any history. Isn’t this some kind of a private history? Can public history also have a private angle which is not yet made public? Strange. You cannot ask them because history is their “fiefdom”. There is a strong one-upmanship in retelling and recounting history.
Millennials want history which they can relate to, understand, and apply. Applied history is gaining tremendous demand. Public history differs a lot from academic history and is helpful for policymaking. This kind of innovative course is a lot about methods, controversies, ideas and ideologies, and the ways history gets deployed in everyday life. They would want to plan their own digital public history projects. I have been talking to practising historians and think through what it would mean to practice and preserve history in an increasingly digital world. Otherwise, history would run the risk of falling off the radar with no fault of its own. We all seemed to be obsessed with history, the past but care less to nurture it. Till civil services was the top preferred career of the youth, at least there were serious history students attempting to get in with history major. But now with many options available to the youth, dedicated history study is dwindling. But privately we love history because it gives us a safe resort – a place which we feel belongs to us. Everything else look alien, not for us. We have created that distance.
Let’s realise that “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” If we are made by it, then we should be delving into those elements of history which make us and later on mark us as history makers. Mere rattling chronology of dates, activities, actions, rephrasing quotes, recounting episodes will not help in making history more relevant. History has long been neglected and now needs rejuvenation. Like the scaffoldings of crumbling monuments, the pages of history need to be actively preserved with new energy and spirit. Because “history is a vast early warning system”. There is so much of history still uncovered, unexplored.
I often feel that when we do not have much happening in the present to brandish, we take the help of the past. This tendency comes mostly in communities which are slow in movement, laid back or low income or stodgy socio-economically. Nothing moves or happens in the present and so we replay the past by giving it various titles like ‘culture’, ‘heritage’ etc. The youth want to make our culture more in sync with the present. Why is that our culture or heritage always is in the past tense? Culture cannot evade us ever. But we should not relegate it to a retro zone. When we do that, we drive the youth away.
Many times, we do not know how to live in the present, how can our past be real? Nostalgia makes us feel good and is kind of intoxicating. Because we do not know how to be romantic, warm here-now. Because we do not know how to be loving here-now. We are frigid now but seek warmth in memories. Aren’t we poor and deprived?
“Study the past, if you would divine the future.” But do not use past as the refuse to get in, feel good and stay absent-minded ever after. The Present is where you are breathing.
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(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)
(Charudutta Panigrahi is a polymath. Author, community worker, TED speaker, public intellectual & policy influencer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)