Editorial – Resurrecting History

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The prospect of writing history, especially when it involved wars, must be so much the more simpler for those who won. In fact, it is often said, and convincingly too, that in wars nothing else matters but winning. A powerful outlook, not easily refutable, but nevertheless one which is behind very mean approaches to life, such as the conviction held by so many that the end justifies the means, or everything is fair in love and war. So much has changed ever since wars were the primary determinants of the progress and status of nations, and now, even the vanquished are back on their feet, writing their own histories and providing perspectives which once were never given the place they always deserved. The decolonisation process of colonies established by conquests is complete at least physically and politically, and all former colonies are now liberated, although psychologically colonial legacies still remain as dark shadows. The abiding spirit in these modern democratised times is no longer one of “end justifies means” but of equality and empowerment as guarantors of justice. But if historiography of the conquerors was marked by a general arrogance, the prospect of history writing by the newly arisen vanquished, is beset with other problems.

The need of the latter is to resurrect a dead and defeated spirit. The effort must hence also be to overcome the trauma of defeat, and to rediscover lost pride in the self (or manhood for the want of a better term). The understandable resort is often to lionise almost unconditionally their heroes and with the same brush vehemently demonise their vanquishers. The danger is, this path to rediscovery of the self may not be always truthful. Not only can this leave gaping holes in scholarship trends, but also make the resurrected self still not adequately equipped either to come to grip with the reality of his present or to visualise a realistic picture of the future, increasing in the process the complexes suffered by this new self. The manner in which any adverse criticism of resurrected images of such heroes of history, say for instance of Shivaji in Maharashtra can and has ended in lynching of the “heretics”, is just an example. Manipur’s rewriting of its own post colonial history has not been free of this inherent scholastic weakness too. A metaphorical journey to the past and a date with the subjects of today’s history, just as Ratan Thiyam does in his much acclaimed “Nine Hills One Valley”, awakening Manipur’s Maichous (scholars who wrote the puyas) from their graves, for a discourse on the times, may be the kind of purging that is essential today.

Overcoming the trauma of a vanquished past is not by any means an easy task. For it to be successful, it must involve intense, even painful, internal discourses before the final liberation can happen. This liberation can come about only when the subject is able to face the truth without any camouflage, come to terms with it, and then build from that foundation. Few have argued this point more convincingly than Cathy Caruth in her book “Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History” (John Hopkins University Press 1996). In the chapter “Literature and the Enactment of Memory”, she does a critique of the documentary “Hiroshima Mon Amour” by Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras. The story is about a French woman who went through an agonising experience during the German occupation of France, who comes to Hiroshima after the war to try and understand the horror the city went through, in a bid to quiet her own soul. She had during the German occupation, fallen in love with a German soldier, and the day France was liberated, her lover was lynched before her very eyes, so that the day France was liberated was also her day of personal agony. On the day her lover was killed, the news of the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima was being celebrated in her country as another landmark of victory. The documentary revolves around her discourse with a Japanese lover in Hiroshima. All the while the memory of her previous agonising love affair remained a private memory, until at one point she narrates it to the Japanese lover. The experience was at once of relief at shedding a load from her chest, but also of an intense sense of betrayal to her past lover. The problematic question that Caruth poses at this point is, just how do you tell a history of personal trauma truthfully without this sense of betrayal? It is a question relevant to all nations and communities whose histories have seen the trauma of defeat and humiliation.

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