Friday, August 26, 2005

What we like to believe (August 26, 2005)

The debate over The Rising is about India's perception of itself

By Swapan Dasgupta

Let me make an honest but terrible confession. My deep and abiding interest in history began through reading Combat comics. My favourites were the Battler Britain comics about a doughty Royal Air Force officer who, almost single-handedly, took on a German army that seemed incapable of doing much beyond spluttering “Achtung” and “one Englander less.” This interest in a war that ended a decade before my birth was supplemented by films like 633 Squadron, The Guns of Navarone, Operation Crossbow and Longest Day where the good guys invariably prevailed over the baddies who liked boasting that “Vee have vays to make you talk.”

On entering my teens, an interest in India’s past was nurtured through historical novels, written in an era before it was obligatory for Indian writers to reduce the country to one gigantic laboratory of magic realism. First, there were the archaic but robust G.A. Henty classics on the adventures of Clive and battles against Tipoo Sahib. They were written for schoolboys of another country and another generation but they were a nice diversion from books of the Enid Blyton kind. Henty was the original precursor to George Macdonald Fraser’s wonderfully educative books on the wicked adventures of Sir Harry Flashman. I recommend the Flashman books to anyone who has any interest in imperial history.

Then I graduated to Manohar Malgonkar, arguably the best Indian craftsman of the historical novel. Malgonkar’s The Devil’s Wind captured the romance of Nana Saheb and the 1857 uprising, and Bend in the Ganges taught me more about the last phase of the freedom struggle than all the textbooks available at that time. And let me not forget Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet that was so sensitively made into the epic TV-serial Jewel In The Crown by Granada.

Oh yes, there were also some black-and-white Bengali films of indifferent quality on events like the Chittagong Armoury raid, the poet Mukunda Das and the 1942 Quit India Movement. They weren’t anything to write home about and were, in retrospect, unwittingly comic. In their misplaced earnestness they, however, conveyed a flavour of another time, much better than the few ‘histories’ Bollywood deigned to produce.

I delve into my own childhood in the context of the increasingly silly controversies over Ketan Mehta’s Mangal Pandey: The Rising, set around the revolt of 1857. There are some political cretins who want the film banned because it doesn’t mention Mangal’s Ballia janmabhoomi. Then there are other innocent nationalists who have got all worked up at the images of the Sepoy martyr first downing a lota of bhang and then cavorting with fallen women of indeterminate provenance. Finally, there the pamphleteers who say the film should have been all about Mangal coming under the spell of some mysterious Wahabi fakir.

The Rising is not a history, and nor does it pretend to be anything but a loose adaptation of an Amar Chitra Katha-type legend. It is a grand Bollywood extravaganza, with epic battle shots in a Central Asian terrain, realistic costumes and Englishmen who both look and sound like the real thing. Aamir Khan is dashing in an Errol Flynn way as the rebel Sepoy, who was dug out of archival obscurity by British historian John Kaye and immortalised by V. D. Savarkar as the first martyr of the India’s first war of Independence. The film-makers add a nice touch by weaving a parallel plot about the self-doubts of the Scot, Captain Gordon, who befriends Mangal and actually sounds Scottish. The Rising they combine a good adventure story with a garnishing of Bollywood mirch masala.

In historical terms, as Rudrangshu Mukherjee has shown in his well-timed monograph on the real ‘Mungul Pandy’, The Rising is fantasy. Mangal, he concludes, after a study of the available evidence, was quite an “accidental hero”, completely impervious to any winds of nationalism that may have been blowing across the plains of Hindustan.

Looking at the celluloid Mangal, any worthwhile historian would have little hesitation in echoing what The Dean of Lincoln Cathedral had to say about the fascinating story of The Da Vinci Code: “a load of old tosh.” Regardless of whether the Brahmin Sepoy was a victim of bhang, as the court martial suggested, or a symbol of patriotic defiance, as Savarkar claimed 50 years after the event, The Rising takes charming liberties with history.

The question is: so what?

In India, popular history—as opposed to academic history—is not only about what exactly happened but what is believed to have happened. The latter perception stems not from the East India Company’s detailed records but from the nationalist legends that grew around the first Sepoy “martyr”, some five decades after the event. Whether it is Shivaji or Siraj-ud-Doulah, Mangal Pandey or Bhagat Singh, popular history is always a blend of reality and folklore. It is neither necessary nor desirable to contest it. In real life, Shivaji and Maharana Pratap may have looked quite something else but in the Indian imagination they will always be the dashing warriors created by the imagination of Raja Ravi Varma.

This has always been so. The great Arab scholar Al Biruni came to India with the Ghaznavid vandals of Mahmud in the 11th century. He was a keen observer and what struck him was the fact that the Hindus did not share the sense of history that prevailed in West Asia. The Hindus, he wrote, a thousand years ago, “do not pay much attention to the historical order of things; they are very careless in relating the chronological succession of their Kings, and when they are pressed for information and are at a loss, not knowing what to say, they invariably take to tale-telling.”

It sounds an indictment but it also suggests that Indians never believed that history rests in the archives. History is what we, today, like to believe was our yesterday.

This negotiable sense of the past is due to another reason too. For the past three decades, professional historians in India have demonstrated their ability to destroy all interest in the subject. First, the numbing prose of the likes of Bipan Chandra and other Arjun Singh favourites has infected generations of school-children with a virulent allergy to history. Secondly, from being gripping tales of heroes, villains, kings and saints, history has been reduced to deathly boring dissections of social formations, modes of production and syncretic culture. Narrative history has been killed. With it has died the romance of history. Both are casualties of kill-joy comrades, many of whom also double up as film critics these days.

The great thing about The Rising is that it has helped rekindle some interest in the events of 1857, just as Sir Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi did about the Mahatma and Shyam Benegal’s The Forgotten Hero did about Subhas Chandra Bose. A country needs heroes to nurture its sense of nationhood. Once upon a time these values were imbibed in schools and shakhas. Unfortunately, they only teach science and mathematics in schools these days. It is left to Aamir Khan to tell us about our past. He does it much better than either grim Marxists with limited vocabularies and scant use of the full stop or incomprehensible post-modernists.

“To poison a nation”, the African writer Ben Okri once said, “poison its stories. A demoralised nation tells demoralised stories to itself.” The reel versus real debate over Mangal Pandey is not really about history. It is a debate over India’s perception of itself. My vote is unequivocally for The Rising.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, August 26, 2005)

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