A tweet, in 700 words

(An answer to a Tweet shall be termed a Tweet)

Recently a learned man posted on a microblogging portal Twitter, which roughly translated in English would mean “Do I have to understand my own history, the one I experienced and understood, through someone else’s writing? I don’t have the time or energy”.

Yours truly, reactionary that he is, could not resist the temptation of reacting. React he did, in a way that may not be considered pleasant by all and sundry. It was almost a case of Virender Sehwag playing cricket. His mantra – if a ball is there to be hit, I shall hit it – translated for me as – If an opinion on social media is there to be criticized, I shall criticize. Often the attitude has caused yours truly embarrassment. Yet, he lives by “Embarrassment maketh a man!”

To be fair to the ‘learned man’, he had not mentioned whose account of history he did not wish to read. The timing of the tweet may raise suspicions, but I would not like to entertain that thought, tempting that it may be. What struck me was the pattern of thought learned men of Nepal had been exhibiting, or rather failing to exhibit.

 

We know, for sure, that the experiences we have are subjective, and cannot be measured through a single yardstick. The subtleties of our origin, environment that shaped us, and experiences of various sorts shape our understanding of the truth. The Truth, in effect, being our versions of impact an incident had on our surrounding. Experience is a function of our reaction to the impact of the incident. Our reaction is purely based on our own understanding of what we perceive as fact. One would do well to understand that perceptions of the same incident can vary, from person to person depending upon his/her orientation. Classical story of four blind men and an elephant cannot be forgotten.

Often we forget that historians of recent past or contemporary historians do have to address people who already have made opinion about the incident it is written about. The Great Cambridge historian FW Maitland once said, “What is now in the past was once in the future”. Historians of America’s ‘War on Terror’ would have to take it for granted that their readers already have an opinion about the subject and they have already taken sides. People reading it will have strong and perhaps even contradictory opinion about the happenings. The reader here cannot be a passive vessel, receiving every text or ‘fact’ presented to him or her. The readers, especially in the part of the world we live in, often are critical and have political or ideological biases of their own. We live with the consequences of decisions taken by modern rulers – the politicians – and often we think that an alternate person, which we often view as extension of ourselves, would have taken better decisions. I believe, very strongly, that any writer trying to write contemporary history is aware of this phenomenon already or is in a process of learning this.

So, a written history of People’s Movement of 2006, Madhes Andolan, or even Mass Movement of 1990 will have readers who will contest writer’s view of those events, or the figures and incidents presented as ‘facts’. Compare this to history written about the origin of Nepal, Prithvi Narayan Shah’s expansionist drive that eventually resulted in building a country that became Nepal, or Sugauli Treaty, which eventually brought us a recognition of a state (Well, almost). That has lesser probability of being contested, since we did not ‘live’ in those times.

The beauty of writing contemporary history is: it is often fiercely contested. As it is contested, it sparks debate and encourages both views be scrutinized in public domain. One or multiple accounts of history being contested in public domain have potential of making us a richer society. A place where good fight is fought, among all good men (and of course women)! To thrive, a democracy cannot ask anything more.

But only, if we read others’ account and not trash it by just looking at the cover. In childhood, all of us were told ‘Do not judge a book by its cover’.

A know-all attitude may not help. I suggest, we replace that with ‘To know all’ attitude.

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