One story or many narratives

G Gautama

Disclaimer: I am not a historian and I don’t have any degree in history!

However, like each one of us, I am a bearer of human history. In my daily practices such as using herbal tooth powder, in my clothes such as wearing unstitched cloth and stitched cloth and blue jeans, in the way I have inherited consciously and unconsciously habits, of food, preferences, language and thinking from parents and people around me, I carry history, literally, many his-tories and her-stories. And from this location, speaking of history is hopefully, not sacrilege or an intrusion into a territory of specialists. We are all storytellers and some tell more interesting stories and some tell stories in a more persuasive manner. It will be instantly apparent that the multiple stories are here. It has always been so but there is an extraordinary acceleration that the internet has caused.

In 2000 it became apparent to the author, and he was slow, when he wrote “The material considered most sacred will jostle with the most profane and blasphemous. Every debate from family structure to food and from racial supremacy to art will be simultaneously regenerated and in many cases reignited. Some groups will go into huddles, and others will launch assaults. The market place will fuel every view, every web page that has many hits, every cyber booth and cyber congregation.”

Several challenges become visible – What is true and what is fake? In the multiple stories of an event, much like reporters, there will be different styles and emphasis. There may be facts which some may present and others may not, because they either don’t know or do not consider significant.

Stories have always had this ‘problem’ or should it be called a ‘conundrum’. In fact, when we speak to friends and family or when we write, we tell stories. Just because schools and universities have labelled certain areas as disciplines or subjects, they do not become free of this conundrum. Given that some facts are accurate and some not, that some views encompass a wider view of the world and others a narrow set of concerns, born of either survival issues or perceived threats, how is the question of what history we ‘teach’ in schools to be resolved? The decision of what we include in history, and which version, is not an easy question. What is the history that should be taught?

But as one non-expert citizen, the bearer of history like all people, let me explore a bit more. How does one decide what is significant and what is not? This problem can be illustrated through a narrative involving a group of translators. In a workshop, the translators were given a passage of about 15 sentences and asked to underline the most important lines in blue and the most unimportant, those that could be ignored, in red. Then each line was assessed for number of blue and red markings. It was with a shock that the group saw that what one may have considered very important, was thought to be completely unimportant by another. This led to a lot of soul-searching.

If 15 lines cannot be fully agreed upon for their significance by a group of scholars, does it at all seem likely that citizens of a nation can agree upon one narrative? Multiple stories are the fact. And yet we do tell stories to our children, stories of our childhood, values, relationship to the earth, other creatures and to each other, stories of kinship and conquests, struggle and successes, shame and pride.

One often hears from the young, and the not-so-young, that history is a boring subject. Overall, this is followed by a rhetorical question. “What is the use of knowing in which year the Mughals came to India or when the Kalinga war was fought?” or some other similar line. Possibly the word ‘subject’ is the important one and needs examination. What does it mean when we call a vast repository of human experience and knowledge, a subject? This applies not only to history, but also to other realms. This is like focusing a searchlight on one part of a vast area and giving it a name, and suggesting that the part under the searchlight is different from the other areas around. This limitation surely haunts other subjects as well, and therefore teachers have tried very hard to take the lessons outside the classroom, connecting phenomena and concepts, to other experiences and stories.

Fernand Braudel, who wrote “A History of Civilizations”, is considered ‘a prince among historians’, and belonged to a group of French scholars called Annales, School of Historians. In its quest for ‘total history’, this school included geography, climatology, physics, biology, religions, mythology, navigation and much else, not forgetting literature and the cinema.

To Braudel, events were ‘crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong back.’ He asserts: ‘men do not make history; rather, it is history – above all – that makes men and thereby absolves them of blame.’ Elaborating on this theme, Braudel asks further, ‘Is it possible somehow to convey simultaneously both the conspicuous history which holds our attention by its continual and dramatic changes – and the other, submerged history almost silent and always discreet, virtually unsuspected by its observers or participants, which is little touched by the obstinate erosion of time?’

The study of a subject is about going over a beaten path, acquiring the vocabulary, the connections, manipulative and descriptive skills. Would teachers and students consider for a moment that most of what we study is history – that which has been discovered, proved, observed in earlier times? Would a teacher of math or physics or geography see relevance in making connections with the ‘story of mankind’ while teaching formulae, computations, descriptions and measurements, the relation between the conspicuous, easily visible and the ‘discreet’ submerged phenomena?

History, more than other subjects, possibly faces the problem of selection and deletion. With the burgeoning of information, thanks to the internet, multiple strands, each with human and poignant stories, is available to all individuals. It is easy when we speak of the British rule in India and how systematically Indian industry was crippled. The Bengal famine narratives, in which almost 3 million Indians died, speak of Churchill’s disdain for Indian lives and for Mahatma Gandhi. The British are another nation and can be seen as the ‘other’. The problem becomes complicated when we speak in India, of people who reside here, and if two or more narratives exist. The mainstream narrative itself becomes a problem. I will illustrate this with a problem from outside India, one in physics and one from history.

While it has been proved conclusively by scientists that the earth is round, there are still a large number of individuals who believe in the flat earth theory. The fuzziness of science comes dramatically to surface with the double slit experiment. Determinism breaks down and one has to be content with not knowing which slit the electron travelled through.

Image: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Nazism grew before World War-2 in Germany as an outcome of the large number (33) of political parties. This led to the emergence of a strong leadership that was effective and which offered pride and a direction of development. Propaganda was seen as a necessary by-product against the tide of democratic thinking. Was the Second World War a result of the rise of Nazism which was the result of a large number of political parties in Germany after the depression years? If so, then the enabling conditions were responsible for the support to a different kind of leadership. One person was seen to be needed with the will and vision to lead a nation from a squabbling group of political parties, unable to find consensus for a direction, to a brighter viable future.

One can ponder if such conditions create the phenomena or is there a particularity that creates the phenomena. In a book titled ‘The March of Folly’, Barbara Tuchanan examines the difference between one error of judgment and the committing of folly:
“While all other sciences have advanced,” confessed US President, John Adams, “government is at a stand; little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago.”

Misgovernment is of four kinds, often in combination. They are:

  1. tyranny or oppression, of which history provides so many well-known examples that they do not need citing;
  2. excessive ambition, such as Athens’ attempted conquest of Sicily in the Peloponnesian War, Philip II’s of England via the Armada, Germany’s twice-attempted rule of Europe by a self-conceived master race, Japan’s bid for an empire of Asia;
  3. incompetence or decadence, as in the case of the late Roman empire, the last Romanovs and the last imperial dynasty of China; and
  4. folly or perversity.

She goes on to say, “This book is concerned with the last in a specific manifestation; that is, the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved. Self-interest is whatever conduces to the welfare or advantage of the body being governed; folly is a policy that in these terms is counter-productive.

To qualify as folly for this inquiry, the policy adopted must meet three criteria:
• It must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. This is important, because all policy is determined by the mores of its age. “Nothing is more unfair,” as an English historian has well said, “than to judge men of the past by the ideas of the present.”
• Secondly a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. To remove the problem from personality.
• A third criterion must be that the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime. Misgovernment by a single sovereign or tyrant is too frequent and too individual to be worth a generalized inquiry.”

Not for nothing is it said that history repeats itself and if for no reason other than this, it bears close and careful study.

The challenge of history is encapsulated in the words of Chief Seattle’s poignant statement in the letter he wrote to Franklin Pierce in 1855, then President of America. “We might understand if we knew what it was the white man dreams, what hopes he describes to his children on long winter nights, what visions he burns into their minds, so they will wish for tomorrow. But we are savages. The white man’s dreams are hidden from us. And because they are hidden, we will go our own way. If we agree, it will be to secure your reservation you have promised.”

We do burn into the minds and hearts of the next generations our dreams, conclusions, cautions, and struggles. We do condition them, knowingly or unknowingly, sometimes lovingly, sometimes out of a sense of pride in our identity. In a world where the lives were led without too much geographical travel, the gentle change of language and mores, possibly allowed one to grow, largely, with single narrative. And this world view did allow the other his space thanks to foreigners arriving on ‘our’ shores.

Does the study of history require building intellectual and emotional stamina for listening to alternate stories and meanings, multiple narratives? Is part of this exercise the ability not to run to a single right answer but possibly explore, think, speculate, multiple constructions. And like in the double slit experiment, even with tolerance for errors and inexactitude, discern some broad brush strokes.

That our biases and predilections, shape our conclusions and understanding is well-known. Painstaking effort is made to remove or minimize bias in research, scientific and in social sciences. However, the dimension of inward looking, to understand ourselves, to study ourselves as carriers of dreams, aspirations, conclusions and biases, has not been given much attention. J.Krishnamurti says in a beautiful conversation with students at Rishi Valley in 1983,
“History, historia, means story, the story of mankind; mankind is yourself, in understanding yourself, you understand the whole movement of mankind. Right? That’s all I am saying. So you get to know yourself, which is tremendously important. Now you don’t know yourself. All that you know is your reactions: I like, don’t like, I am ambitious, I am this – but you really don’t know.”

Can the study of history be, simultaneously, a study of ourselves? And is not “the function of an educator to help students have a good academic brain and be good human beings”?

To create an atmosphere where we can examine ‘what we carry’ without put downs, without external judgments and easy dismissals is already a tall order. To go further and be able to see this in ourselves without shame, guilt, wanting to change it, is a big leap of faith. It is easier to travel with facts, dates, viewpoints and conclusion. It is easier to teach, examine and mark. And possibly with this priority built into the education system, the edification of the student is a lower order priority.

In the teaching of history, there is a major challenge for the carriers of the single view. Any student can search for and find multiple narratives on the Net, across the globe in the post pandemic era. Any single position will easily be questioned in the mildest way as an intellectual exercise, and in a less developed way as a challenge to the main narrative. The teacher has no choice but to engage with multiple viewpoints and speculations. And if this is not possible, then history as a subject will not have the possibility for exploration, growth or adventure.

Reading stories is something all of us have enjoyed. Listening to stories continues to be fascinating for people of all ages. If history is stories, if it contains the details in the stories, it is also about the fuzzy unclear shapes. The study of history is also about relationships, a sense of being part of the journey of mankind, being the journey of mankind, not only as bystanders, but participants, creating history, being history. Recognizing oneself as the microcosm who carries the history of man in oneself is a far cry from dates, events and named periods of history with sweeping judgments about people in different parts of the world, near and far. Such a shift in perception surely lays an acute responsibility on our shoulders as each one of us is all mankind.

The author has been Principal of The School KFI from 1991 to 2009 and currently is Director – Secretary of Palar Centre for Learning (KFI). He has anchored the development of Pathashaala, the newest of KFI schools, from 2001, at many levels. He also serves as a trustee of Krishnamurti Foundation India. He can be reached at

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