Saturday, January 19, 2013

Rewriting history in India

Finally India’s explorations into her own past are getting off the ground. 
Many decades ago, I remember discussing with a fellow passenger in a Bombay-Poona taxi, the dearth of ‘historical novels’ to bring our hoary and venerated past alive for a generation that derided history as a list of battles and dates only.
Can’t blame them since our writers of history had done just that in the British era.   That conversation started me off on a quarter of a decade of snooping that culminated in my historical novel MASTANI  which blows away all the cobwebs and myths that surrounded this intriguingly romantic figure of eighteen century India, to establish her as a Bundela princess who facilitated the meteoric rise of the Peshwas to the center stage, instead of a muslim dancing girl  earlier historians portrayed her as.
Other writers in English have come up with masterpieces on eras much beyond that period.  Start with Dr. Bhagwandas Gidwani, whose Sword of Tipu Sultan and Return of the Aryans throw new light on well known events in our history. Tipu as a communal bigot is a British staged myth while research indicates that the classical Aryan invasion of the history books we grew up with was perhaps the return of waves of those who had ventured out in earlier decades to bring back hosts of  new ideas to fertilise Bharat with.
Kamleshwar’s Partitions speaks  of Time questioning various despots in history, calling them to account for their actions.  In the process, some amazing facts come tumbling out, overturning now popular pop history.
In her book “Yugantar”,  Irawati Karve revisits the complexly humanness of the characters of the Mahabharat to enumerate problems of the past and present which mirror each other, pointing to where we are going around in circles perhaps.
Pawan Verma’s Yudhistar and Draupadi reveals the resolution of the rather uneasy relationship between Yudhistar and Draupadi, the one so straight forward and yet so sleazy to wager away a common wife and the other the common wife who is truly offended and humiliated by his actions.

While all these books are based to the primary facts of the epics of our past, a younger tribe of writers is questioning those basic premises themselves and rewriting those epics, keeping only the geography of the land intact, but re inventing the history and sociology to find answers to the questions left unanswered by the original epics, except with vague philosophies.  They write of the men who are today reckoned gods.

Hence Amish’s Immortals of Meluha introduces  a blue throated Tibetan warrior as Shiva in Bharat decades after Ram’s era.   Amish's forte is the reinterpretation of the epics to modern logic and scientific thought, yet linked to those past events, those places and relationships and social ideas.   The Suryavanshis and Chandravanshis, brother races split apart are linked by Shiva and goes into the next book Nagas, to discover Amish’s version of  Brahaspati, Ganesh, Kali and other old world characters in a modern believable avatar.   The third in this trilogy is eagerly awaited by all those who cut not put down the earlier two books.

And now, Anand Neelakantan’s Aure:Tale of the Vanquished is a Ravanayan, one of the most engrossing books of recent times.  It tells of the interminable jostling between the Deva invaders (Aryans) and the local Asuras (Dravidians), of the rise and fall of several eras of Asura kings, the last of which was Ravan.
I recall a childhood in which south Indian neighbors and friends often reminded us that the celebration of Dusshera and Diwali had totally different connotation in the South where Ravan was the hero and Ram more of the villain of the piece;  that Ravana was a venerated savant and philosopher musician who was much admired.
ASura brings all those memories flooding back,  a traumatic childhood as a half caste, a swashbuckling adventurer and finally a king always at odds with himself,  his baser feelings and the higher ones too:  Neelakantan’s  that offers  the other side of the picture from what available in the various versions of the Ramayan.
The cast is as large as the canvas and more intriguing, for engrossing reading to get answers left unanswered by numerous other ‘religious’ reads.
Ravana as a great Asura ruler whose suzerainty extends over half of the mainland as well as Lanka, a Ram who is hostage of  Brahmin terror and the Maryada Purshottam title they have imprisoned him with, the invidious methods of the Brahmins to seize power repeatedly,  Sita as an abandoned daughter of Ravana who cannot bring himself to tell her that, his attempts to save her from the cruelty of a cowardly husband.        

Neelakantan dwells as much on the ordinary people as he does on goings on of princes like Ravana and Vibhishan, Ram and Lakshman, pirates like Kuber and Varuna and the  Brahmins whose  moves make and mar the lives of the aam aadmi.  He deciphers the ancient history of the workings of corruption that hold good todate,  the invidious encroachment of the brahminical forces and their caste baggage that has riddled our history,  the bedevilment of God’s own country and the rise of a Shiv Sena in a Bombay within an incisive paragraph.

What I find particularly heartening is the way our civilization has allowed  various eras of questioning which take  issues forward to a viewing through different prisms. Remember debates and religious discourses were a regular feature of our ancient kingdoms?
Now that has been extended to the book format .... debate and questioning that brings out hitherto unknown facets,  buried under the dust of many centuries and interested misrepresenters.   The new breed aims at an interpretation of ancient events in the light of modern logic and understanding. 
Kudos to the openness of the society that allows this way forward . touch wood ...
Remember,  way back in the hoary past, the great religions of the world evolved in China, India, Mesopotamia, Israel, Egypt and America.  All prescribed the same principles of do good, be good and do unto others what you would have others do unto you.

Then rites and rituals took center stage. And sections rebelled against the overdose of ritual.
In China, it was Confucius and Lao Tze.       In India it was Jainism and Buddhism.
In Israel, the Hebrew religion spawned first Christianity and then Islam. Yes, the two are brothers conjoined at their jewish roots, although right now,  they are engaged in a vicious jostling for supremacy on the global arena. This bring  to mind the prophecies of the Middle Ages seer, Nostradamus, that the two will unite. will that come true?

Meanwhile, another view of religious do’s and don’ts:

When religions tell everyone to do good and be good,
= Why did Krishna advise Arjuna not to hold back from killing his own kin? does that prove him to be man, not god?
=  Why did the Prophet tell his people to do away with the entire race of Jews because they do not accept His preachings  centuries later?

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