What really is history?
Reading this prompt made me share a wry smile with myself. It reminded me of a moment from twelve years ago when my childhood simplicity helped to change my perspective on life in an enduring manner. My parents were having a conversation in the car and I, for the first time, recognized the word “history”. I had read a few books by then and had grasped the concept of a “story” already. But what was this “history” that they kept mentioning? With all the brusque rudeness of a curious four year old, I asked “Whose story, mom?” My mother was noticeably irritated with my unwarranted interruption but was taken aback by my unusual question. “What story?” she replied. Now I was the one who started getting irritated with my mother’s apparent lack of attention to the conversation. “You just said his story. So whose is it?” Now she understood what I had meant and burst into laughter. She then gave me a thorough, or as thorough as can be for a four year old child’s understanding, explanation of history and what it meant.
Obviously I paid little attention to that moment back then as many other things caught my wavering attention. However, the repercussions of that observation stayed with me throughout my childhood. As I grew older, fiction alone ceased to satisfy my reading needs, and I shifted over to history. The more I read, the more my innocent mistake seemed more and more appropriate. History wasn’t necessarily the truth. It was all too often “his story.” To me, the identity of this mysterious “he” was obvious. It was the victor. Perhaps wars weren’t fought for anything as clichéd as land, love and honor. Perhaps they were fought for the right to rewrite history, the right to make one’s subjective version of events the “truth”.
The most crucial example of this comes from my own culture: the Indian epic Mahabharata. Often dismissed as mere mythology, the tale can be more appropriately described as an imaginative description of the Kurukshetra War and the events that led up to it. A simplistic account is as follows:
The Pandavas, the protagonists of the epic, are the 5 sons of King Pandu while King Dritarashtra, the blind elder brother of King Pandu, fathered the 100 Kouravas, the antagonists of the story. However, a curse forces King Pandu to leave the Kingdom of Hastinapur, leaving complete control of the land to his brother. When King Pandu dies, his sons return to Hastinapur to reclaim their inheritance. However, the Kouravas resent their presence and propose a gambling match to decide who are the better players. As the Pandavas continue to lose, they even gamble away their kingdom and their wife. After this match, they are exiled from Hastinapur for 12 years. When they return the eldest Kourava, Duryodhana, refuses to give back the land they had won, signaling the start of the 18-day war. After their victory in the war, the Pandavas take over Hastinapur as the rulers of the kingdom. Even though history treats the Pandavas as the victors and heroes of the war, is it morally correct for a man who gambled away his kingdom and his wife to become the ruler of any land? Obviously, such a person is not responsible enough to hold the lives of thousands in his hands. It is also important to note that Duryodhona won the kingdom fairly in a match of dice and therefore the Pandavas have no right, whatsoever, to reclaim the kingdom. As the victors, they are still given the right to rule the kingdom and more importantly for contemporary people, the power to rewrite history on their own terms, a history where 5 Pandavas won against 100 Kouravas. This is a victory against overwhelming odds won with wit and cunning, not the story in which a man gambles away his kingdom and wife and wins them back using underhanded means and unfair trickery.
The dream for any prospective inventor like me is to cement one’s place in history. Unfortunately for all visionaries, dreams are rarely the property of solely one person and history is a fickle beast. An inventor who exemplifies this is Elisha Grey. Grey’s reluctance to apply for a patent and quickly gain credit for his invention led to Alexander Bell being able to submit his patent and pay the fees before Grey did. It is, in fact, the belief of some historians that Bell may even have copied Grey’s invention through illicit means such as bribery. The truth cannot be deciphered from the available evidence but what remains obvious is whose name is enshrined in history and whose name is forgotten. Bell’s popularity ensured that his rival and his other numerous significant inventions such as the teleautograph, a primitive fax machine, the musical telegraph which formed the basis of the synthesizer and the telephote, a machine which functions similarly to the modern closed circuit television were downgraded to obscurity . In this way, a destined-to-be-famous inventor with over 70 patents missed out on his chance to stand in the pantheon of history along with his rivals Thomas Alva Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. In this case, history is told exclusively from Bell’s perspective with barely a few mentions of Grey. Bell, intentionally or not, overwrote Grey’s influence on the technology of that time and relegated Grey to the dark abyss of ignominy.
It is those who succeed who are given the right to write history. They decide the vox populi and they shape the present and the past. But the question is, if “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” as Sir Winston Churchill said, then will we ever learn from our mistakes? Hasn’t the future already been decided? After all, his story is hardly the truth.