Fragment, Fantasy, History: Towards Newer Projects for Re-Imagining National History
By Manhar Bansal
“My memory comes in the way of your history.” – Agha Shahid Ali
Imagination is sometimes considered to be antithetical to history, in its vigours of evidence and objectivity. The truth, nonetheless, is that all history is imagination. This is not to deny the immense significance of historical evidence but to say that it is the manner in which we choose to interpret and construct our understanding of the past, indeed, how we imagine it that forms the bedrock of historical thought. But who constructs this imagination? Using what? Does everyone get to imagine their own past, or are there ‘fragments’ whose collective memory is obliterated by the hegemonic imaginations of the ‘mainstream’? I get to some of these questions in this essay.
This essay argues that it is in the ‘unhistorical’, ‘silent’ and ‘scattered’ fragments that historical imagination must find its true place. In this endeavour, it must shun the hegemonic and homogenising forces of mainstream imagination and use oral tradition, collective memory, poetry, literature and fiction – alternative sources I broadly call ‘fantasy’ – to reimagine our multiform pasts. I contend that this ‘reimagination’ is imperative for us to address both the erasures of the past and the crises of the present. We must take, as it were, a flight of fantasy.
‘Mainstream’ Historical Imagination
Much has been written about the role of colonial historians in shaping our perceptions of the past. Their ‘rediscovery’ of Indian history was largely based on brahmanical interpretations of Sanskrit texts and preconceived notions of how history unfolds. Their desire to categorise and classify ultimately reformulated societal structures such as caste and religion making them more rigid than they were ever before. For instance, as a result of the false duality created between ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’, historical thought came to be tyrannized by “monolithic religious identities” (Thapar 3-4, 20-21).
While this divisive project was underway, the colonized subject – specifically, the Western educated, urban and elite middle class – itself began to envision a ‘national history.’ In many ways, these nationalist historians continued the colonial legacy of historical reconstruction, cherry picking events that conformed to the nation-building project. Using the tools of modular European historiography, the dominant theory thus produced was this: in the beginning, India was a glorious Hindu civilization; then came the ‘Medieval’ age of decline, triggered by the tyranny of Muslim rule; followed finally by British colonialism. United by a nationalist movement and freed under the tricolour, this is the India that exists in the popular imagination of the great Indian middle class, to this day (see, Deshpande 1322-1323). Add to this the rhetoric of indigenous Aryans, golden age of Guptas and the horrors of Muslim rule and behold – you have a past ideally suited to charge up passions of aggressive ethno-nationalism.
Thus, colonization involved not only the enslavement of the people but also, in the words of Anirudh Deshpande, the “corruption of their memory” (1320). While the colonial thought had its set of prejudices, the popular nationalist thought suffered from disproportionate passion to construct a nation, where there existed none.
As historian R. Mahalakshmi underlines, the very idea of a geographical unity of India is a recent creation with no sound historical basis. However, the mainstream historical imagination continues to imagine one, obfuscating regional differences. The mere idea that Nagaland or Kashmir have a distinct history disconcerts the proponents of this discourse. Confirmation biases abound in the mainstream narrative – evident when all instances of religious despotism in pre-Islamic India are ignored, while isolated events in the ‘Medieval’ are hyped out of context. Indeed, there is room for fantasy in this imagination, but only of certain types.
With history writing always focused on the feats of ‘great men’, ordinary people were not even able to register their voices. Ask the tribals in the North East what ‘India’ is and you will probably confront a blank face. Ask the ostracised Dalit, the impoverished peasant, the scared Muslim, the patronised Kashmiri, the objectified woman or the silenced pluralist. Are their voices, and their memories part of this national past?
Post-colonial historians soon realised these stark gaps. The Subaltern Studies scholars attempted to give a voice to the ‘fragments’ by postulating a communitarian model of historical thought. They highlighted the entrenched statism and elitism in mainstream history writing – where the preoccupation of identifying the sovereign with the nation has prevented the complexity of the lives of the ‘fragments’ from finding a place in our historical imagination (See, Chatterjee “The Nation and its Fragments”).
Gayatri Spivak explores the idea of subalternity through the case of sati. She shows how in the midst of the White Man trying to ‘protect’ widowed women and the Brown Man claiming that the widow wants to die, the voice of the woman herself is irretrievably lost. She talks about the gross damage both colonial and nationalist historiography have done – the former silencing subaltern voices by misconstruing reality and the latter engaging in reverse ethnocentrism by glorifying social evils, such that the “subaltern can be neither heard nor read” (93, 102-104).
Homogenising Tendencies of Hegemonic Imaginations
Hegemonic imagination is also homogenising. The driving force of mainstream nationalist thought has been the search for a single origin of Indian civilization, a single language that ‘unites’ all Indians, a single religion ‘native’ to India and a singular identity as the basis of nationalism. To use Spivak, this “nostalgia for lost origins” (87) has an undesirable impact on history writing. It conveniently and systematically ignores the trends of migration and assimilation and the rich, diverse and massive contributions of different religions and cultures on what we today call ‘India’.
It is precisely this fixation for singularity that continues to divide India (Chatterjee “The Nation and its Fragments” 115). The fragments whose history has been suppressed are intrinsically heterogeneous, and there cannot be a singular history of the Indian nation. “There are several Indias, each of which has its own separate consciousness” (Desai 23).
Our actions today cannot be isolated from who we imagine ourselves to be. The manner in which we view our history has deep and often troubling implications for contemporary narratives – of belongingness, of nationhood, of politics, indeed of being. The sceptics amongst us are still looking for a surer footing for Indian nationalism. With neither a historic geographical integrity nor a homogeneous cultural identity, how do we base our patriotism on the bedrock of critical history?
Fragments and Fantasy
The fantasy that mainstream historiography weaves, to selectively target religious despotism in the ‘Medieval’ for example, is a political rhetoric fanned by those in power to obliterate historical truths. I, on the other hand, propose fantasy as a liberating methodology. For centuries now, voices of fragments – real, ordinary people – have been suppressed by calling their expression ‘fantastical’, not empirically verifiable. I argue that to allow fragments their historical agency, is to allow this fantasy to flourish.
Thinking historically in terms of a positivist undertaking has been challenged, time and again, by history writing based on alternative sources. Oral tradition, local records, folklore and legends, novel and auto/biographies, visual culture comprising advertisements, cinema and photographs, songs, poetry and stories representing collective memory, and lived experiences must be used to uncover the past of the Indian ‘people’.
Both the form and the content of history is shaped by the domineering literary genre of the time. Therefore, while Persian chronicles make it to the annals of history, the poems and legends of Assamese hill-folk do not. They are termed fantasy – products of human imagination and creativity all well, but not suitable for inclusion in the ‘real history’. It is in this background of epistemological hegemony I argue that a historical re-imagination must actively discover alternative literature.
This could include poetic challenges to power like Rahat Indori’s provocative verses. He says,
“Sabhi ka khoon hai shamil yaha ki mitti me
Kisi ke baap ka hindustaan thodi hai”
This land has seen sacrifices from everyone
Hindustan is not anyone’s property
Even as it is deeply political, the poem invokes the memory of a shared past to answer the questions of a divided present (see, Mahmudabad 3-4). This ability to tie together memory, fragments, the past and the present is what makes poetry extremely powerful as a source of history.
Similar to the tradition of Urdu poetry which Indori hails from, is Nosheen Ali’s account of poetic expression in Gilgit-Baltistan. She explores the manner in which a literary organization (the ‘Halqa’) organises poetry festivals to contest the authoritarian and majoritarian Pakistani state. The use of poetry in the political field challenges the dominance of a purely textual attitude. The poetry of the Halqa rejects the violence and orthodoxy of both religion and the nation-state, and reimagines a more humanistic community.
Other examples include suppressed Dalit Shahiri by the likes of Annabhau Sathe and Bhimrao Kardak, systemically erased work from the North East that exposes the violence of hegemonic nationalism, the use of the Marathi Bakhar by Sumit Guha or Tanika Sarkar’s positioning of Tagore’s Gora.
History is tied to memory and, as Ernest Renan noted, also amnesia. Our conception of the past depends on what we choose to remember and erase, and how. Hence, Agha Shahid Ali, in his poem “Farewell” (7-9) questions the history he is forced to believe as contradicting the memories he cherishes. It speaks to me as powerfully as Indori’s poem as it challenges the darkness of a singular, unilinear history with the beauty of memory, however fragmented or fantastical it may be.
Grand narratives of national history often engage in an erasure of historical events and processes by inducing a state of collective amnesia. Memory then, as a source of history, serves to re-remember these forgotten histories – histories important to the nation’s fragments. Memory allows disempowered people to reclaim identity and belongingness, and bring to focus stories of displacement and dislocation (Jones and Russell 275-277).
The role of memory, oral history and literature in the imagination of the past is brought out by the scholarly discussion on the histories of Partition. Official, nationalist histories often refuse to see the Partition as a powerful event in its own right while celebrating the culmination of the national movement toward independence. Dominant historiography, thus, generates collective amnesia (See, Pandey 31-33). This amnesia goes back to the Subaltern Studies scholars’ argument on entrenched statism. The lived realities of large numbers of people are sacrificed as being trivial, inconsequential and ultimately marginal to the larger, more important entity of the nation-state. This is violence by erasure at its worst.
It is only film and literature that capture the trauma and lived human experience of Partition. Amrita Pritam’s heart rending poem ‘Aaj Aakhan Waris Shah Nun’ calls on the Punjabi Sufi icon, Waris Shah, to mourn the massacre in his homeland. She writes,
“Rise o beloved of the aggrieved, just look at your Punjab
Today corpses haunt the woods, Chenab overflows with blood”
(Translated by Nirupama Dutt)
The poem goes on to paint, with disturbing vividity, the trauma of the Partition. To the Punjabi ear, the original verse ignites a pain impossible to describe in words. Yet, it is a ‘poem’ – not holding the purchase of the state’s official figures. Never mind the memory of the forgotten orphan who has inherited the trauma of Partition from his dead mother. For he is a fragment and his memory, fantasy. None helps the cause of the nation-state.
The process of re-imagination is rarely, if ever, comfortable. Habituated to the clean accounts of mainstream historiography, the modern reader squirms in intellectual anxiety as he encounters fragmented and against-the-grain readings of history (I think of Shahid Amin’s Event, Metaphor, Memory). Fragmented histories are also feared because they destabilise the mainstream consensus which both the elite and the middle classes are deeply invested in.
There is almost a desire to dwell in blissful ignorance than to unsettle deeply entrenched historical imaginations; or better still, discount such accounts altogether by calling them overly localised and insignificant to the bigger picture. The endeavour of this essay is to challenge precisely this ‘convenient comfort and illusory insignificance’ and overcome our collective amnesia. It is an invitation to view ‘fantasies’ of memory, oral tradition, folklore, literature and legends with seriousness, to let fragments speak on their own terms, and to re-imagine our many pasts.
My motivation, however, is not to stress on the anxiety that fragments and fantasy provoke. I see hope, not despair, in these alternative imaginations. Fragmented histories of fantasy hold immense power to challenge the singular, majoritarian discourse we increasingly see ourselves enveloped in. Fragmented histories do not seek to uphold a seamless narrative. They simply speak.
In his provocative piece, “In Defense of the Fragment” (1992), Gyan Pandey explores how grand histories sanitize lived experiences and present an account where the ‘people’ themselves are missing. He details his observations that arose from the research into the spectacular violence that engulfed Bhagalpur in late 1989. He recounts the poison of hate that had spread; ‘Hindu’ militancy and propaganda had been so deeply entrenched that ordinary people came to view ‘Muslims’ as ‘monsters’ who deserved to be killed. The ‘moment’ of violence fueled and strengthened the popular dogma of Muslims being invaders, proselytizers, sexual predators and ‘Pakistanis’.
Particularly impactful is Pandey’s retelling of a ‘fragment’ – a collection of poems written by a local resident. The poems bring to life what went on in the streets of the town, the households, the hearts of men and women. It gives us a history – howsoever fragmented – that the textbook cannot possibly capture. He argues that it is important to have histories of ‘moments’ not only because they enable us to make sense of our condition today but because they constitute us as a people.
I cannot but shiver in my seat as I read these descriptions. The parallels with the events that transpired in North East Delhi in early 2020 are just too many. This is precisely why I argue that we need more such histories, not just to ‘reform’ our academic discourse, but to answer the challenges we face on the streets in our day-to-day present.
This sentiment is best expressed in Manan Ahmed’s concluding remarks to his new book The Loss of Hindustan. He sees the rise of majoritarian histories across South Asia as “a crisis of the past.” However, we cannot continue the legacy of division and difference by inheriting these borrowed imaginations. It is for us to launch new intellectual projects, he says, and “it is our collective task to re-imagine the past” (Asif 225).
Towards Newer Projects
Upinder Singh calls for new histories that uncover the pasts of marginalised groups by going beyond simplistic, textual interpretations and incorporating the ordinary (9-11). Chatterjee, in “After Subaltern Studies” calls for “newer projects” to redefine subalternity in view of changed times (49).
Perhaps, one such project can involve looking at the national past in terms of the interaction of multifarious ‘fragments’ each of which must be studied in its own right using sources unique and important to the people whose stories are sought to be brought to life.
Or conceivably, as Tagore suggested more than a century ago, it is time to relegate national histories as “mere chapters” in a larger, universal history of man (99). There is a view that thinking in terms of nations distorts the very practice of thinking historically. Will India, with its unmatched diversity, lead such a project, if and when it is undertaken? Till that moment, however, we as ‘Indians’, need to embrace the irreversible plurality in our present and more importantly, in our past.
These are not easy projects. They involve challenging all forms of hegemony and discarding all attempts at homogenisation. More importantly, they require the courage to encounter fragments and the faith to fly with fantasy. They need, above all, the willingness to re-imagine.
Note: This essay has won the Hugh Owen Prize 2022 awarded by the South Asian Studies Association of Australia.
Ali, Agha Shahid. The Country Without a Post Office. Penguin Books Limited, 2013.
Ali, Nosheen. “Poetry, Power, Protest: Reimagining Muslim Nationhood in Northern Pakistan.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, vol. 32, no. 1, 2012, pp. 13–24.
Amin, Shahid. Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura, 1922-1992. University of California Press, 1995.
Asif, Manan Ahmed. The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India. Harvard University Press, 2020.
Chatterjee, Partha. “After Subaltern Studies.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 47, no. 35, 2012, pp. 44–49.
Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton University Press, 1993.
Desai, Lord Meghnad. “What Does India Think?” What does India Think? edited by François Godement, European Council on Foreign Relations, 2015, pp. 23–27.
Deshpande, Anirudh. “Colonial Modernity and Historical Imagination in India.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 72, 2011, pp. 1311–1324.
Guha, Sumit. “Speaking Historically: The Changing Voices of Historical Narration in Western India, 1400-1900.” The American Historical Review, vol. 109, no. 4, 2004, pp. 1084–1103.
Jones, Siân, and Lynette Russell. “Archaeology, Memory and Oral Tradition: An Introduction.” International Journal of Historical Archaeology, vol. 16, no. 2, Springer, 2012, pp. 267–83.
Mahalakshmi, R. “How India’s historians have reflected on the country’s history, culture and heritage,” Frontline, 9 October 2020, <frontline.thehindu.com/arts-and-culture/india-in-the-historical-imagination/article32601465.ece.> Accessed 16 Aug. 2021.
Mahmudabad, Ali Khan. Poetry of Belonging: Muslim Imaginings of India 1850–1950. Oxford University Press, 2020.
Pandey, Gyanendra. “In Defense of the Fragment: Writing about Hindu-Muslim Riots in India Today.” Representations, no. 37, University of California Press, 1992, pp. 27–55.
Sarkar, Tanika. “Rabindranath’s ‘Gora’ and the Intractable Problem of Indian Patriotism.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 44, no. 30, 2009, pp. 37–46.
Singh, Upinder. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. Pearson Education, 2008.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, edited by Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, Columbia University Press, 1994.
Tagore, Rabindranath. Nationalism. Macmillan & Co., Limited, 1918.
Thapar, Romila. The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. Penguin Books, 2003.
Note: The author would like to extend his sincere gratitude to Dr. Atreyee Majumder, Dr. Anwesha Ghosh, Ms. Nitya Gundu and Ms. Swati Verma for their valuable guidance and inspiration that made this essay possible.
Manhar Bansal is a law student at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.