Under my byline

Historytelling

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 22 November 2008

Amitav Ghosh, who knows how to draw stories from historyOVERLEAF 6

At the American university history department where I spent a few years, a professor named James A Henretta every year offered a course in “narrative history”. It was for graduate students at dissertation-writing stage, so I never got to it — but what strikes me now is the fact that it was needed at all.

Historians write. It’s the main thing they do. By the time they sit down to write their PhDs they’ve already been reading and writing history for perhaps a decade, and are well past the professionalisation threshold. So why, after all that training, do they still lack fundamental tools?

It’s because many don’t believe that narrative is fundamental to their work. In fact, there were actually people — very nice people — in that history department who believed, and wrote as if, what was being written was more important than how it was written. They turned out paper after paper on topics that to me were thrilling, in perfectly serviceable (and professionally correct) prose that told me no stories.

Professor Henretta’s writings are a useful comparison, even if we allow for his several decades’ head start on my fellow grads. His sound and economical words actually look beautiful on the text-heavy, foursquare pages of history books. And they are really easy to read. He was lead author of a textbook of American history for high-schoolers which is now standard reading across the nation. It is a wonderful book; coming across it in the library one day, I opened it at random and then found it unputdownable. A textbook!

It’s a rare social scientist whom the average reader can make sense of and enjoy reading. There aren’t many in India, and fewer still who are young scholars. This bodes ill for the future of popular history.

And that’s the point: history sells. It sells very well — look at the bestseller lists, fiction or non-fiction, look at the newspapers, which every day have some history-inflected article prominently displayed (“Modi turns destroyer of temples”; “Navy takes battle to pirates”). But someone has to make good history mass-market yet respectable.

Today, that is done by historical novelists. In the West, an army of them produces historical fiction for all ages and tastes. Even when there is no history, writers use what little we do know about how Stone Age people (for instance) lived, and create characters and stories to fit.

As a result, history, for the Western literate, is not a matter of textbooks but a functioning department of the imagination. If, as Indians, we had a better imaginative acquaintance with our own history, having encountered in fiction characters from various moments of our enormous and still unexplored past, perhaps we might be less inclined to extremes in our political opinions, and less inclined to think ourselves uniquely persecuted.

So if the taste exists, and bookstores are blooming, and new publishers are competing for the Indian market, it’s an opportunity for history that should not be missed. Our schools and universities have shed orality and narrativity, even in the liberal arts like history, in favour of what academics used to hope was the level platform of “science” and method. But the platform isn’t quite level, and it’s too high up.

What to do? For a start, bring writing back to the core of learning (and not just in history: where are our great science writers?). In each college history “paper”, ask students to write a short story, picking real characters from history and fictionalising them (say, Muhammad bin Tughluq) or inventing their own (bin Tughluq’s body slave). Such “narrative training” is a far better introduction to the nitty-gritties of history than, say, “Discuss the importance of the Kushanas”, and is far more likely to win lifelong converts.

(Visit Professor Henretta’s faculty page, or visit Amitav Ghosh’s website, from which I borrowed the portrait above.)

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2 Responses

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  1. Ashok said, on 22 November 2008 at 8:46 pm

    Interesting post. The new school textbooks of the NCERT encourage “fictionalising” history. I’ve seen it in the history and political science textbooks. For “narrative training”, I think the books will need to be supplemented with simple books on writing itself.

    Haven’t seen good college-level books in India.

    In an exam-crazy country like ours, one trick is to change the exam paper; good textbooks will begin to appear in stores (after an initial round of bad quickies). The next generation will write narrative history, which we can read in our retired lives. :)

  2. Rrishi Raote said, on 22 November 2008 at 9:51 pm

    That’s a good idea, change the exams. Imagine, though, what the examiners will do! Probably go on strike. And the students will badger the boards to define how marks will be “allocated” — 10 points for intro, 20 points for body, 10 for conclusion, 15 for use of anecdote…

    I think to write their pieces, students will be forced to read. They will need some raw facts and a bit of background to provide minimum credibility. That’s more than many college students get now.

    Had heard of the NCERT developments, but totally forgot to look into them for this piece — thanks for the heads-up.

    Another thing I didn’t know enough to say anything about is that in some Indian languages (like Bengali) there is plenty of historical fiction. Someone reminded me of this fact today.


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