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Telling Tales, Some Reflections

April 6, 2009

As a historian, you are asked to think about the writing of history.

You are exposed to various intellectual traditions, “schools,” “camps,” and philosophies of history writing that have their own (sometimes overlapping) ways of explaining a present’s past. Marxism, feminism, structuralism, post-structuralism, and a whole variety of other -isms (islamism, nationalism even) to name a few. These “isms” can absorb a historian into its fold as she writes a present’s past. So much so that her writing of history, and her telling of a story, may be circumscribed by the tinsels of her “isms” of choice.

So lately, I find myself reading and thinking about intellectual traditions with which I relate most intellectually (and perhaps, personally; biographically, even). As I try to figure out how to tell the story I will my dissertation to tell, I think of how different traditions understand human realities.

I was, once, quite taken by the long duree approach to writing histories. This is the approach that believes developments in human societies happen very gradually. Very slowly. Almost impercetibly. This approach explains human realities through “evolutions” and not “revolutions.” Braudel, a famous French thinker and historian, showcased this approach in a now-classic work called The Mediterranean. A now famous quote from Braudel:

the history of events was merely the history of surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs.

In other words, one or two events don’t matter. They don’t change histories. They are simply the tips of icebergs or “crests of foam” on tides. They are mere bricks in vast edifices of very long histories.

As I think about the social and cultural phenomena I am interested in – whether it’s Islamism, secularism, nationalism, colonialism, or globalization, and attempt to understand how they unfold in the regions I like to study, I find I have a certain sympathy for the slow, imperceptible, and evolutionary model. However, I am not quite absorbed by it.

I account for the possibility that many social and cultural phenomena happen in very contrasting ways. Through “revolutions” if you will.

These are moments of complete break from the current and the present. Often markedwhen a movement or a person arises from left field, and changes the course of history, in a radical way, so much so, that the “post-” looks almost nothing like the “pre-.”  Examples are numerous.

Various genocides typically make for revolutionary histories. Think of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. Despite the Hindu-Muslim tensions that were building up (which some trace to Aurangzeb’s persecution of Hindus, others to late 19th century British policies of divide-and-rule) nobody -not Jinnah, not Gandhi, not Nehru, not A. K. Fazlul Huq, not Sikandar Hayat, nor anybody – could have foreseen the unprecedented carnage that broke out in Bengal and Punjab and elsewhere in the subcontinent in 1947.

So I ask myself if the violence of 1971 was foreseeable, explainable, and historicizable, in the light of events leading up to that fateful year. Of course we all know about the increasing tensions between the center in West Pakistan and the Bengali populace in the East.

Yes, there were the language riots of ’52. Even earlier, Jinnah’s decision to promote Urdu as the national language of the two Pakistans didn’t quite go down well among the Easterners. And throughout the 60s, there were great protests on the level of East Pakistani administrators, politicians and intellectuals against marginalization of Bengalis – political, economic and bureaucratic. There were protests when Tagore was banned from the radio by Ayub. Bottomline: tensions were always there. As were stereotypes of what a Bengali is like. Or what a Punjabi is like. Silly of course. (And sad when one considers that many still exist, even among our enlightened Diasporic realities in the West).

But despite all this, despite the rise of Awami League, and an increasingly vociferous Sheikh Mujib – despite all despites – can one say that the violence of ’71 was foreseeable? I say, not.  Are they ever in events of great violence? Violent events always seem revolutionary. For they always take a life of their own. And become the author of their own histories. They become their own tides, and the “post-” seldom looks like the “pre-.”

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. ayesha permalink
    March 6, 2007 6:14 pm

    thanks for this! although I am not historian, I really enjoyed this!

  2. ayesha permalink
    March 6, 2007 6:17 pm

    Thanks for this! although I am no historian, I really enjoyed this!

  3. March 6, 2007 10:15 pm

    Well written, Sajid! I dont know how to respond to such a posting, though. I mean being South Asian isnt enough. I need to brush up on my history and then will get back to you.
    I would love if you could elaborate more on your theory, though. Are there others who share similar views? Perhaps they can post as a response to this blog entry…

  4. talam permalink
    March 7, 2007 12:03 pm

    Thanks for a lovely posting and insights into how historians think.

    Just because events were unforeseeable, doesn’t mean that they were “revolutionary” (as opposed to evolutionary/longue duree), does it? Perhaps we never completely understand the undercurrents of our current age – a certain perspective is needed that is provided by distance (in time).

  5. jajabor lite permalink
    March 7, 2007 7:39 pm

    Thanks, Talam. Appreciate your feedback.

    “Unforeseeable” doesnt necessarily equal “revolutionary.” But it can. If I go with a working definition that “evolutionary” changes are so gradual as to be imperceptible, then “un-/foreseeability” can become a useful category in distinguishing between “revolutionary” and “evolutionary.”

    But you mention something important in your post, regarding “distance (in time)” as you put it nicely.

    At the end of the day, it depends on who’s doing the “seeing,” who the historian or observer is, and peraps more importantly, from what distance from the event, chronologically speaking.

    Something might appear evolutionary to my vantage point because I am too close to an event and lose out a sense of historical depth which could have otherwise levelled the event into a more evolutionary narrative.

    And of course this discussion can get more and more philosophical and end up reading less and less like a blog post, haha.

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