Written by: Divyajyot Joshi
“Every true history must force us to remember that the past was once as real as the present and as uncertain as the future.”
G M Trevelyan
“Until lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Dear Readers, before I talk about Jaipur Book Lovers and the Meetup on Books on History, allow me a trifle indulgence as I take you on a crash course of my tumultuous history with history. I for one had never courted the muses of history and had no particular intention of doing so. The trinity of Geography, Civics and History were for me, boredom personified. And far inferior to the singular splendor of Mathematics, which was without a doubt, horror personified. My passions for studying the subject of History were of a peripheral nature that were automatically generated a week prior to the school semester examinations and faded just as soon and quickly thereafter. The modus operandi for these examinations was fairly simple, if not pleasant. I violently crammed all the dates that were deemed important by the teacher concerned, this process was simultaneously accompanied by the gorging down of – no less violently of course – the details about why a war was won or a dynasty had a downfall. In the examination hall, I had to figure out which questions could be successfully answered to the best of my limited abilities, then I would proceed by relentlessly disgorging all the data and filling up the answer sheets. After the exam time had ended and the answer sheet forcefully excavated from my hands, I would mimic the Clint Eastwood stroll and slowly ride into the setting sun, gleefully oblivious. Such had been my close encounters of the historical kind.
When I came across this passionate coven of readers quite unassumingly called the Jaipur Book Lovers, Iittle did I know that the muses could be so demanding. More on that later, let me first give you a few details regarding this Jaipur based club. Jaipur Book Lovers can best be described as a fellowship of readers who organize gatherings and meetups on alternate Sundays. In these meetups, they discuss books on pre-decided topics, and the mode of discussions has a wonderfully organized pattern. With separate rounds for member introductions, individual reflections on books and an impromptu round for a touch of the spontaneous, the club has been holding meetups for close to two years. The topic for its upcoming 33rd meetup was Books on History. And that was where my troubles began. My biggest problem was my hopelessly unromantic relationship with the subject. So I was in a perplexing situation and something had to be done, I had to figure out a way to seduce the muses of history.
To court the muses, I decided to read William L. Shrier’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Painfully I realized that reading this 600+ paged saga was not merely Mission Difficult it was a certified Mission Impossible. So, to ensnare the muses, I took an alternate route. My second option of reading multiple literary quotations on History seemed to have a tactical advantage or atleast I thought so initially. It was a simple shortcut path to get some clear cut opinions on what constitutes history. The Quote reading exercise, however, turned out to be a frustratingly futile adventure. It served no purpose and was utterly confusing. As an example of just how confounding the quote reading experience proved, allow me to demonstrate these maddeningly diverse opinions.
Napoleon Bonaparte dismisses history as a fable commonly agreed upon, Winston Churchill praises its kindness for he intends to write it, or so he says. For Mark Twain, the ink of history is a mere fluid prejudice, Voltaire quotes history as filled with the sounds of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up. The English poet Percy B. Shelly calls history a cyclic poem written by time upon the memories of man, for Thomas Carlyle history is the biography of the great man, a mighty dramos enacted upon the theatre of times, with suns for lamps and eternity for background and for Jacques Derrida history is a construction of language.
I was now struck in a confounding situation. The Will Shrier saga was too long to complete before the meetup and the quotes, too diverse to offer a clear picture on the subject. But I still had to read something before attending the meetup. I had to pamper my self-esteem and make those muses heed my romantic advances. So, on a whim, I decided to read Edward H. carr’s What is History? And the book turned out to be exactly what I needed. A concise and careful examination of the study of History. The text comprised of some of the most erudite and detailed arguments on the ethics of historians, society and the individual, History as progress and many others. In a chapter on causations of history, Edward Carr explains the causes of misinterpretation while studying history, one of personal favorite elucidations was on the fallacy of Cleopatra’s Nose. That dealt with hindsight biases and false cause attributions. Now that I had successfully boogied with the muses, I was now ready to moonwalk my way into the meetup.
On the anticipated Sunday morning, the book lovers flocked together at Jai Club and the meetup on books on history commenced. An amazing assortment of books were spoken about and for the reader’s benefit I have listed a few of them sequentially.
– Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins
– The Other side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia
– The great partition by Yasemine Khan
– Midnight furies by Nisid Hajari
– Train to India by Maloy Krishna Dhar
– Ramachandra Guha’s India after Gandhi
– Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India
– The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
– The Sanjay Story by Vinod Mehta
– Winds of War by Herman Wouk
– Saved by the Enemy by Craig Ledbetter
– Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh
– Mira and the Mahatma by Sudhir Kakar
– Integration of Indian states by V P Menon
– Indian Summer by Alex Von Tunzelmann
– India Discovered by John Keay
– The Diary of Ann Frank
– Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (I am still trying to figure out how this fits in the History Books Criteria !!).
Lastly, the books of William Dalrympyle were discussed with great enthusiasm and passion.
In J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, there is this one special ring that sets the whole tale in motion. The one ring to rule them, to find them all, to make a writer crazy enough to write them all; the trilogy of books that is. During our discussions one such special book surfaced that seemed to have an almost similar effect. Before proceeding I would request my beloved readers to excuse the ring analogy, I must admit that this courting and proposing to the muses takes a heavy toll on one’s imagination. The ring analogy is only intended to convey the importance of this one special book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari, that was discussed with the utmost participation. Almost everyone present knew about it and almost all who knew about it had read it and I for one, was pleased by the fact that I had, in the very least, heard about it. The book is a narrative detailing the evolutionary history of Homo Sapiens and the fickelness factor that decides the developmental trajectory of our Species. I wish I could tell you more about the book but that was as far as I could understand and remember.
Moving on, to a different take on history, an Indian approach. Itihaas, a pluralistic narrative wherein the demarcations of history and mythology cease and a coexistence of fact and fiction emerges. A couple of such accounts were talked about as well. Works of writers like Shivaji Sawant, Sakharam Khandekar, J.B. Patro, Pratibha Rani, Acharya Chatursena, RajKumar Raman and Narinder Kohli were debated and reviewed by respective members. After a three hour session of talks, discussions and debates, the book lovers, having exhausted their capacity for deliberations finally bid adieu and the meetup concluded.
I consider myself to be a certain, qualified individual, who is quite incapable of giving profound insights and advices, thereby I offer this quote from Edward H. Carr’s What is History?, as a compensation for the lack of a proper closure to this article.
“The past is intelligible to us only in the light of the present; and we can fully understand the present only in the light of the past. To enable man to understand the society of the past and to increase his mastery over the society of the present is the dual function of history”
Content Writer. StoryTeller. Movie Maniac. Book Gobbler. Fascinated by Crime stories, horror fiction and things that go bump in the night.