Whispering Thoughts – On This and That (No: 2)

April 2023                                                                                                    


Many of you are aware that I have been attempting to narrate the history of India, starting from the earliest times, for the past 15-odd years with varying degrees of success. I must admit, to put it mildly, it has not been an easy journey. Doubts assail the historian at every turn; every previous analysis that is available enhances the feeling of inadequacy. Self-doubts have overwhelmed me many times, and almost brought me to a stop on a couple of occasions. To bring my thoughts back on track, I have done my share of introspection to understand the meaning of history—as we perceive it in the current context—through reading, study, thought and analyses. Yet, answers are not easy to find for the fundamental question: What is history? Was history the same a century ago as we understand it today—and will it be the same a century from today?

I cannot claim that any great revelations have come my way; maybe, just maybe, a slightly improved comprehension of what constitutes history. More importantly, as I have kept researching and writing, it has dawned on me that the need is to record history within the perspective of the time it is being analysed, even if the events being considered took place in the depth of the past. I now write with the clear understanding that recording the ultimate history is an unachievable goal, the best one can do is to strive to be as close to it as possible.

Even so, all history that is recorded today will be superseded over time for one primary reason—the processing of the events and ideas has always been a human endeavour, prone to everyday influences and biases. The ‘who you are’ of a human being itself imposes complex influences on any analysis with myriad factors in play. Therefore, in the composite field of historical analysis, the only constant is that of inconsistency—emphasised by the fact that the discipline is always open to inquiry with no statement or assessment ever being absolute.

Any discussion of history always comes back to the two basic questions of: what is history? and, how are the facts being interpreted in the narrative? The connection between fact and interpretation is not trivial as it reflects the society in which we live.  For a historian, this is the most important connection that must be clearly made. A ‘good’ historical narrative can never be a recounting of facts. This assertion goes against the belief of Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), the celebrated German historian, who devised the ‘source-based’ approach to history and in the mid-19th century unequivocally stated that the task of the historian was ‘simply to show how it really was’. This statement and the associated retelling of history are steeped in simplicity, although groups of historians embraced it for more than a generation. Subsequently the concept was proven to not have the necessary depth needed to guide a historian since it prevented the historian from drawing conclusions—an essential prerogative of a historian.     

On the other hand, it cannot be refuted that history is a collection of ascertained facts. Then what is the historian’s job? A historian, collects, collates, and analyses facts; then he/she puts forward the essence of the past in his/her own unique style of ‘story-telling’. While doing so, the historian abrogates the privilege to be selective in choosing the facts that form the mix for analysis, all available facts must be included, for facts are incontrovertible. The interpretations however are the historian’s choice, they can be fanciful or austere.

Ensuring the accuracy of available facts is the bane of all historians who are compelled to use other disciplines, such as archaeology, numismatics etc., to ensure their veracity. The historian’s job is to arrange and analyse verified facts, raw data, an enterprise that can readily influence the opinion of the reader. In this context, the old aphorism ‘facts speak for themselves’ stops being fully true. Facts speak only when the historian wants them to speak; the decision to push one behind and give another centre-stage, the judgement to make them appear in a particular order, and in what context they must appear, are the historian’s onerous tasks.

Although all facts must be considered, the dichotomy in a historian’s calling is that, of necessity, he/she is constrained to be selective in adding facts to the mix for analysis. All historical facts that have been repeatedly interpreted run the risk of being perceived as something that it was not meant to be. The importance of a fact normally depends on its mainstream interpretation and the way it had been perceived over the years. The more consistent the perception, more important the fact; further in the past the fact resides, greater the probability of alternative interpretations. Therefore, accepted history is nothing but a collection of learned judgements. They can be questioned when new facts come to light, or if the veracity of accepted facts come into question. The authenticity of facts has to be ascertained with some assurance for their interpretations to contribute to the narrative of the known flow of events.

I believe that a historian must start with an unambiguous acceptance of his/her ignorance of the past and the present; of facts, irrefutable or otherwise, objective or otherwise. This is a fundamental necessity to produce history with the much-needed interpretations that alone makes it a living organism, lacking which one risks creating dry, factual regurgitations of facts.

What do facts—gleaned from documents, files, treaties—tell us? It cannot be more than what the original author of the document thought: that person’s perception of what had happened, what he/she thought ought to have happened, or what he/she wanted others to think had happened. This ambiguity regarding the intent of the original author is a major reason why facts make sense only when the historian has worked on it, superimposing his/her own vision of the fact, deciphering it, and effectively processing the fact for the benefit of the reader. This progression of processing is continuous, thus making the historical fact the basis of a living organism—evolving history.

It is this repeated process of selective interpretation that finally brings out the kernel of the fact being processed, a core that cannot be sidelined. The kernel then becomes the point to be debated and discussed further. At the core of this lies the continuous process that historians undertake to distil earlier interpretations and add their own—living history.

A historian must delicately balance his own input, his interpretation, of known facts and events, and previous deliberations. This output, to be of any use, should be devoid of propaganda or fiction and stay away from creating ‘new history’ that is not based on a solid background of facts and figures. This once again brings back the question: What is history? I believe, history should be a balanced narrative, based on ascertained facts that contribute directly to the fundamental truth about the human race—for history is nothing if not a continuing conversation of the present with the past.

Sanu Kainikara

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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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