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Politics of history


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Even as the breath-taking beauty of the Taj Mahal remains uncontroverted, are such inferences on that society as a whole, a true representation of 17th century India?

 


An orator addressing a big political meeting in the North Central Province invites a journey to an atavistic glory, invoking names of several kings as well as notional imagery from the animal world.

“Coming from these historical lands you are proud inheritors of a glorious heritage. There are threats from outside forces. Lions do not act like jackals…”

History can be both a discipline for academic study as well as the wellspring of social and cultural consciousness. In the former approach, the method is dispassionate, objective; emotion nor speculation has a role in the search for the truth. On the other hand, when taken as a basis for historical identity, the very opposite comes to the fore, mythology prevails, emotion predominates, facts become secondary to the fluency of the narrative.

When interpreting history, we often generalise from the particular. We see a monument and from that fact, begin to postulate on the nature of the society that created it. The Moguls built the Taj Mahal, only an era of enlightenment and heightened sensitivities could have left such an invaluable gift. Men then had much knowledge, were proud and able, well fed and well shod. Art cannot flourish without leisure and freedom. Therefore, people then would have enjoyed leisure and freedom, the monument proves it. 

Even as the breath-taking beauty of the Taj Mahal remains uncontroverted, are such inferences on that society as a whole, a true representation of 17th century India? The Moguls, invading the Indian plains from the North-West, over the mountains, found easy pickings in a weak and divided land. Poverty held the Sub-Continent in thrall, for centuries its inhabitants had eked out a bare existence, turning for solace to the divine, a communion  demanding complex and long-winded rituals and practices. 

Like the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, the King was the country; all subjects of the kingdom belonged to him, all wealth accrued to him (in Egypt, when a Pharaoh died, it was common for his servants to be entombed alive with the dead ruler, to serve him in the afterlife) To the prevailing feudal system, there were no true dissenters, no intellectual challenges, no suggestion of a workable alternative; a stagnant society which only an external impulse could change. 

A foreign invader, of dissimilar habits and alien faith, constructs a gigantic mausoleum for his favourite wife, a Persian princess who died giving birth to their 14th child. From that monument, we attempt to read the temper and beat of an era, besides decipher the lives of the millions who constituted the Moghul Empire. Later studies reveal that 20,000 artisans toiled on the project, the building incorporated and expanded Timurid, Persian and Mughal design traditions, the construction was overseen by the Emperors’ architects.

Long before the Taj Mahal, our ancestors built on this island a flourishing civilisation of which there is ample archaeological evidence. We do not have extensive records of the lives of the average person of those times, all attention was on the King. What did the ordinary man eat, how long was his life expectancy, what were his leisure activities, what was his view of the world? However, given the relative safety an island enjoys from outside pressures, and the obvious development of agriculture, we may assume an adequate, if not contended existence.

Today’s politician (addressing the meeting in the North Central), sees a proud people, lion like, conscious of their strength, aware of the world outside.

Certainly, people now are conscious of the fact that we inhabit a much smaller world from that of our ancestors, whose concept of the outside was limited mainly to what is now India. Today, we have real time knowledge of happenings world-wide, not only mere information, these distant lands also offer possibilities unthinkable in this country. For many, the reality is; for a better life, a good quality education or even refuge when their rights are abused, a foreign country, particularly in the West, dazzles.

Since all roads lead to the Katunayake Airport, the foreign embassies, alarmed at the endless line, put up their barriers, determined to subject the hopeful applicant to a process of virtual stripping; verbal assurances are dismissed out of hand; have you enough money to travel, where is your spouse, can you provide a compelling reason to return? The list of documents demanded is endless, humiliating. It seems the king of the jungle cannot travel only on his leonine reputation. 

Aruni, who I met through a common acquaintance, had worked overseas for many years. Now living a leisurely life of retirement, she had been with a Middle-Eastern Airline as a ground hostess, based there in the hub of the burgeoning airline.

 “When I first went to Dubai, it wasn’t the grand metropolis it is now. Oil money was coming in, but most of today’s developments were still at the drawing board stage. The Dubai Government was committed to having an internationally-respected airline as a vital part for their larger scheme of development. They were serious. Almost all the top management were expatriates, mainly European. Everything was run on a professional basis.

“My job was to look after our passengers while in the airport terminal. Sometimes, a passenger may miss a connecting flight. We do not just shrug it off, we help them to make a booking in the next available flight. If there is a long transit, we may even suggest a city tour or a nearby hotel until it’s time for the connection. We had to always be proactive, service oriented.”

I inquired about the Sri Lankans who came there as housemaids and drivers.

“Those days, on the ‘corniche’, the waterfront promenade in Dubai, like our Galle Face Green, you see them in droves, chattering loudly. Many of them were very raw, the agencies just sent our females to work there without any heed to training. One woman had put the leftover food in a microwave thinking it was a refrigerator. These unsophisticated maids got into a lot of trouble with their employers due to ignorance. We heard many horror stories about these things.

“One maid told me that no sooner she finished arranging the house, the employers’ children would disarrange it deliberately. When she complained to the lady of the house her reply was that the maid was paid to clean the house and therefore should not complain.”

Various notions of history, flattering as they may be, will not put bread on our table. Times have moved on, ideas and methods that prevailed hundreds of years ago, will not score in a vastly different world. We will rue the day we let politicians entice us with flattery instead of rationality, discard effective governance for mumbo jumbo.


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