Sunday, May 11, 2008

A story to tell

One of the more memorable books I read in my youth was Quiet flows the Don by Mikhael Sholokov, which traces the life of an ordinary Cossack farmer-soldier through the Russian Revolution. The novel is historically accurate and outstanding in its realistic portrayal of rural life in the Don valley. I seemed to have taken to the bottom-up view of bygone times and cultures, given that many of my all-time favorite novels I read around that time had the similar approach - Trotter-Nama (Allan Sealy - colonial Uttar Pradesh) and The Glass Palace (Amitav Ghosh - Indians in the British army in WWII), to name a couple.

It was years later, however, that I came to realize that the bottom-up view of history in fiction also had a parallel stream in historical academic circles. It happened accidentally when, while browsing the Seva Mandir library in Udaipur, I stumbled upon the complete compilation of essays in the Subaltern Studies series. Completely unaware of the subaltern notion of history at that time, I was stunned and thrilled to read essay after essay of various events from India's colonial history - most of them non-landmarkish events I had never read about in my history textbooks - narrated from a perspective I had never encountered before.

The Subaltern Study Group is a group of South Asian scholars who are uncomfortable with the prevalent narrative of history, which fails to encompass the complexity and plurality that history is made of, and believe in "history from below". Subaltern studies look at history through a study of the subaltern - rather than the elite - that lived and constituted those times. A 'subaltern' is the individual agent of history - the farmer, the clerk, the laborer, the insurgent, the soldier. I have always wondered if there is a term to describe the genre in fiction that does the same - subaltern fiction?

Anyway, the reason all this comes to mind is because the StoryCorps was in my town the past month. StoryCorps is a nonprofit dedicated to documenting the lives and histories of everyday Americans, thus contributing to the overall narrative of history. Their format of operation is simple - they have a mobile van (pictured below on my way to work) which camps out in different cities around the year. Anyone who wants to is welcome to enter the van with a friend/relative and narrate their life-story or some particular aspect of it in an interview format. One copy of a CD is given to the narrator/s, and another copy is sent to the Library of Congress to be archived for future generations.

The documenting of subaltern history doesn't get any easier than this!

Endnote 1: One other outstanding aspect of Sholokhov's Quiet flows the Don is the portrayal of uncertainty and equivocalness that mark historic processes in real time. For instance, while the Russian Revolution may seem in retrospect to be a clear-cut story of the power struggle and confrontation between the Bolsheviks and the loyalists/White Army, the process was much convoluted for the individuals who made the life-changing choice about which side to back. The protagonist, Gregory Melekhov, and his family frequently swing between being loyalists and Bolsheviks during the course of the war, only to face much misery as a result of each decision. In the end, Gregory's family (or what remains of it) integrates into the Soviet system, while he remains a pariah.

I have often wondered if the same was true for events I am much more familiar with. How did native tradesmen, civil servants, and those with occupations and social connections vested in the British empire in India feel about the independence movement?

Endnote 2: If you have read The Glass Palace, you may find it surprising that I describe it primarily as a documentation of Indians in the British Army rather than the dismantling of the Burmese royalty which occupies a good part of the books. From the subaltern point of view, the story of Arjun, an British-Indian Army officer who deserts the British to fight on the side of the Indian National Army, is a lot more engaging than that of the king of Burma.

On another note, Arjun also illustrates the nebulousness of historic processes nearly as brilliantly as Gregory Melekhov. At one point, Arjun's men (of the INA) capture Kishan Singh, Arjun's beloved ex-batman, who is still loyal to the British. After much mental turmoil, Arjun decides to execute Kishan Singh, and does so himself. The Kishan Singh execution remains the most touching sequence I have read in literature.

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