What History?

I enjoy opening up a Firefox browser window in the morning and reading the NY Times homepage. Yesterday’s front and center news: the death of Kurt Vonnegut. It seems odd, but I haven’t actually read a Vonnegut novel. Slaughterhouse-Five was on a summer reading list many years ago in high school, but we had some choice and I chose other books to be “force read” (including Darkness at Noon, ugh.)  So now I feel that I should read Vonnegut, with the awareness that I’m reading him posthumously.

A book I have read, however, is The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers, a story set in Kolkata and loosely based on the story of the Wandering Jew.  Sarnath Banerjee’s Kolkata is the city that long-time residents know as a secret that must be lived rather than explained.  The book (actually, a graphic novel to be technically correct about it) teases you with that secret.  In many ways, this kind of book sums up what is difficult about India in general.  India is a country where you, as an outsider, are continuously reminded of what you don’t know simultaneously with the knowledge of what you are missing.  “Shouldn’t I know about the history of the freedom struggle in Kolkata?”added to “Why have I never seen the old photography studio where families take final portraits with recently deceased family members?”  It is that duality of experience here which keeps the majority of us at arms length.  Most experiences are thus fascinating and maddening at the same time, and who among us can readily live that way without also becoming bitter?

Understanding this makes me think of two things:  first, it explains the amount of negativity I hear from outsiders about India.  Second, it underscores the truth that there are many histories operating in the world.  In India, history isn’t the difference between the Adamses and the Hapsburgs, it’s the difference between concepts.  Democracy here is a political system that presents options for the manipulation of power, and as such, is distinct from U.S. democracy with its ideological roots in liberty.  That’s hard to get used to, and it breeds resentment.  Many people dislike Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States for similar reasons.  It shakes the foundations of what we know by emphasizing different views (and sometimes different facts) about a history that we thought we knew.  Part of the appeal of the Foreign Service is the opportunity to experience different histories, yet maybe we just don’t have enough room in our over-sized noggins to absorb them.

I don’t recognize this place. Yet, a billion-plus people call it home. It’s too late to catch up and learn it, and Kolkata has the feel of a city that you must explore over a lifetime to learn.  You can’t be a temporary resident and ever know the city, and that fact is what provides Bengalis with their (disproportionate?) slice of Indian identity.  My reference points will never be Lord Macaulay, deal-making with the Japanese as they marched into Burma, or  the loss caused by Partition in the East.

By moving so frequently in this career, then, I’ve limited my understanding of any history to the role of a perpetual outsider.  The irony is that maybe these limits were drawn early on, at the moment when family FSOwalla got on a plane to London-New York-Pittsburgh and never looked back.  History, after all, didn’t lie in front of us.


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