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History is not all about the truth

Needless waste of budding intellectual energy

Gulf News

A quote by Henry Adams says, ‘The historian must not try to know what is truth if he values his honesty; for if he cares for his truths, he is certain to falsify his facts.’

This quotation was, however, never introduced to the class of 30-odd eighth-graders who struggled to keep the eyes open, especially after a hearty carb-heavy meal of rice and its steady companion: the fibre-rich lentils.

Who, after all, has mastered the art of concentrated, focused reading when the eyelids feel as though they are weighted with iron fillings? For that, on occasion, used to be the order from the so-called ‘high chair’ of learning: “Now children, open your history text to page 35 and read the next 10 pages ...”

A P.S. used to be added sometimes: “I shall be quizzing you rather closely before the period is over, so mind you pay attention to the detail.”

Of course, there never ever was a quiz and pupils, if nothing else, are sharp especially when it comes to needless waste of budding intellectual energy. And so three school terms of Indian history, filled with glitter and pomp, incomparable courage on the battlefield in the face of opponents armed with superior weapons, a queen skilled in archery, horsemanship and defence tactics, and a king building a mausoleum to contain both his sorrow and his love ... all this slipped by in a dull, khaki blur.

“History is what happens to other people,” would have been a more apt quote for these youngsters. They would have understood it perfectly. Some of them probably think that way to this day.

When exams came round as usual it brought hosts of butterflies too that fluttered manically in the stomach refusing to be quelled. Incredibly though, it was the History paper that caused the least tension. This, of course, is because in all schools and among all students there is a secret grapevine.

Discreet communication

Year after year things get passed down this discreet channel of communication and for all that adults may say about immaturity levels in young adolescents, certain truths are guarded with admirable tact.

P.S. (I use the initials advisedly since P.S. is still alive and not a part of history) is one of those former pupils who waffled his way through Year Eight, under the lackadaisical eye of Teacher K, to whom the teaching of India’s history had been entrusted for an entire year.

“Everything in the syllabus from that year is still a total blank. I clearly remember guessing, in the multiple choice, that Jehangir was the Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal. And that Aix-la-Chapelle was where Dupleix, the French governor-general in India, went to pray, not where an important treaty was concluded between the British and the French.”

When asked how he managed to pass, he says, grinning broadly, “Nobody failed. As a matter of fact, History provided the best results in some of our report cards.”

So…what’s the secret?

“No secret really. Just a quiet word passed down, year after year. Teacher K was not only a couldn’t-care-less type but one who was also not into reading, especially exam papers. And if your answers were several sheets long so much the better for you received a large red tick mark all the way across the page and, if in a generous mood, you earned as near to full marks as possible.

“A lot of us wrote about our favourite Bollywood films, page after page of it. The only trick was to make sure the first and last paragraph said something close to what the question was about. That was enough. What was in the middle didn’t matter one bit.”

Cicero, the Roman philosopher, asks, “Who does not know that the first law of historical writing is the truth?” Well, Cicero was long before the young inventors of Grade Eight changed things around.

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.