Someone has to select the data that goes into the history
I have trouble making up my mind about people, mostly politicians. So I was watching a TV show discussing some political leader trying to expand her base beyond her home state when my professor friend Raghavan dropped in. He arrived towards the tail end of the show, just in time to hear the anchor wrap up saying that only time will tell whether or not history will be kind to this politician.
Raghavan sniggered when he heard that, taking me by surprise, for I’d never seen him behave so human. “Stupid thing to say,” he said.
“What’s so stupid about it?” I asked. “We’ll know only much later what history will say about her. Or any of the present crop of leaders, for that matter.”
He resumed his professorial air. “Think about how history changes,” he said, “and you’ll see.”
“What do you mean, history changes?” I said. “There are records of what people do and say, so...”
“History isn’t about what people do or say,” he said. “It’s how we tell what they did and said. And that changes all the time.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Give me a minute to think of a really good example,” he said. After a moment, he continued, “Ever heard of someone called Lavrentiy Beria?”
“One of Stalin’s secret policemen, wasn’t he?” I asked. “In the 1940s and 1950s.”
“Right,” he said. “He headed Stalin’s secret police. So when Stalin died, Beria and Khrushchev fought to succeed him. And Khrushchev won.”
“Okay,” I said. “So what?”
“So there was this Soviet encyclopedia, published by the Communist Party,” he said. “Some months after Stalin died, Beria was discredited. Mind you, the encyclopedia was printed on paper in those days. So there was this Soviet encyclopedia with a longish entry praising Beria and his contribution to the Soviet Union sitting in thousands of Soviet homes. As soon as Khrushchev became the boss, that entry had to go. Beria was no longer a hero. He was someone who’s schemed for power and lost.”
“And did it go?” I asked.
“Of course it did!” he said. “This was the Soviet Union. They did that kind of thing all the time.”
“How?” I asked. “Did they pulp all copies and reprint them, or something?
He grinned. “Nothing as complicated as that. They simply mailed a replacement entry to every subscriber,” he said. “Something about the Bering Strait, which fit in exactly the right place in alphabetic order. The new entry was exactly the same size as the Beria entry, and occupied the same position on the pages. The accompanying letter told subscribers to cut out the entry on Beria with scissors or a sharp knife and stick the Bering Strait entry in its place. In those days you could just disappear if you disobeyed Party instructions, so I think most people just did as they were told.”
“But we do now have a clear picture of what Beria did!” I said. “There’s no confusion about that!”
“No?” he asked. “Beria’s son, a scientist, surfaced in the 1990s, four decades after his father died. Turned out he and his mother had been spirited away, out of Moscow, and given fresh identities so they’d be safe from Beria’s victims… He offered a completely different view of Beria. So which is the true Beria? And it’s not just Beria. That’s just one example. Look at Stalin himself…”
“What about Stalin?” I asked.
“There’s this book, you know, parallel biographies of Stalin and Hitler,” he said. “It’s by a British historian, Alan Bullock. After you read it you won’t be able to make up your mind who the bigger monster was. No one complains if you name your son Stalin, but imagine the hullabaloo if you named him Hitler! And if you read histories of India under the British, of the starvation deaths during World War II, you might think Churchill was as much a monster as Hitler or Stalin, but you come across lots of people named Winston, or Churchill.”
“But that’s all past,” I said. “It’s going to be different in future. Everything’s written down.”
“You really think so?” he asked. “You’ve seen the parties squabble? The BJP against practically everyone else? They’re… Well, they’re repainting Gandhi, Nehru, Savarkar, Tipu Sultan, Jinnah, the Moghuls. And, of course, there’s Modi himself. To some he’s a hero. To others he’s incompetent at best, crony capitalist at worst. And to everyone else he’s a Muslim-hater, someone who’s managed to divide an India that was united all these years. What do you think people will be saying about him a hundred years from now?”
“Doesn’t it matter that they say the right things about him?” I asked.
“Are you sure there is a right thing to say about him?” he asked.
“Of course there is!” I said. “And we’ll have all the data. The economics, the social indicators, everything. So, no problem.”
“But like I told you, history isn’t data,” he said. “It’s opinion. Someone has to select the data that goes into the history. Like the Soviets did with Beria.” He looked at his watch and rose. “I should be going now. My wife is waiting.”
As we stood at the front door, a wasp that’s building its nest on the compound wall buzzed past Raghavan’s head. Raghavan exclaimed, took a quick step back and took an ineffectual swipe at the insect, while the wasp simply buzzed along in its search for building material. “Heh heh,” Raghavan said, steering well clear of the little fellow. “I’m not afraid, but…”
As he left, I remembered something from a book, Archy and Mehitabel, by Don Marquis: ...a man thinks he amounts to a great deal but to a flea or a mosquito a human being is merely something good to eat.