Saturday, August 18, 2007

Floodgates of time

Growing up in an old city and passing buildings that were centuries old on my way to school everyday, I have often wondered how those whitewashed walls would have seen countless other little boys walk past them, grow up to become men, their age whither and make way for fresh naïve faces.

A few weeks ago, I was seated next to my grandmother after a break of two years and knowing that I only had a few weeks before I had to leave again, I eagerly listened to the stories of her life, the most interesting parts of which it seemed I had never heard before. As vivid memories of her childhood and youth flowed out with colourful descriptions, I noticed her wedding ring which would have shared in her labours for sixty two years of wedded life. Now it lies in isolation having lost its partner a few months ago. As I held it in my hands, I tried to imagine the tales that a pound of gold would tell me if I could listen and understand.

Most of what we perceive as history is actually derived from lifeless objects. Firsthand memories available to a generation usually don’t stretch for more than a century. The rest of our history is sourced from second hand accounts, ranging from those bearing detailed stories and verifiably accurate accounts, to scraps of scrambled information. Those accounts of ancient times seem respectable mostly because they are narrated by archaeologists who in truth can only fill in the gaps with educated guesses at the best of times and at other times their imagination. The spectrum of sources and the accuracy with which they recount the stories of our past and of whom we are - can, and in fact must - be debated.

But this is not a debate about the authenticity of what we consider to be historical fact. It is rather about how history is taught, what is remembered and what is forgotten with time - which forms our perception, not only of who we are, but what we ought to do. History teaches us what is important and what is not; to some even the difference between mortality and immortality.

Personally for me, history was by far the most boring of all the subjects I learned in school because I simply failed to see the point of learning what I was taught. The general idea was that learning history is about knowing the year in which a certain King died (or was killed – more often than not, by his own son or brother) or being able to name a few designated ‘national heroes’. Perhaps boredom was the only way that the soul of a raw schoolboy could protest the atrocity of reducing the invaluable experiences of a nation into the memorization of mere numbers and oversimplified facts, with no regard for their actual implications.

Yet the critical mind probes history in search of richer lessons. Even though the text books on history glorifies wars and rebellions and illustrate their leaders as national heroes – though some of them are to their credit – the history of a country is not built on wars and violence. History and human civilization itself is built on less glamorous things like the labour of farmers, the work of artists, writers, philosophers, builders and musicians. The engineers who designed and built the monuments that belong to the ancient world that stand to this day are silent and forgotten as the credit is usually attributed to the kings. The proportion of hard work that the 'unknown' scientists, mathematicians, doctors, teachers and spiritual leaders have contributed to building the grand history of human civilization has been quantitatively more than that of the 'Unknown Soldier' whose statue has always attracted a disproportionate degree of adulation. I say so, not to undermine the sacrifice of the soldiers but to make the point that great advancements in history have been made by creative men engaged in the creative process. The destructive forces of violence that have always been a part of human nature - and therefore even in its 'civilization' - have only undermine what is civilized within us together with every value that we hold sacred within it.

The grand history of nations and of human kind in general, and whatever artefacts that remain as testimony to it, was built by the farmer that gave humanity the confidence to settle down in one place and build cities and who fed the nation with his surplus. History remembers too few names - and those too far in between - of priests who strengthened the social fabric and repaired it when it was torn, the engineers and builders who channelled rivers to nourish the land and built eternal monuments.

Yet it surprises me how easy it is to stand among the gigantic monuments in the ancient cities of Sri Lanka and be reminded the name of a king who in some cases didn’t even live to see those monuments completed, yet not the creative genius of the faceless architects, engineers and builders who’s names history itself seem to have forgotten. It would sadden me, if future generations who look back on mine, also remember us for the war we endured and the violence we perpetrated on each other. It would be a catastrophe however, if they forget how it destroyed lives and crippled a nation to celebrate one side's victory over another as we were taught we should.

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