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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

India and History

Last night we met friends for dinner — a couple we know from the US but one is an an academic expert on India and the other lived here for a couple of years. At dinner, one of them mentioned that Indians seem to have no sense of history — as individuals or as a nation. And there is something strange here — this is a nation where history is everywhere, any street corner may have easy to see relics that link back anywhere from the British Raj to dynasties hundreds of years before that. And Indians are aware of some of that — for example, we were told that some 60-70 percent of the people who visit the Taj are Indians — and we saw that in other places as well, Indians visiting the sites of their past. But there does not seem to be a narrative, a sense of connection, a sense of how one thing builds to another.

The centerpiece of the Botanic Garden in Kolkata is the world’s largest tree — this is a Banyan that was in Ripley’s when I was a kid. The Banyan has branches like other threes, but then sends down root columns from those branches, which then become like min-trees of their own. One native Kolkatan told us that the tree in the park is so large and so old that no one is quite sure where the original trunk is, and indeed it is thought that it no longer exists, it died. So you have this vast ever expanding tree that has no center, and perhaps no longer even a source. That is like India and its history — ever growing, adding layers, new roots, new connections, but no center.

And that brings me to the fort we visited in Bundhi, This fort is filled with wall paintings done in 1773 — so as we were on our way to fighting the British, the local ruler here was commissioning paintings of court life, town life, the lives of the gods, to fill his wall. And while Bundi is known (Kipling wrote about it) it is so open you can wander amidst the rooms, walk right up to the walls, climb through the trap door ceiling, arriving at the  magical reconstructed garden — with no guard ropes, hardly any warning signs. This is good and bad — bad because so much preservation is needed, and the risk of damage is so high — good because you have such direct access to this treasure. And that seems like India and history — marvels to be found which are neglected and crumbling, yet all around. In a way this is a land of historical sites without a history to connect them. This is most arrogant of me to say after such a short time here. And certainly simple wealth plays a part — India has more money now, so it is doing more to preserve its past. At Bundi we had a wonderful guide — so maybe as in so many other ways, India gives you history through a person — an individual to show you around — not through signs and audio tours and maps. And yet my friend’s comment of last night rings in myears — a place full of history without a sense of history.


  1. Fascinating observations as always. The description of the banyan tree captured my imagination. Here’s a link to a picture: How sad that I knew nothing about it until your post!