Engaging with the Past — Numbers, Nostalgia, Perspectives


Dr Ravi P Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

Countries, communities, families, individuals, languages, religions, almost everyone and every entity have a past. The past may bring fond memories, or sadness or challenges depending on how one tries to look at or analyse one’s past. This is true both on a collective and individual levels; it is a valid way for engaging with a country’s history whether we look at it socially or economically or from the point of view of political, literary or scientific achievements.

Socially, we may look at the number of poor or wealthy populations in a country, what were people generally engaged in — agriculture, business or trade, bureaucracy, warfare, religious activities etc. Agriculture was one of the main occupations of almost all countries earlier. Today it still is one of the principal engagements of several countries — south and mid Asian, as well as many Latin American countries. But the conditions of farmers and peasants have deteriorated to an alarming level resulting in destitution, misery, indebtedness as well as suicides.

Economically also, the world is seeing extremes. A few hundred fantastically rich people who control more than eighty percent of world’s wealth and resources and billions of people living in acute poverty lacking basic necessities such as food, shelter, health and well-being. There was poverty and inequality in earlier periods but not to the extent witnessed today. Fortunately, the evil of slavery is gone although it occurs to a limited extent in the form of child and bonded labour.

From the modern perspective, it is hard to comprehend the vast changes that have taken place in the world over the decades past. From oil lamps and candles, we now have not only continuous electric power, tube lights, LED bulbs but also all types of electronic gadgets — computers, ACs, electric stoves for cooking, refrigerators, room heaters, hoovers and geysers etc. Cooking was done earlier, as I still remember, not only on kerosene but even on coal stoves. Yes, it took a few minutes to light up the stove before anything could be cooked. Obviously the entry of packaged milk, pre-cooked food was a few decades in the future at that time.

The presence of scientific or technological gadgets keeps changing world over. Television is approximately an half a century old invention, but here also its evolution in terms of countless number of 24 x 24 channels, remote controls, nature of content, defies imagination for a person who saw it in its infancy. Then the social media with its real or fake news, Twitter handles, FB, WhatsApp and countless other features, appears almost unbelievable, incomprehensible.

Our principal means of rapid communication earlier was a telegram. About a decade back, telegraphy met its demise quietly. When this was being done in India, a few solemn events were organised to mark its death which I remember with a feeling of sadness and nostalgia.

Transportation has also kept on changing in all places. How did people travel from one place to another within or beyond one’s village or town or country? There were the horse driven buggies (tongas) or riding on elephants or on camels ( as in some Arab countries ) for moving from place to place. In addition, there were cycle rickshaws that are still seen in many towns including in India’s capital city Delhi even today.  Talking of numbers and different types of vehicles and the chaos they cause on roads, many people feel that the simple means of transportation — walking, jogging, bicycles, tongas, rickshaws were so much more convenient and healthy than the present day motorised vehicles— SUVs, Rolls Royce’s, jeeps. Jogging and bicycling were also good for health.

Despite the absence of rapid means of travel — the aircraft of today, many industrial powers of Europe — Spain, France, Portugal and England colonised the entire world by travelling by ships and their guns. Could colonisation have taken place to the extent it did if they didn’t possess these means?

Colonisation has also resulted in altering the linguistic landscape of the world. English language that belonged to a small nation has spread all over the world with the assistance of USA after WW II. So have French and Spanish although to a lesser extent. But the spread of these languages have made thousands of smaller and tribal languages extinct. Not only have languages, cultures, cuisines perished, medical knowledge has also suffered as tribal people were exterminated in the colonial period and later.

Fortunately, in New Zealand, the government has made Maori language an official one in addition to English after having lost several other tribal tongues.

Another entity that travelled from one country or region to another was religion. Christianity moved by ship as colonisation continued. But Buddhism travelled mainly by foot and partly also by boat from India to eastern parts of the world — modern day Thailand, China, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam etc. However Islam spread mainly by overland routes from Arabia to Turkey, Afghanistan, India and other regions. Today, one need not go to a church or temple, since TV and the Internet tries to provide spirituality to people sitting in their homes.

The above features of our past apart, our perspective on events, on historical figures alters over time. Industrialisation, economic liberalisation, globalisation, science and technology, religious fervour have swept away our former concepts of life, justice, peace, harmony, religious and community amity etc.

Similarly, our perspective on historical figures has evolved over time. What were the roles of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Gandhi, Eisenhower, Tito, Nasser, Nehru, Mandela, Mao, Indira Gandhi (Nehru’s daughter) in their countries for good or for bad? Our understanding and formulation of their roles and contributions to history of these recent personalities have evolved, depending on our own ideologies and backgrounds.

One can add to the above features and outlook of engaging with history. This is a never ending process. What is contemporary for us and generates awe and nostalgia, will become past over time to our future generations; they will look at their own past with different lens and fresh perspectives. Let this process continue and enrich us all.


Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, an educationist, Gandhian scholar and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University. His new book, A Garland of Ideas—Gandhian, Religious, Educational, Environmental was published recently in Delhi. ravipbhatia@gmail.com


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 18 Mar 2019.

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