History, Narrative and Society

History is not just a bunch of facts. This does not mean that history has nothing to do with facts. History is facts and events laden but these facts and events are weaved around the narrative. It is a narrative that provides cohesion to the facts and makes them intelligible to us. Historian Hayden White has done great work on the narrative structure of history. A historian has the challenge of ordering his facts and events into a meaningful narrative. He/she as a historian cannot simply put up the facts or events in serial order or a list. He has to make a choice of a narrative. Also, facts are too many and we just cannot have access to them. This is why History will have to make a choice. It is based on these choices that history then becomes the story of Kings or the story of victimization of a religious community as we may want to see our past today in our country.

A narrative has a beginning, a middle and an end. Hence, the narrative structure of history will also have a beginning, middle and end. Often the same event may come in the beginning, middle or end. This will depend on the kind of narrative choice a historian will make. Now events like the Portuguese conquest of Goa can be ordered towards the end, if one is writing a history of the sultanate of the South, especially centred around the rule of Adil Shah. If one is writing a history of the Portuguese rule in Goa, it will come at the beginning. This means the role of the event changes depending on the type of history one is trying to tell. There are several pasts of our people. Several facts and events mark these pasts. The way they are ordered depends on whose story one wishes to tell. We usually tell the story of the victors and forget the losers. In fact, history is literally his story and not her story.

Hayden White tells us historians use historical genres to tell us the story of the past. Genres of writing history: Romance, Comedy, Tragedy, and Satire. Romance frames the story of the victory of good over evil, comedy shows a reconciliation of opposing forces, tragedy shows the failure of high human ideals while satire shows that there is no underlying meaning to history. We certainly can trace a romantic view of history where the upper caste sees the short rule of Vijaynagara in Goa as good and its loss to the sultanate of Bijapur as a loss. For that, we all look at the Portuguese rule in through the romantic and see it as a dark age. Maybe in contemporary times, we seem to have embraced the paradigm of tragedy as we see the past, especially the Portuguese colonial rule as a tragic fall of our ancient faith ( Hinduism) and wish to restore our losses in contemporary days. This is why the Government’s discourse about rebuilding temples may be seen favourably by many among us.

Hayden White says that genres of history operate as frameworks or paradigms. He says we can frame our past in all the four genres that we saw above. White says we see what we wish to see. No one genre is better than the others. Our days a combination of romantic and tragic genres seems to have become the chief lens to see our past. We can see the past as a reconciliation of the opposite or even see it as a meaningless (satirical) chain of events. This means the way history is written influences our society, as well as history writing, is also influenced by our society. History, therefore, reflects contemporary society. It narrates the past to suit our contemporary concerns. It is in our days our past is viewed as a religious past. All other facts and aspects are set aside as everything is viewed through the lens of religion.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao