Between Pasts

Hayden White teaches that all historians should keep their ears attentive to the practical past. He alleges that historians are busy with the historical past, which is actually a dead past. The practical past is people’s attitude to the past. Every society has an attitude towards its past. To Hayden White, the task of a historian is to intervene in the practical past and seek ways to take society forward. This means the historian should address the past that is living in the present of the people. This dialogue or even debate with the past living in the present of the people is welcome as long as it remains critical and emancipative.

Often people’s attitude to the past while living in their present is defined by what Slavoj Zizek calls Hegelian wound. A society struck by a wound deems the period before the wound as perfect and longs to restore the imagined past before the wound in the future. This makes the future as the future of a past before the wound. This is exactly what is defining the practical past in postcolonial societies. These societies like our very one long to restore the lost past by the wound of colonization. Very often the trauma of the real or imagined wound is handed on to the next generation and an attitude to a practical past is nurtured. Unfortunately, some historians reinforce this sense of a wounded past and also trigger a threat of a lost future. This attitude then results in the quest for healing of the trauma through repetitions.

Society in our country is nursing a wounded practical past and is seeking its healing by inflicting wounds on innocent victims who are painted as villains. Therefore, how does a historian address this broken past living in our present without compounding the situation? How is the historian to deal with a sense of a lost future that is acutely disturbing our people? The practical past seems to be orienting our people to a final solution that will triumph in a Hindu singularity. This is why the task of a historian becomes deeply critical and relevant. We need nothing less than therapeutic dialogue with the practical past of our society. It is indeed tempting to continue to break our present thinking or believing that we are healing a broken past and are creating a running away future. This is why we have to agree that writing history has the challenge to build a harmonious present and a vibrant future.

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